WATERVILLE — People didn’t speak openly about Gov. Paul LePage’s “kiss my butt” comment to the NAACP, but the undercurrent was certainly there Monday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast.
In interviews before and after the event, people had plenty to say.
One woman who had met King when she was a teenager said she was ashamed of LePage’s comments; others who know LePage said he is an honorable man who is anything but a bigot.
The Rev. Effie McClain, guest speaker at the event, walked into the audience and enlisted LePage to dance with her when the Colby College African Drumming Ensemble started playing, encouraging audience participation.
It was a pivotal moment in the festivities. McClain, who is black, and LePage hugged after they danced, and the audience applauded.
Earlier, Barbara Sweney of Waterville reflected on LePage’s comment Friday that the NAACP could “kiss my butt.”
“I was ashamed,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that he would have such a narrow view of the world.”
One of more than 150 people attending Monday’s breakfast, Sweney was referring to a comment LePage made to a television reporter who asked if the governor’s plans not to attend King events in Portland and Orono indicated a pattern rather than an isolated incident.
LePage also called the NAACP a special interest group, drawing outrage from civil rights groups and others.
Some at Monday’s breakfast insisted that LePage meant no disrespect.
“I consider myself a close friend,” said David Mayberry of Oakland. “He’s the farthest thing from a bigot that you can get. He’s truly a warm and caring person. I think it was just an offhand comment.”
In her speech, McClain said it is important to remember and talk about the civil rights movement to understand how we have advanced to where we are now – and realize we still have a way to go.
“I am not yet 40 years old and I am the first generation out of segregation,” she said. “I am Southern. I went to a school built specifically to desegregate the South.”
McClain said after the event that she met LePage for the first time Monday. She moved to Oakland in July to become pastor of the Oakland Sidney United Methodist Church.
She said she did not think LePage attended Monday’s breakfast to make a statement.
“I think he came here today to come home and feel safe,” she said. “You don’t beat a man in his own home. I danced with him because he needed to know that he’s safe at home.”
McClain, 39, said that as a pastor representing a church, she must be careful about the words she uses in public. We all say things we regret – and how we reconcile that is the task, she said.
“Sometimes we say things without understanding fully the effect it has on people and the greater community,” she said.
“The whole thing is, the man has been beaten up for saying something really foolish – and it was foolish – but I don’t think that was his intent. I pray it wasn’t,” she said.
For several years while he was Waterville mayor, LePage attended Martin Luther King Jr. breakfasts here, he said before Monday’s 7:30 a.m. event.
“It’s a bittersweet day for us because we’re here to celebrate Martin Luther King, but we’re leaving here to go to a funeral for a (retired) state police officer,” he said.
LePage said the holiday “represents a lot – particularly to black Americans. Martin Luther King was a peaceful activist, and unfortunately, he gave his life for it, which nobody should have to do in this country. Unfortunately, it happens.”
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said LePage had committed to attending the retired trooper’s funeral, and his earlier decision to skip some King events is not indicative of a pattern.
“Today is an opportunity to get past that and say we all agree on the importance of Martin Luther King,” Demeritt said.
Waterville resident Jonathan Alexis attended Monday’s breakfast with his family, which is biracial.
Alexis, who is black, said he has known LePage for more than 15 years and they coached their children’s soccer team together. The families also have visited each other’s homes, he said.
Alexis said he is sure that LePage’s comments last week had nothing to do with bigotry.
“If he was a racist, I don’t think he would have adopted his son, Devon,” he said, referring to a Jamaican child the LePages took in several years ago, but did not formally adopt. “I don’t think I would have been part of his friendship circle. I don’t think there is any sign of racism in this man.”
He described LePage as tenacious and headstrong – someone who speaks his mind. “In politics, you don’t see that much,” he said.
But Sweney said LePage’s comment makes her fear for the next four years.
Sweney said she met King in the late 1950s when she attended a Quaker event in California and couldn’t help noticing his charisma.
If you walked into a room the size of the Muskie Center’s main room, you would see and be drawn to him right away, she said.
“Because I knew someone who had gone to divinity school with Martin Luther King, he introduced me to him,” she said.
“(King) was one of those people that focuses on each person. He didn’t make me feel he’d rather be speaking to someone else. Nonviolent resistance is a Quaker idea, too, and that’s why Martin Luther King was such a hero already to Quakers.”