AUGUSTA – Calling it a personnel matter, Gov. Paul LePage said little Thursday about the resignation of his economic development director, who made offensive comments this month to two groups in Aroostook County.

“We dealt with it. Let’s move on,” LePage said.

Phil Congdon resigned Wednesday as commissioner of economic and community development after lawmakers complained that he had made critical statements about affirmative action and the parenting skills of people in Aroostook County. At one meeting, he said that people in northern Maine need to “get off the reservation and get to work.”

LePage made his first public comments on removing Congdon during a news conference Thursday about a new license plate for family members of fallen soldiers. When asked if he condoned Congdon’s remarks, LePage said, “Let me put it this way. My actions should speak for themselves.”

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, said that dismissing Congdon is not enough, and that LePage needs to publicly disavow the statements that have been attributed to Congdon.

“We would like to see the governor say, ‘This is not what I stand for, and I apologize for those comments,’” Francis said. “It’s more than a personnel issue. It’s an important issue for the state of Maine, for its tribal people and the people of color in this state. It’s important for the governor to say that we don’t support these social divisions and will work for all people.”

Brenda Commander, tribal chief of the Houlton band of Maliseet Indians, one of two federally recognized tribes in Aroostook County, said she is pleased that LePage saw Congdon’s comments as a serious matter and took action.

Commander said LePage doesn’t need to apologize. “He has done his part,” she said.

Commander said she hopes the incident will encourage his administration to work with the tribes on economic development issues.

Troy Haines, chairman of the Aroostook County Democrats, said the county’s residents already feel marginalized from the rest of the state and didn’t appreciate hearing a Cabinet member blame the region’s poor economy on bad parenting. “This is not a Republican or Democratic thing. It’s bigger than that,” Haines said.

Congdon, who was confirmed by the state Senate in January, made the controversial comments April 1 during a chamber of commerce event in Caribou and at a private meeting in Presque Isle with officials at Northern Maine Community College, according to several sources.

Lawmakers from Aroostook County said they heard complaints from constituents about what Congdon had said, including a racially charged comment about affirmative action — public policies designed to eliminate discrimination.

Congdon said that “Aroostook County needs to get off the reservation and get to work,” and that Maine’s public universities “are in trouble because of affirmative action,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Natalie Bazinet, a reporter for the Aroostook Republican, a weekly newspaper in Caribou, attended the chamber of commerce’s annual recognition dinner at which Congdon was the guest speaker.

She said the start of Congdon’s speech wasn’t unusual, but it shifted when he began talking about children and how society isn’t preparing them for college or the labor market. He said it is a threat to national security.

He also said parents are to blame for children who go to school without having eaten breakfast, Bazinet said.

She said he told the audience, “There is something wrong, and the root of it is with the parents.”

She said Congdon spoke favorably of Asians and told a story of inviting some young adults he had hired to a dinner event. He said that only the Asians showed up, while the others chose to go to the movies.

Congdon’s speech wasn’t suited for the celebratory nature of the event, a morale booster for the local business community, said Andy Shepard, CEO and president of the Maine Winter Sports Center, which received the “business of the year” award at the event.

Shepard stepped up to the lectern after Congdon’s speech. Eager to change the sour mood of the crowd, Shepard spoke about how Aroostook County has a tradition of producing remarkable young men and women.

Although he often talks about that theme, Shepard said, it seemed especially important for the audience to hear that upbeat message after Congdon’s speech.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who has represented Aroostook County or portions of it for his entire political career, said that anybody who makes disrespectful statements about families in the county obviously hasn’t spent much time there.

Michaud was in the State House on Thursday for a media event in the governor’s Cabinet room about a company that plans to move a high-tech ship-modeling operation from India to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.

LePage spoke at the event. Afterward, he left the room before reporters could ask him questions.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover contributed to this report.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

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