AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s comment Friday that the NAACP can “kiss my butt” outraged leaders of state and national civil rights groups, who called his remarks “astonishing” and “troubling.”
After meeting with business leaders in Sanford, LePage told WCSH-TV that he will not attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Portland and Orono because he considers 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.”
The reporter then asked if LePage’s absence is an indication of a pattern rather than an isolated incident.
“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 an adopted son from Jamaica, Devon Raymond. He was on stage last week at the inaugural, along with LePage’s four other children.
LePage’s remarks angered the head of the state NAACP, the president of the national NAACP and the spokesman for Maine’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 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and president of the group’s 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.”
Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the national NAACP, called LePage’s comments inflammatory.
“Gov. LePage’s decision to inflame racial tension on the eve of the King holiday denigrates his office,” Jealous told The Associated Press. “His words are a reminder of the worst aspects of Maine’s history and out of touch with our nation’s deep yearning for increased civility and racial healing.”
Ralph Carmona, spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Friday’s comments brought to mind LePage’s remarks during the gubernatorial campaign that he would make headlines as governor because he would tell President Obama to “go to hell.”
That comment, and Friday’s, made headlines nationwide as news media reported them.
“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 Friday in MaineToday Media publications, LePage said he had personal and professional commitments that prevented him from attending Martin Luther King Jr. Day events Sunday in Portland and Monday in Orono.
NAACP leaders said LePage has declined several invitations in recent months and they are concerned that they will be left out of his plans for the next four years.
LePage told the television station Friday that he refused to go to the Maine State Prison with the group because he didn’t like its terms.
“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 LePage’s comments in Sanford, his spokesman, Dan Demeritt, released a statement saying race was not the issue.
Demeritt also said that while LePage was mayor of Waterville, he attended or gave remarks at several Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfasts at the Muskie Center.
“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.”
LePage has personal commitments Sunday and will attend the funeral of a state trooper Monday, Demeritt said.
In an interview, Demeritt said LePage will not attend nearly as many ceremonial events as past governors but will focus more on managing state government.
Demeritt said it’s unusual for a governor to use the term “kiss my butt,” but it’s part of the way LePage communicates.
“He’s very free-spoken,” Demeritt said. “He’s got a directness about him that a lot of people find appealing.”
Demeritt also released the text of LePage’s pre-recorded weekly radio address a day early because it focuses on the Monday holiday honoring King and last week’s shooting in Arizona that took the lives of six people and injured more than a dozen others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“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.
Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: