Updated 9:00 p.m. 12/16/2010

CHICAGO (CBS) — Mayoral Candidate James Meeks is clarifying some comments he made about which groups should and should not be included in city minority contract set-aside programs.

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In a radio interview on Wednesday, Meeks – a Democratic state senator and South Side pastor – suggested that women, Latinos and Asians should not be included in programs to boost city contracts against groups that have faced discrimination.

“The word ‘minority’ from our standpoint should mean African-American. I don’t think women, Asians and Hispanics should be able to use that title,” he said. “That’s why our numbers cannot improve — because we use women, Asians and Hispanics who are not people of color, who are not people who have been discriminated against.”

The Meeks campaign switched into damage-control mode. Meeks backtracked later on Wednesday, saying that Latinos and Asians should be included, but that white women should not.

On Thursday night, at a mayoral candidates forum, Meeks would only tell CBS 2’s Mike Parker that the program “is broken and it has to be fixed.” His handlers quickly hustled him off.

Earlier in the day, campaign spokesman Bryan Zises said Meeks believes businesses owned by white women are not suffering.

“Women have exceeded the goals and set-asides … for women-owned businesses, whereas African-American firms are, again, are constantly declining,” Zises said. “I think, only eight percent, seven percent of contracts when their goal is 25 percent.”

Zises said that Meeks’ point is that the city needs to do a better job of ending fraud that has cheated African-American firms out of city contracts.

Hedy Ratner, co-president of the Women’s Business Development Center, told the Chicago Sun-Times she was “furious” at Meeks for saying women should not be included in the contract set-aside program..

She said that, if anything, the 5 percent set-aside for women “should be higher.”

Paul Cerpa, executive director of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA) also told the Sun-Times that the federal government has made it clear that the “presumptive group” of those historically discriminated against includes blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native-Americans and “women, regardless of ethnicity.”

Cerpa said it’s “extremely divisive” for Meeks to suggest excluding any of those groups from the city’s contracting set-aside program while running for mayor.

Some of Meeks’ mayoral opponents wasted no time in condemning his earlier remarks.

Candidate Gery Chico called Meeks’ statements “divisive.”

“I don’t want to have that in Chicago. I want to have a united city,” he said.

Candidate Miguel del Valle, the city clerk, offered this understatement: “I think that he probably would have chosen different words when he stated what he stated.”

Rahm Emanuel, the purported front-runner, hasn’t weighed in. Mayor Daley declined to comment.

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