AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is once again stirring controversy with his off-the-cuff and sometimes off-color statements, this time telling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders and other critics to “kiss my butt” over his decision to decline several invitations from the organization.
In typical LePage style, the comments appear to have been made in a lighthearted manner. But NAACP leaders found little humor in the remarks, with the organization’s national president accusing Maine’s new Republican governor of inflaming racial tensions.
Speaking to reporters Friday morning, LePage was asked to respond to suggestions from NAACP members and others that his decision not to attend ceremonies honoring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was part of a negative pattern.
“Tell them to kiss my butt,” LePage said with a large smile, according to video by WCSH6. He then added: “If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them,” a reference to his adopted son, Devon Raymond, who is black.
Dan Demeritt, LePage’s spokesman, had said the Republican governor was unable to attend a NAACP dinner honoring King in Portland on Sunday because of personal commitments and a NAACP breakfast in Orono on Monday because he plans to attend the funeral for a former state trooper.
But leaders of the NAACP pointed out in news reports published Friday that LePage had declined numerous invitations from the organization.
Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP, told the Portland Press Herald she was concerned “we’re not welcome and we’re not part of the Maine” LePage is preparing to lead.
LePage dismissed such suggestions, however, and said the NAACP can look at his family picture for proof.
“They’re a special interest, end of story, and I’m not going to be held hostage by a special interest,” LePage said. “The fact of the matter is there are only so many hours in the day and so many hours in the week and so much that you can do.”
Demeritt also quoted an organizer of King events at the Muskie Community Center in Waterville as saying that LePage was a regular guest at the annual event, delivering the welcome address in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008.
Within hours of LePage’s comments, the national president and CEO of the NAACP, Benjamin Todd Jealous, issued a strongly worded response.
“Gov. LePage’s decision to inflame racial tension on the eve of the King holiday denigrates his office,” said Jealous, whose father is from Maine. “His words are a reminder of the worst aspects of Maine’s history and out of touch with our nation’s deep yearning for increased civility and racial healing.”
Similarly, Robert Talbot, a board member of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP was not amused by LePage’s comments Friday.
Talbot said he found it ironic that the governor would say such things at a time when so many people nationally are talking about a “return to civility” in political discourse after the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“The NAACP was reaching out to him as we have all of the other governors,” Talbot said Friday afternoon. “We need more civility. He needs to understand that although Maine is the whitest state in the country, it is made up of a lot of different people and he is the governor of all of the people … and he needs to act that way.”
But George Mathis, acting president of the Bangor group, said while he was not pleased with LePage’s remarks, he was reserving judgment on the new governor.
“I did not vote for him but I’m rooting that he does the right thing for all Mainers, regardless of what color they are,” Mathis said.
This isn’t the first time that LePage has ruffled feathers with his comments.
During the gubernatorial campaign, the candidate said that, if elected governor, there would be lots of headlines saying, “Gov. LePage tells Obama to go to hell.”
Put in context, LePage was voicing his frustration with what he described as overly strict federal regulations on commercial fishing that were putting Maine fishermen out of work. So while LePage later said he regretted his choice of words, he stood by the underlying message to federal regulators.
LePage also jokingly said that he wanted to punch a Maine Public Broadcasting Network reporter in the face after high-profile coverage of the candidate’s family receiving property tax benefits in two states.
LePage’s bluntness and proud contempt for political correctness infuriated some of his political rivals and critics, who also accused the candidate of having problems with the truth on the campaign trail.
But LePage’s tendency to speak his mind appeared to play well with the groundswell of Republicans and other voters frustrated with government and tired of politics as usual.
“I have not learned to speak out of both sides of my mouth,” then-candidate LePage said after one of the dust-ups over his comments. “But I have to learn not to use street words.”
Immediately after his “kiss my butt” statement in the WCSH video, LePage can be seen turning toward Demeritt and saying, “Aww, I got Dan all upset.” But in his statement to the press, Demeritt made no apologies for his boss’ comments.
“This is about a special interest group taking issue with the governor for not making time for them and the governor dismissing their complaints in the direct manner people have come to expect from Paul LePage,” Demeritt said.