AUGUSTA — Economic development commissioner Phil Congdon resigned Wednesday after making comments about affirmative action and the parenting skills of people in Aroostook County and saying that people who live in northern Maine need to “get off the reservation.”

Congdon, who was confirmed by the state Senate in January, made those comments during a chamber of commerce event in Caribou and a meeting in Presque Isle on April 1, according to several sources.

Lawmakers from Aroostook County said they heard complaints from constituents about what Congdon had said, which led Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, to write a letter to Gov. Paul LePage on Monday morning expressing his concern.

Martin didn’t provide details about what was said, and refused to release the letter he sent to LePage. The governor’s office also refused to release Martin’s letter.

But Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he was given information by constituents that included a racially charged comment about affirmative action — public policies designed to eliminate discrimination.

“What I heard was, when he was in Aroostook County he mentioned that Aroostook County needs to get off the reservation and get to work, and our public universities are in trouble because of affirmative action,” Jackson said.

Officials at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle met privately with Congdon on April 1, and some comments he made then were communicated to lawmakers and later to the governor’s office. Jason Parent, the college’s development director, said he could not give any details about what was said because it was a private meeting.

Ken Murchison, who works for the Northern Maine Development Commission, said he was “totally shocked” by Congdon’s speech to the Caribou chamber, a public event attended by about 60 people.

“He growled at us for 45 minutes and said things like ‘Get off the reservation,’ ” Murchison said. “We weren’t raising our children correctly. I remember being totally shocked. The people I talked to were totally offended.”

Murchison said they expected a speech about economic development.

“Every parent in the audience was pretty well disgusted,” he said.

Martin said the information he received made him uncomfortable.

“I thought it was unbecoming of a public official to make those statements,” he said. “I felt so strongly about it I wanted to make sure (LePage) was aware of it.”

Martin praised LePage for following up on his concerns by checking with people who heard the statements and taking “appropriate action” to address the situation.

Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, said he heard complaints from people who attended the event with Congdon. Edgecomb, Jackson and Martin did not attend the event.

Edgecomb said he tried twice to meet with Congdon after hearing complaints about his statements, but was unable to make contact. He said he was called to a meeting with the governor Wednesday morning to discuss Congdon.

LePage’s press office did not disclose the reason for Congdon’s resignation in a news release about several staff changes. The resignation was nine paragraphs deep in a release that also included the resignation of Darryl Brown, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Congdon did not return phone calls seeking comment. Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, would not comment on the resignation.

Caribou City Manager Steven Buck, who attended the chamber event, said he did not want to get into details about what Congdon said.

“He left a less-than-favorable impression on the group,” Buck said.

Congdon, 69, of Round Pond was confirmed by the Senate on a 26-9 vote. Nine Democrats opposed his nomination, with some of them raising concerns about his lack of experience with tourism and his self-described “thin” resume in economic development.

“He hasn’t even considered economic development in Aroostook County,” Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said just before the Senate vote.

Congdon spent 22 years at Texas Instruments in Dallas and is a licensed professional engineer. For 30 years, he has worked in management, business development, contract negotiations, government relations and intellectual property protection.

During his confirmation hearing, he addressed questions about his involvement with a political group in Waldoboro called Constitutionalists of Maine. It was there that he met LePage, who had been invited to speak.

Congdon served on the governor’s transition team and was then nominated to lead the Department of Economic and Community Development.

The governor’s office did not announce a successor Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford, said he was “shocked” by Congdon’s resignation.

He spoke highly of Congdon during the Senate debate, but said Wednesday that Congdon made some “inappropriate comments” that were “plain unacceptable.”

“When you’re in the public eye, you need to watch your tongue,” he said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com