WATERVILLE, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage changed his Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend plans and showed up at a breakfast honoring the slain civil rights leader Monday, days after he said critics of his decision to skip other events could “kiss my butt.” He even joined some of the participants in an African dance.
The Republican governor’s appearance was organized in the days after he made the remark Friday, responding to a reporter’s question about criticism he had received over his decision not to attend the state NAACP’s annual King Day celebrations. He said at the time that he didn’t attend events for special interests, and his spokesman cited scheduling conflicts.
“Tell them to kiss my butt,” LePage said.
The comment drew harsh criticism from state and national leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Maine NAACP Director Rachel Talbot Ross said her organization is no special interest, and the group’s national president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said LePage’s comments “inflame racial tension.”
While Monday’s appearance was hastily added to his schedule, LePage had previously attended several Martin Luther King breakfasts in Waterville while serving as mayor before he was elected governor, a spokesman said. Monday’s event was sponsored by the local Rotary club and a senior citizens’ group.
LePage, who was elected in November with tea party support, didn’t speak publicly at Monday’s breakfast, but he chatted with some of the roughly 150 participants, most of whom were white. In an interview, he declined to discuss his earlier comments, but acknowledged that the holiday “represents an awful lot, particularly to black America. I mean, Martin Luther King was a peaceful activist and unfortunately he gave his life for it.”
In a statement issued later by his office, he said, “Dr. King is someone who spent and ultimately gave his life making sure that people got a fair shake regardless of race. We have come far through the years, but the journey continues to make Dr. King’s dreams a reality. I urge all Mainers to work as one for a better life for all.”
Rep. Effie McClain, pastor of the Oakland-Sidney United Methodist Church, said before her keynote speech that it was time to move beyond LePage’s earlier remarks.
“I think that often times we say things that just come out wrong and if we had all the money in the world we couldn’t take it back,” said McClain, who is black. “Don’t beat the man continually for something that’s been said.”
Others attending Monday’s event weren’t so forgiving.
LePage’s attendance was “a political act that has nothing to do with his convictions,” said Julie de Sherbinin, a language professor at Colby College in Waterville. De Sherbinin, who is white, is involved in a campus organization that promotes improved race relations.
LePage stayed for the entire 90-minute event, including an African drum act by a Colby ensemble. The smiling governor clapped his hands and briefly joined others who danced to the pounding rhythm.