AUGUSTA — A Republican state senator apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday for what Democrats called “bigoted, racist” remarks he posted on his Facebook page, including one that implied President Obama is related to members of a terrorist group.

The comments by Sen. Michael Willette, R-Presque Isle, on race, Islam, immigration and the president have drawn national media attention.

The president was the primary target of a conservative meme that Willette posted March 1, touching off calls by the Maine Democratic Party for his resignation and a request from Democratic senators that the Republican’s remarks be publicly repudiated by Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport.

The Portland-based chapter of the NAACP also called on Thibodeau to remove Willette as chairman of the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee, and to examine whether he committed any ethical violations as a state lawmaker.

On Monday, Willette apologized for sharing a post that criticized Obama’s handling of the terrorist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, while also suggesting that the president would deal with the group “at the family reunion.”

However, Willette’s apology Monday did not specifically address the message that the post conveyed or its tapping of an undercurrent of bigotry that has followed the president since he took office in 2009.

Under continued pressure from Democrats and close scrutiny from the media, Willette, a Presque Isle native and former Army medical specialist, rose from his seat in the corner of the Senate chamber to make a statement.

In a three-minute speech, Willette said he voted for Obama in 2008 and had been “profoundly disappointed by his performance and policies over the years. That frustration led me, against my better judgment, to make several criticisms of the president that were completely inappropriate.”

He said state legislators are held to a higher standard.

“We need to show restraint, especially myself in this instance,” he said. “I would like to publicly apologize for my actions and ask for your forgiveness.”

After the floor speech, Willette told reporters that he doesn’t subscribe to the disproven “birther” theory that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, nor does he believe that Obama sympathizes with terrorists – even though those sentiments are expressed in the photo he shared on his Facebook page. He also said that he doesn’t harbor hostility toward Muslim immigrants, despite other Facebook posts and memes that express disdain for Muslims while sharing disparaging comments about immigrants.

In one post, Willette shared a post from the Comical Conservative that expresses admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2013 speech to the Duma about immigrants. In that speech, Putin said Russia will pursue rigorous policies against immigrants, and Muslims in particular. In another post, Willette wrote about Muslims, “Round them up and airdrop them back into the rubble and hellholes from whence they came.”

“I am as far from being a racist as you can get,” said Willette, who served in the Gulf War. “When I served in the military I had a vast array of friends. Any connotation to racism in those posts, if that is what it was construed to be, that is not the intent.”

DEMOCRATS CALL FOR PUBLIC REBUKE

Willette told reporters that he had Muslim friends, some of whom were former students whom he taught in the Presque Isle school district. Asked if any of them had seen his Facebook posts, he said that most of them were older and didn’t have Facebook pages.

Willette’s posts have attracted national media coverage, including by The Associated Press, National Public Radio, Politico, MSNBC and several English-language international news sites.

Maine Democrats said Wednesday that they didn’t know Willette’s apology was forthcoming. On Tuesday they sent a letter to Thibodeau, the Republican Senate president, asking for a public rebuke.

In the letter, Democratic leader Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and assistant leader Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, did not mention Willette by name, but said the Facebook posts showed a “longstanding, prolific, online history of bigoted and racist remarks by a member of this body.”

“In the wake of our country’s recent tribute to the brave Americans who stood up to injustice, we find ourselves in the position of being unable to look the other way and ignore the unacceptable and less than statesman-like comments made by one of our own,” they wrote.

Democrats met with Thibodeau after the Senate session and apology to discuss a public repudiation, including a possible legislative sentiment condemning Willette’s remarks. It’s unclear if that will happen.

Thibodeau, addressing reporters for the first time on the issue, said he believed the matter is settled.

“Sen. Willette feels terrible about what’s happened and we’ve talked several times about what’s the best way to express his regret on the situation,” Thibodeau said. “I think he did that today. I don’t know what else anybody could expect.”

The Maine Republican Party issued a statement from Jason Savage, its executive director.

“We appreciate Senator Mike Willette’s apology for the Facebook posts he made regarding President Obama that has created significant media coverage this week,” Savage said. “We want to be crystal clear: The Maine GOP condemns and disagrees with the substance, spirit and sentiment of Senator Willette’s posts and believe his apology was appropriate, and necessary. These posts do not reflect in any way the views of the Maine Republican Party.”

HIGHER STANDARD, NO RESIGNATION

Alfond told reporters that Willette’s apology was a “start,” but said there was a larger issue at stake, including Maine’s reputation as a state and its treatment of immigrants and people of varied races.

Rachel Talbot Ross, of the NAACP Portland branch, said in a letter to Thibodeau that an apology was insufficient.

“As an elected official, Senator Willette should and must be held to a higher standard,” Talbot-Ross said. “It is also not enough for you and members of the Republican Party to issue a statement that merely condemns this ideology.”

According to his legislative biography, Willette joined the Army as a medical specialist and served a tour in Iraq during Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. He told reporters Wednesday that he would stay in office despite the controversy and the attention that it received.

“I don’t see the need to resign, no,” he said. “I won’t.”