Jan. 17, 2011 -- Here's a little tip for newly elected, first-time governors: You might want to hold off on telling the NAACP to kiss your butt on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But Gov. Paul LePage, Maine's Republican chief executive, did just that Friday when pressed on why he would forgo attending events to commemorate the holiday. He later made room in his schedule, after the predictable fallout.
The remark came as a throwaway line after a longer, somewhat more thoughtful explanation as to why he declined the organization's event.
"They are a special interest," he told Portland's WCSH-TV. "End of story. And I'm not going to he held hostage by any special interests. And if they want, they can look at my family picture. My son happens to be black. So they can do whatever they'd like about it."
LePage's son, Devon Raymond, was adopted from Jamaica.
The governor, who is white, went on to explain his stance and stress that he also had a scheduling conflict.
But when pressed by the reporter for a response to claims by the NAACP that he has a history of being racially insensitive, the governor shrugged and answered, "Tell 'em to kiss my butt. If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them."
The NAACP swiftly denounced the ill-considered quip. Headline writers were quick to pounce.
"I don't care who he's got in his family," Rachel Talbot Ross, the state director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the Waterville Morning Sentinel.
"The makeup of his family isn't the issue and it never was the issue. For him to say we're playing the race card shows a real lack of awareness of the very important issues we're working to address. Our kids deserve better. Maine deserves better. His son deserves better."
In a statement following the governor's initial comments, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous called LePage "out of touch with our nation's deep yearning for increased civility and racial healing."
Indeed, LePage's comment comes in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in Tucson and amid widespread calls for greater civility in the national discourse.
A Change of Heart?
And so LePage changed his mind.
Instead of pursuing an NAACP butt-kissing, the governor ended up attending a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast today (as opposed to the dinner Sunday) after all. He even joined in an African dance.
The capitulation was not done without a little political finesse.
"There was no change in his mind in terms of honoring Dr. King," LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said. "There was a schedule conflict with the Sunday night dinner.
"But in terms of saying he's got a pattern of ignoring the NAACP or the group the NAACP represents, the sentiment is the same: he's dismissive of those complaints. He says it's politics. He's willing to meet with the group and talk about issues relevant to all Mainers."
LePage didn't speak publicly at the breakfast but Rev. Effie McClain, pastor of the Oakland-Sydney United Methodist Church, who happens to be black, made a reference to the governor's 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," she said, according to the Associated Press. "Don't beat the man continually for something that's been said."
LePage had attended the breakfast event in years past, when he was mayor of Waterville, according to Demeritt, who added that LePage had told him that "when you speak your mind, you take your lumps."
LePage, a Tea Party-backed Republican who won November's election by the narrowest of margins, is no stranger to those lumps. On the campaign trail he said on camera that he'd like to punch a reporter who had asked him tough questions about a suspected property tax-dodge. He also made an election promise to tell President Obama to "go to hell."
No word on whether, now that he's governor, he'd like the president to pucker up as well.