Friday, March 7, 2014
By Randy Billings firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND — Gov. Paul LePage met with Sudanese refugees in Portland on Friday and pledged to help them with issues ranging from education to the criminal justice system to the poor condition of public housing.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks to members of the Sudanese community at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland on Friday.
John Patriquin / Staff Photographer
Gov. Paul LePage takes a question from Alfred Jacob as he visits members of the Sudanese community at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland on Friday.
John Patriquin / Staff Photographer
"You brought up a lot of dilemmas," LePage told the audience in a town hall-style discussion at Trinity Episcopal Church. "I don't have all the answers but I assure you, when we go back today, we're going to work diligently to help your community."
The governor toured Portland's Kennedy Park and Riverton housing developments before the meeting, and told community members afterward that he saw "deplorable" conditions and "unacceptable" deferred maintenance.
That drew a rebuke from the director of the Portland Housing Authority, who said the agency hadn't been notified about the governor's visit or invited to participate.
LePage also criticized legislators for not doing more to help Mainers who are working toward a better life. He said it is "insane" that people receive less assistance and face higher rents when they work harder and make more money.
LePage has defended himself in the last two weeks against criticism that he made a racially insensitive remark about President Obama. Two Republican lawmakers told the Portland Press Herald that they heard LePage say Obama "hates white people" during a party fundraiser on Aug. 12.
LePage has denied using those words, but has apologized to Republicans for any difficulty his remark has caused them.
According to emails provided by the governor's office, the visit to Portland was arranged at the end of July, well before the controversy arose. Sudanese community leaders invited LePage after meeting with him at the State House in July.
LePage did not directly address the controversy over his remark during Friday's meeting in Portland, but he said he is sensitive to the effects of racism and cited the fact that his family took in a young man from Jamaica whom he refers to as his son.
LePage did not respond to a reporter's questions about his reported remark about the president, before or after the event.
About 50 people attended the town hall discussion, and the governor fielded questions from the audience.
The governor's office did not announce the visit to the media, but a Sudanese community group invited local press coverage. City officials were not officially notified, either.
"I wasn't invited, so I didn't attend," said Mayor Michael Brennan.
The subject of racism came up when a man asked about racism in the workplace and whether it is stifling advancement of immigrants.
"I have a black son," LePage said. "He told me straight up: 'Dad, I have never seen racism until I came to Maine.'"
LePage said immigrants have a history of getting the worst jobs available, yet it is possible to work one's way out of that situation. "Education is the key," he said.
The questioner, a white man, was later escorted out of the meeting by a Portland police officer, after repeatedly interrupting the program.
People at the meeting told the governor that they came to the United States to work and be productive members of the community, but there aren't enough opportunities for them to learn English and use their experience and skills so they can enter the workplace.
Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Community Financial Literacy, said even low-wage jobs require English language skills and there is often a six-month wait to enroll in English language courses.
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