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Racist Comments in Nation's Whitest State Draw Fire
08/28/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Crowds gathered in the nation's capital today to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. But nearly 600 miles away in Maine, State House observers and civil rights advocates say recent statements by a Sabattus Republican candidate for selectman, and GOP Gov. Paul LePage, show that Maine must do more to demonstrate its commitment to racial tolerance and equality. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Racist Comments in Nation's Whitest State Draw Fir Listen

As the governor of the whitest state in the country, Paul LePage should have thought twice before making racial accusations against President Barack Obama, according to Republican legislators, who told The Portland Press Herald and MPBN that they heard the remark.

Fearing that LePage would retaliate against them, the lawmakers have asked not to be identified. They say the governor told attendees at a Belgrade GOP event that President Barack Obama hates white people. Rachel Talbot-Ross of the Maine NAACP says the governor's comment, along with the investigation of David Marsters, a Sabattus GOP candidate for selectman, show that despite important civil rights gains made since the historic March on Washington, Maine and the nation still have a long way to go.

"We still fight some of the racist ideology today," Talbot-Ross says. "This latest statement just proves how much work still needs to be done. I'm still shocked that there isn't more outrage by the people of Maine."

LePage, who initially told reporters that he never said "the President hates white people," put out an apology to Republicans last week. The governor did not deny making the remark. But the story continues to reverberate over Web sites around the world. University of Maine Political Science Professor Mark Brewer says both incidents may have already damaged the state's image.

"Those kind of things do not put a positive face on the state of Maine to the rest of the United States or beyond American borders," Brewer says. "There's been interest in this story from international media outlets, and I know that some people have accused the media of making too much of this - making a mountain out of a mole hill. I would disagree with that."

The remarks attributed to LePage and Marsters don't make life any easier for Rick Bennett, who is trying to heal rifts between Republicans as the party's new chair. Some Republicans say the party must do more nationally and in Maine to show that it is open to people of all races and backgrounds.

State Sen. Tom Saviello is a Wilton Republican, known as an independent and moderate thinker in his caucus. He says Democrats have done a better job making their party look like the people they represent, and he says Republicans should take note.

"I think that's something they've got to do, is to figure out how do you draw in these minorities?" Saviello says, "Because in the long run, we, as Caucasians, are going to be in the minority. So we better figure it out."

At the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Executive Director Shenna Bellows says the anniversary of the March on Washington should remind Mainers of all political stripes to not allow race to become a political wedge issue.

"Perhaps as dangerous as overt racism is complacency," Bellows says. 'Some people feel that we've reached a point in America and in Maine where race no longer matters, and Dr. King spoke to the fierce urgency of 'now.' He said now is not the time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Instead, he said, now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. And I think recent events and controversies demonstrate that these words ring as true as they did 50 years ago."

But for some, that's still a difficult task. Last week, a Republican legislator told MPBN that he would state publicly that he had heard Gov. LePage make the remark about the president. Today, that lawmaker said that while he stood by his statement, he believed LePage's apology makes his public statement unnecessary.


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