AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s comment that the NAACP can “kiss my butt” sparked outrage today among civil rights group leaders who called his remarks “astonishing and troubling.”
After meeting with business leaders in Sanford, LePage told WCSH-TV6 he was not attending Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Bangor and Portland because he considered the group a special interest.
“They are a special interest,” he told the station. “End of story. And I’m not going to be held hostage by special interests. And if they want, they can look at my family picture. My son happens to be black, so they can do whatever they’d like about it.”
When the reporter asked if his absence was an indication of a pattern, rather than an isolated incident, LePage responded by saying: “Tell ‘em to kiss my butt,” he said, laughing. “If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them.”
LePage, a Republican who was sworn in last week, has a Jamaican son named Devon Raymond. Raymond watched on stage last week at the inaugural, along with LePage’s four other children.
LePage’s remarks sparked outrage from the head of the state NAACP and from the spokesman for the state’s League of United Latin American Citizens.
“I don’t care who he’s got in his family,” Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP and president of the NAACP Portland branch, told The Portland Press Herald. “And he’s saying we’re playing the race card? The makeup of his family isn’t the issue and it never was the issue. For him to say we’re playing the race card shows a real lack of awareness of the very important issues we’re working to address. Our kids deserve better. Maine deserves better. His son deserves better.”
Ralph Carmona, spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said today’s comments brought to mind LePage’s remarks during the fall campaign that he would make headlines while governor because he would tell President Obama to “go to hell.”
“The governor’s comments are creating, have the potential to create, a real racial dilemma for all Mainers,” Carmona said. “It is astonishing and troubling he would use this kind of rhetoric.”
In a story in today’s MaineToday Media publications, LePage said he had prior personal and professional commitments that prevented him from attending events Sunday and Monday.
NAACP leaders said LePage has declined several invitations in recent months and that they are concerned they would be left out of his plans for the next four years.
LePage told the television station Friday he did refuse to go to the Maine State Prison because he didn’t like the terms set by the group.
“The fact of the matter is there’s only so many hours in the day, so many hours in the week and so much you can do,” he said. “They invited me to go to the state prison to meet black prisoners and I told them I would go, but that I would meet all prisoners, and that wasn’t acceptable to them. So tough luck.”
After Friday’s comments in Sanford, LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt sent out a statement saying the issue is not about race.
He also said that, while mayor of Waterville, LePage attended or gave remarks at several Martin Luther King Day breakfasts at the Muskie Center in Waterville.
“This is not about race. Paul has a black son,” Demeritt wrote. “This is about a special interest group taking issue with the governor for not making time for them and the governor dismissing their complaints in the direct manner people have come to expect from Paul LePage.”
The governor has personal commitments on Sunday and will attend the funeral of a state trooper on Monday, according to Demeritt.
In an interview, Demeritt said LePage will not do nearly as many ceremonial events as past governors but will focus more on managing state government.
He said while it’s unusual for a governor to use the term “kiss my butt,” it’s part of the way LePage communicates.
“He’s very free spoken,” he said. “It’s a term that’s not often heard from governors. He’s got a directness about him that a lot of people find appealing.”
Demeritt also released the text of LePage’s pre-recorded radio address a day early because it focused on the Monday holiday honoring King and last week’s shooting in Arizona that took the lives of six.
“Dr. King is someone who spent and ultimately gave his life making sure that people got a fair shake regardless of race,” the radio address reads. “He got his start in 1955 as a civil rights leader in Montgomery, Alabama, at a time when blacks had to give up their seats and move to the back of the bus in deference to white passengers.”
Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Kelly Bouchard contributed to this report.
Susan Cover — 620-7015