AUGUSTA, Maine — The NAACP continued to criticize Maine Gov. Paul LePage over the weekend for last week’s flippant “kiss my butt” remark, although both sides indicated a willingness to sit down and talk.
On Saturday, local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People accused LePage of setting a tone in his first 10 days in office that “should be an offense to all Mainers and the office he has been entrusted to lead with civility, honesty and decorum.”
“We want to be part of this process and continue to ask for a meeting to begin working in a respectful and transparent manner for the betterment of our state,” Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP in Maine, said in a statement.
Dan Demeritt, spokesman for LePage, said Saturday the Republican is certainly open to a meeting with the NAACP, as long as the issues on the table are applicable to all Mainers, such as poverty, immigration and education. He did not give a time frame for a meeting.
“He told me today that if they want to meet and talk about things that are important to everyone, he is willing to have that conversation,” Demeritt said.
Reached by phone later that evening, Ross said she was pleased to hear that LePage was open to a meeting, which she said has been the organization’s goal all along. Ross said she hopes such a dialogue could help the governor better understand the NAACP’s work.
“We work on behalf of all civil and human rights,” Ross said. “So we have got a common agenda [with LePage] and we look forward to meeting with him.”
LePage made his now-infamous “Tell them to kiss my butt” statement Friday morning after he was pressed for a response to suggestions that his decision to skip two NAACP events honoring Martin Luther King Jr. were part of a troubling pattern.
As a candidate and as governor, LePage has declined several invitations to meet with the NAACP or attend organization events, to the growing dismay of organization leaders.
But LePage insisted it had nothing to do with race, pointing out that his family took in a black, Jamaican-born teenager, Devon Raymond, who remains part of the family.
While LePage frequently refers to Raymond as his son, he was never legally adopted by the family, Demeritt said. But Raymond, who graduated from Waterville High School and now attends graduate school in Louisiana, is “as much a part of the family as anyone else,” Demeritt said.
LePage’s “kiss my butt” remark, while said with a smile and a laugh, riled both local and national NAACP members and drew national media attention to Maine’s outspoken and unabashedly nonpolitically correct governor.
LePage also angered NAACP by repeatedly calling the organization a “special interest.”
“The NAACP is not a ‘special interest group,’ as Gov. LePage assumed,” Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the national NAACP, responded in a statement released Saturday. “In fact, we are a public interest group, and our goal for over 100 years has been to build one America and one Maine.”
Both privately and publicly, NAACP members and supporters of the organization have also pointed out discrepancies in LePage’s explanation for why he would not attend NAACP events for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Sunday or Monday.
In the case of the Monday event — a breakfast being held at the University of Maine in Orono — LePage has said he plans to attend a funeral for a former Maine State Police trooper. But NAACP members point out that the governor declined the invitation a month ago — long before he knew about the funeral.
They also have accused LePage of grossly misrepresenting in his public statements an earlier invitation from the NAACP.
“They invited me to go to the state prison to meet black prisoners,” LePage told reporters during the Friday interview. “I told them I would go, I’d be more than happy to go but I would meet all prisoners. And that wasn’t acceptable to them, so tough luck.”
But NAACP leaders pointed out that the event was a voter registration drive for all prisoners — not merely black inmates — and that half of the members of the NAACP chapter at Maine State Prison in Warren are white. Furthermore, prison policies would prohibit segregated events.
The “kiss my butt” incident is likely to be a topic at today’s events memorializing King. In addition to the breakfast at UMaine, the NAACP is helping to organize a Martin Luther King March for Justice and “community conversation” in downtown Portland.
A key focus of the Portland event was supposed to be a controversial executive order signed by LePage on his first day in office that directs state employees to ensure that anyone who applies for state or federal benefits is in the country legally.
While administration officials said the order was intended to end perceptions that Maine was a “sanctuary state” for illegal immigrants, civil rights and immigrant rights groups have suggested the order could have a chilling effect on legal immigrants and harm the children of undocumented immigrants.
LePage, meanwhile, used his second weekend radio address — prepared before Friday’s dust-up — to pay tribute to King and to call on Mainers to remember the victims of last week’s shooting involving Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“I hope this weekend as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s life we all take a moment to reflect on the other lives that have been lost in our great nation this week,” LePage said. “We have come far through the years, but the journey continues to make Dr. King’s dreams a reality.”