Business and immigrant advocacy groups expressed confusion and dismay Monday over Gov. Paul LePage’s weekend remarks poking fun at the accents of foreign workers, who increasingly are playing an important role in Maine’s economy.

Alain Nahimana, coordinator of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said LePage’s comments Saturday at the state Republican Party Convention about restaurant workers being difficult to understand was the latest example of the governor going out of his way to criticize non-native Mainers.

“The executive of a state that desperately needs more skilled workers and investors should stop making fun of people who sound different, and start embracing people who can help our state thrive,” Nahimana said. “Focusing on undermining everyone who is different from him adds nothing to this state, our people, or our economy. It also sets a terrible example for our children.”

LePage, addressing a friendly crowd of party loyalists packed inside the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, was talking about ongoing efforts to increase the minimum wage when he apparently went off script.

“You already have restaurants in the summer, if you go on the coast, it’s hard to hear what they’re saying. Do you ever try to say ‘What’s the special of the day,’ to someone from Bulgaria,” LePage said, drawing some polite laughter and applause from the audience. “And the worst ones if they’re from India. I mean, they’re all lovely people, but it takes ’em … you’re going to have an interpreter.”

GREAT NEED FOR WORKERS

It’s not clear what point the governor was trying to make or how the minimum wage debate relates to foreign workers. LePage’s office did not respond to requests for clarification or explanation of his remarks Monday.

Nicola Chin of Lewiston, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from India in the 1970s, hopes people don’t take the governor’s “trite” comments as representative of the state as a whole.

“There are so many people who weren’t born here, or who have different cultures, that are really adding to and driving our workforce,” said Chin, whose husband, Ben, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Lewiston and works for the Maine People’s Alliance. “If the governor is not on board, there are plenty of people who are ready to roll up their sleeves.”

Greg Dugal, head of both the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association, said he was puzzled by LePage’s latest remarks. Dugal said the many coastal communities in Maine that are flooded with tourists from Memorial Day through Labor Day rely heavily on foreign workers, including those on temporary visas. Many of those come from Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria.

“I guess I just don’t see how that’s connected to minimum wage,” Dugal said. “Our need for workers in hospitality is great no matter what the wage is.”

Chris Fogg, director of the Maine Tourism Association, declined to comment on LePage’s remarks, but agreed with Dugal that foreign workers are invaluable to the seasonal economy.

Asked whether he saw any connection between foreign workers and the minimum wage debate, Fogg said only that if the minimum wage goes up, businesses could be forced to either increase their prices or hire fewer workers.

Dugal and Fogg both said they were not aware of any hospitality workers coming from India on work visas.

COMPARED WITH TRUMP

LePage could have been shifting his thoughts when he said “the worst ones” are from India because he then began talking about returning something from Amazon. The connection there was likely that companies outsource their call centers to other countries, including India, but again, the connection to minimum wage is unclear.

Nahimana said his first job after he immigrated to Maine in 2010 was at a Time Warner Cable call center in Portland.

The Burundi native trained for two months but then lasted only two weeks on the job because he couldn’t deal with callers who bullied him and ridiculed his accent.

As the 2016 presidential campaign barrels on, many political watchers have noted similarities between LePage and Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has a similar shoot-from-the-hip style that some find offensive.

LePage, who originally supported New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is now in Trump’s corner and introduced him at a rally a week before Maine held its presidential caucus.

Trump used a fake Indian accent Friday during a rally in Delaware while impersonating a call center employee.

LONG HISTORY

LePage’s latest comments have been picked up by many national news outlets, including Politico and even Fox News, but the governor has a long history of making broad and sometimes offensive characterizations, often about outsiders.

In January, he said drug dealers “with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”

When criticized for that remark, LePage said he wasn’t talking about black drug dealers, even though he admitted later that the Legislature only began to take the state’s drug crisis seriously after he started “screaming at the top of my lungs about black dealers coming in and doing the things that they are doing to our state.”

In February, LePage accused asylum seekers of bringing diseases, including AIDS and the “ziki fly,” to this country.

The governor’s comments come at a time when Maine’s economy relies more and more on immigrants.

Census figures released last week show that deaths outnumbered births in Maine, and that this fact, without migration to other states, would reduce Maine’s population. However, that shift has been more than offset by gains from international immigration – more than 7,000 new Mainers have settled from other countries between 2010 and 2015.

LePage’s quip about foreign accents may be a reflection of his own experience with the English language. He has often told the story of how his English was so poor when he was a teenager that he took the SAT in French.

Last summer, when explaining his decision to veto dozens of bills, LePage even criticized his own ancestors.

“Even I can understand it and I’m French,” he said, referring to the state’s Constitution and echoing a similar line of self-deprecation he used a week earlier, when he told reporters they were misusing a word and said “that’s coming from a Frenchman.”

Some Franco-Americans did not appreciate the governor’s generalization, but LePage did not apologize.

Chin said she couldn’t help but think of the irony of a Franco-American governor criticizing the speech of others while his own people still deal with ridicule.