January 14, 2011

NAACP: LePage's declining of holiday invitations cause for concern

Staff says governor has prior commitments

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

Gov. Paul LePage has declined invitations to attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in Portland and Bangor next week, increasing concern among NAACP leaders that their interests won't be represented in the new governor's administration.

LePage cannot attend Sunday's MLK dinner in Portland and Monday's MLK breakfast in Bangor -- both hosted by NAACP groups -- because he has prior personal and professional commitments, said Dan Demeritt, the governor's spokesman.

NAACP leaders say LePage, a Republican, has declined several invitations from them in recent months, including to participate in a political forum during the campaign and to meet with them after the election.

Their concern grew last week when LePage, in one of his first official acts as governor, issued an executive order allowing state workers to question people about their immigration status. It rescinded an order by former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, that prohibited state workers from making such inquiries.

"We don't want to misinterpret his intention, but the message we're getting is that we're not welcome and we're not part of the Maine he's preparing to lead for the next four years," said Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP and president of the NAACP Portland Branch.

Ross said LePage will be recognized Monday, the MLK holiday, during a march and rally for racial equality and economic justice on the steps of Portland City Hall. Participants plan to create a "welcome basket" that will be delivered to the new governor, including another request to meet and discuss concerns in a respectful, transparent and meaningful manner.

"This isn't going to be a political throwdown," Ross said. "We want to find a way to have a civil, respectful discourse on these important issues. We all want Maine to be the best it can be. We're asking for help in understanding where we fit in and how we can take part in the process."

The MLK events in Portland and Bangor are the largest and most significant NAACP events of the year. They each celebrate the teachings of the slain civil rights leader and attract several hundred people, including many top elected officials.

Maine's governor usually alternates each year between MLK breakfasts in Portland and Bangor. This year, the NAACP Portland Branch is holding an MLK dinner instead to mark the 30th anniversary of the annual celebration.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is expected to attend the Portland dinner at Holiday Inn by the Bay, along with several local legislators and city officials and representative of Republican U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud is expected to attend the Bangor breakfast at the University of Maine, along with other local dignitaries' legislators and congressional representatives.

"We understand that the governor is busy, but this appears to be a pattern that's going to continue," said Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland. "Sending someone from his staff, at a minimum, would be a nice gesture."

NAACP leaders said members of LePage's staff first told them in early December that he wouldn't be able to attend the MLK events. Subsequent written requests also were declined, they said.

Demeritt, the governor's spokesman, said LePage has a previous personal commitment on Sunday evening and will attend a memorial service on Monday morning in Vassalboro for Charles "Chip" Howe, a former Maine State Trooper who died on Wednesday.

LePage will talk about the MLK holiday during his radio address on Saturday and will issue a proclamation on Monday naming it Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in Maine, Demeritt said.

The proclamation will note that King "devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice and opportunity for all, and challenged all Americans to participate in the never-ending work of building a more perfect union." It also will state that King's teachings "can continue to guide and inspire us in addressing challenges in our communities."

Demeritt said the NAACP leaders' request to meet with LePage is "in the pile of things that need to be scheduled. He hasn't said no. The caution is not to jump to conclusions. Paul LePage understands that he represents all Mainers. We'll demonstrate that with the type of work we do going forward."

NAACP leaders aren't so sure. Bob Talbot is an executive board member of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP. At age 70, he can't remember when Maine's governor didn't attend an MLK breakfast, except when Baldacci was invited to President Obama's inauguration in 2009.

"Gov. LePage keeps saying he represents all Mainers," Talbot said. "Well, I'm an eighth-generation Mainer. I think he needs to reconsider what it means to be a Mainer. He needs to understand that we're all Mainers, not just a certain few or a certain political party."

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