PORTLAND, Maine — A Maine cabinet member who was forced out after offending rural residents, African-Americans and Native Americans all in one day said Friday that some of the comments attributed to him were misconstrued and others he didn’t even say.
Two days after leaving his post as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, Philip Congdon said the allegations against him are false and that much has been made over nothing. He blamed politics and a state representative who wrote a letter to Maine’s governor about his talk earlier this month in northern Maine.
“It’s about to get messy and dirty really fast,” Congdon said in a phone interview. “You just wait and watch.”
Congdon’s comments continued to draw criticism Friday from the NAACP and a Maine Indian tribe.
Maine’s blunt-speaking governor, Paul LePage, who has been criticized himself for his choice of words, issued a statement saying, “I do not condone or tolerate the appearance of this type of behavior and I will not accept distractions from my jobs-creation agenda.”
Congdon was quoted as saying affirmative action programs have contributed to a decline in higher education, that people of northern Maine were lacking in parenting skills and that it was time for them to “get off the reservation” if they wanted to succeed. He also said Maine’s potato farmers were wasting their spuds by selling them for french fries rather than vodka.
He told the Sun Journal of Lewiston that when he spoke about affirmative action during a private meeting at a community college, “I thought I was talking to people who were sufficiently intelligent enough to understand my real meaning. I was mistaken.”
That remark didn’t surprise Caribou City Manager Steven Buck, who was at the Caribou Chamber of Commerce awards banquet April 1 where the audience “sat there in silence” while Congdon gave the keynote speech.
“I’m listening to that statement about people being ‘sufficiently intelligent enough’ and it goes back to the same demeanor as when he was here,” Buck said. “I’ve talked with my colleagues around the state, and what we experienced here was not unique.”
LePage became aware of Congdon’s remarks on Monday and “took immediate action on the matter,” said spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. She declined to say whether Congdon was fired or was asked to resign, but Congdon said he was forced out of the job.
Congdon, 69, retired to Maine eight years ago and met LePage last year on the campaign trail. He had extensive business management experience during his career, which included stretches at Texas Instruments and Raytheon. He became the head of the economic development agency in January.
He was invited to speak at the chamber banquet to give his perspective about economic development in Maine and how it relates to Aroostook County, the state’s northernmost county and a region where industry and job opportunities have been on the slow decline for decades.
But rather than speak about opportunities, attendees said Congdon told the gathering of some 60 people that economic development wasn’t going to come to northern Maine and that people had “to get off the reservation” if they wanted to succeed.
Congdon on Friday denied saying any such thing.
His comments about affirmative action programs came during a meeting earlier in the day at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, where he met with the college president and other officials.
Congdon said those statements were misunderstood.
He blamed Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake for writing a letter to LePage without coming to him first. Martin’s letter contained inaccuracies and fabrications, he said.
Martin said he wrote the letter only after a number of people approached him in Aroostook County saying they were upset and shocked Congdon’s comments. Martin said he merely asked for LePage’s office to investigate the matter, not to fire Congdon.
In a joint statement Friday, the Maine branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Penobscot Indian Nation called Congdon’s statements “reprehensible and inherently untrue.”
Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said in a phone interview that Congdon’s statements are “racially charged” and his comment about “getting off the reservation” typecasts Native Americans as “sitting around in their communities living in conditions that they’re choosing to, waiting from somebody to save them, and it’s not that way at all.”
He added: “To make comments like civil rights and affirmative action are the scourge of why we’re at where we’re at with our economy, why we’re at where we’re at with our educational system, and make references that those things are declining because of that goes to a whole new level beyond insensitive in my mind.”
LePage himself has come under criticism for saying things that have been called insensitive.
While on the campaign trail last fall, LePage said he’d tell the president to “go to hell.”
Shortly after taking office in January, he called the NAACP a special interest group and told critics to “kiss my butt” over his decision to not attend the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.
He later caused a stink by dismissing the dangers of bisphenol-A, a chemical additive used in some plastic bottles, saying the worst that could happen was “some women may have little beards.”