PORTLAND, Maine—Maine's governor told critics Friday to "kiss my butt" over his decision not to attend the state NAACP's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations over the holiday weekend.
Gov. Paul LePage declined the organization's invitations to a dinner in Portland on Sunday night due to a personal commitment and a breakfast in Orono on Monday because he was attending a funeral.
The NAACP's state director said the group felt it was being neglected by the new governor, who was elected in November. The head of a Portland immigration group said it would have been nice if he'd at least send a representative from his office to attend.
When asked by a reporter Friday to respond, LePage said: "Tell them to kiss my butt."
"If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them," LePage said, referring to Devon Richard, a 25-year-old black Jamaican whom LePage took into his home at the age of 17.
After LePage declined the invitations, NAACP state director Rachel Talbot Ross told the Portland Press Herald the group was beginning to feel "we're not welcome, we're not part of the Maine he's preparing to lead for the next four years." A phone call to Ross was from The Associated Press was not immediately returned.
Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said LePage's remarks are discouraging given that the NAACP events are about unity.
"It's unfortunate Gov. LePage seems to be throwing down a gauntlet when this was just an invitation to come together," she said.
NAACP national President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous called LePage's comments inflammatory.
"Gov. LePage's decision to inflame racial tension on the eve of the King holiday denigrates his office," Jealous said. "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."
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the governor's comments were spoken in a "direct manner" that people have come to expect from him. During last fall's campaign, LePage -- a Republican who had tea party support -- told a group of fishermen that if he were elected, "you're going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page, saying 'Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell.'"
But the issue has nothing do with race, Demeritt said. Rather, he said, it's about a "special interest group" expressing frustration at the governor not yet making time to meet.
"It's nothing more than a scheduling conflict and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous," Demeritt said.
While mayor of Waterville, LePage attended numerous Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfasts and gave the welcome address on four occasions, Demeritt said. The governor's weekly radio address, to be aired Saturday, pays tribute to King.