Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau made history Monday when he became the first elected Republican official to speak at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration hosted by the NAACP Portland Branch.

Thibodeau’s participation in the dinner was openly contrasted with past and recent actions and comments by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and drew praise from many at the 35th annual event.

“The vast majority of Americans reject hatred and bigotry and don’t want anything to do with that,” Thibodeau told more than 600 people who attended the dinner at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.

Some speakers recalled how a newly elected LePage declined to attend the 2011 celebration and said the NAACP was a special interest group that could “kiss my butt.” They also recalled the racially charged comment LePage made this month, when he said drug dealers named “Dee Money, Smoothie, Shifty” come to Maine to sell heroin and “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”

Thibodeau didn’t mention LePage during his speech, which was one of several delivered by some of Maine’s political leaders. Instead, Thibodeau recalled the prejudice and injustice that French Catholic immigrants such as his ancestors experienced when they came to Maine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And he said he appreciates the work that the NAACP does, bringing forward “issues that are so important.”

“We all must be vigilant and on guard, making sure that we never again allow hatred and bigotry to be the norm in our state,” Thibodeau said.

Afterward, Thibodeau said he was glad to be invited to this year’s celebration and considered it a great opportunity to recognize King’s accomplishments.

Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, also attended the celebration as a guest of the NAACP Portland Branch.

“King’s work was nonpartisan,” Bennett said during a break in the program. “There are political overtones to this event, but it’s about freedom and it’s about justice, and those are two things all Americans can agree on.”

Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the NAACP Portland Branch, said she hoped that Thibodeau’s and Bennett’s attendance signified the potential for improved relations at the State House on issues related to poverty, immigration and social justice.

“We cannot go on like this,” Ross said after Thibodeau spoke. “The divisiveness in Augusta isn’t doing any Mainers any good. We must figure out a way to move forward.”

Ross received warm applause when she delivered opening remarks, saying that “the NAACP had a tough year” and thanking those in attendance for their continued support.

“We are grateful,” Ross said with emotion. “We are blessed.”

It came to light recently that the Portland and Bangor branches have been operating for more than two years without the approval of the national organization and should have stopped all activity in late 2013, according to NAACP officials. The national organization allowed the branches to host MLK Day events this year while they work to re-establish their active status.

It also was a difficult year for Ross, who resigned amid controversy last fall from her longtime job as the city of Portland’s director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic legislator and political commentator, recalled LePage’s racially charged comments and said he was proud that Thibodeau attended. Strimling said he hopes that LePage will join the celebration in the future “so he can see what Maine looks like,” noting that the room was filled with people of diverse ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents the 1st District, called the governor’s comments “shameful” and recalled racial tensions that surfaced during Lewiston’s mayoral election late last year. Pingree said Maine needs the immigrants who are moving here to help offset the decrease in the number of young people that is contributing to the state’s aging population.

Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, said the NAACP’s work is “imperative” in today’s political environment.

The keynote speaker was Danielle Conway, dean and professor at the University of Maine School of Law. Conway said authenticity and education were central to King’s message.

She recognized a variety of students and educators in the audience, asking them to stand and saying, “What you stood up for was Martin Luther King’s legacy.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, recalled hearing the civil rights leader deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963.

King also referred to the strong partisan rhetoric that has overtaken political discourse, and he quoted the Bible, Proverbs 12:18, saying that “the words of the reckless pierce like arrows, but the words of the wise bring healing.”