Politics

November 16, 2012

Webster apologizes for comments about black voters

Amid heavy criticism, the Maine Republican party chairman says his comments were made 'without proof of wrongdoing' and he won't investigate.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

After enduring two days of criticism  much of it from members of his own party – Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster apologized late Thursday for suggesting that groups of unknown black voters showed up at rural polling places on Election Day.

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Maine Republican Party chairman Charlie Webster

AP

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"It was my intention to talk not about race, but about perceived voting irregularities," Webster said in a written statement. "However, my comments were made without proof of wrongdoing and they had the unintended consequence of casting aspersions on an entire group of Americans. For that, I am truly sorry."

Webster made his initial claim earlier this week in a wide-ranging, post-election interview with Don Carrigan of WCSH-TV.

"In some parts of rural Maine, there were dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on Election Day," he said during that interview. "Everybody has a right to vote, but nobody in (these) towns knows anyone who's black. How did that happen? I don't know. We're going to find out."

Webster declined in the interview to identify any of the towns, and he provided no other specifics in interviews with the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday and Thursday.

Initially, Webster said he would send thank-you cards to all of the new voters and track whether any were returned with invalid addresses. On Thursday, he said he has no plan to send any cards.

In his apology, Webster made it clear that his claim did not express the views of the party.

By the time he sent his apology, though, his comments had offended many, including people in the party. The story also was appearing on national websites, including Drudge Report, Gawker and Politico.

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for Republicans, who lost their majorities in the Maine House and Senate in last week's elections and are searching for ways to attract more minority voters.

Lance Dutson, a well-known Republican operative who worked for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting and ran this year's U.S. Senate campaign of Charlie Summers, said Thursday that Webster should resign immediately.

"Webster's statements should be cause for immediate resignation," Dutson wrote on Twitter. "Any GOP who values future of party should demand same."

Matt Jacobson, a Republican who ran for governor in the 2010 primary, tweeted: "In Navy, when ship runs aground, Captain is relieved. Charlie Webster needs to stop talking. Now."

Webster announced last week that he will not seek another term as chairman of the party. Republicans are expected to elect new leaders Dec. 1.

In an interview before his apology, Webster said he still believes that there were voting irregularities on Election Day and he will continue looking into it on his own time.

"I feel strongly about it," he said. "It's a matter of principle."

Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Webster's comments veer dangerously close to voter intimidation.

"It's a great thing when new people register to vote," he said. "We should celebrate them, not intimidate them."

The NAACP of Maine called Webster's claim "a racially-motivated attempt to disqualify the (election) results."

"What his statements reveal is what voters have known through this past election cycle: that racism is at the heart of the voter suppression movement," said President Rachel Talbot Ross in a prepared statement. "The NAACP will continue to work each and every day on behalf of all Mainers, to protect their right to vote. Toward this end, we will investigate any and all potential violations of the law by Mr. Webster and his party related to his statements this week."

(Continued on page 2)

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