Gov. Paul LePage lied last week when recounting an exchange with the NAACP concerning an invitation to a campaign forum at a Maine prison, the head of the state organization said Tuesday.

In his now-famous “kiss my butt” television interview, LePage said the NAACP had invited him to meet with black prisoners and that he declined, but told the group, “I would be more than happy to go, but I would meet all prisoners – and that wasn’t acceptable to them, so tough luck.”

That exchange never happened, said Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and president of the NAACP Portland branch.

The e-mailed invitation to LePage, dated June 14 and reviewed by The Portland Press Herald, makes no mention of race and simply says the candidates forum would be at the prison in Warren. It was to be held before all the prisoners, Ross said.

Ross said the LePage campaign cited a scheduling conflict in declining the invitation. Neither LePage nor anyone from his campaign indicated the governor would attend if it was to “meet all prisoners,” and the NAACP never said that such a session “wasn’t acceptable,” Ross said.

Ross said she was baffled by the governor’s perception that the forum was meant for black prisoners only.

Ross said her only communication from the campaign about the forum was an e-mail from LePage’s campaign scheduler on July 15.

The e-mail, from scheduler Micki Mullen, declined invitations to the Sept. 24 prison event and to an NAACP town hall forum on Oct. 15, citing scheduling conflicts in both cases.

The e-mail doesn’t mention any reservations about attending a segregated prison forum, LePage’s desire to “meet all prisoners” or any conversation in which the NAACP turned down LePage’s proposal.

Ross said she was particularly upset by LePage’s assertion that the NAACP would view a meeting with all prisoners as not “acceptable.” “It speaks to what’s already going on in his head about the NAACP,” she said of LePage’s comments. “There’s not one iota of truth there.”

Dan Demeritt, LePage’s spokesman, said the then-candidate and his staff had a different “characterization” of the prison event, which was eventually canceled. But after being read a copy of the invitation provided Tuesday by Ross, Demeritt could not say where the characterization of the event as a forum for black prisoners only came from.

He also said he doesn’t know what communication, if any, occurred between LePage and Ross that led the governor to say he had offered to meet with all prisoners and the NAACP deemed that unacceptable.

Ross said she has never spoken directly to LePage.

“You have to wonder why he lied,” she said.

Demeritt dismissed her concerns.

“There seems to be no shortage of what the NAACP wants to get upset about,” he said, saying the organization was choosing to “nitpick about an invitation that occurred or did not occur six months ago.”

In the interview in Sanford last week, LePage initially responded to questions about why he had turned down invitations to two NAACP Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Portland. After dismissing the NAACP as a “special interest” and mentioning the prison forum and the supposed exchange over an alternative visit, LePage was asked whether his actions suggested a pattern of ignoring the group.

“Tell ‘em to kiss my butt,” LePage said.

Ross said LePage’s suggestion that the NAACP is a special interest that only represents blacks ignores the organization’s history in Maine and nationally. She noted that the local chapter’s board has been about half-white since she has been involved, that the prison’s NAACP chapter is led by a white man and that its executive board is two-thirds white.

“It really hurts because it denigrates our history,” she said.

Despite the verbal volleying, Ross said she’s eager to put the exchanges with the governor in the past. But she noted that the governor’s office has not contacted her about LePage’s offer, reported on Saturday, to meet with the NAACP.

Demeritt said Ross shouldn’t expect that offer to be communicated formally and that if she wants to meet with the governor, she should call and ask for an appointment.

“We owe it to the people of Maine to figure out a positive conclusion to this,” Ross said. “I still hold a lot of respect for the office of the governor and I still extend the hand of welcome that the NAACP has offered on numerous occasions. That offer is still there.”

Ross added that if she meets with LePage, she’s hoping for a meeting that is “civil, respectful and truthful.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: emurphy@pressherald.com