PORTLAND, Maine (AP) | A Maine cabinet member who managed to offend rural residents, blacks and American Indians — all in one day — took one more swipe at critics after being forced out of his position, suggesting they lacked the intellect to understand his comments.
Two days after abruptly resigning as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, Philip Congdon was criticized by the NAACP and a Maine Indian tribe for remarks he made last month in northern Maine.
His comments were even too much for the state’s blunt-speaking governor, Paul LePage, who has been criticized himself for his choice of words.
Mr. Congdon was quoted as saying that 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 said Maine’s potato farmers were wasting their spuds by selling them for french fries rather than vodka.
Mr. Congdon has said that some of his comments were misunderstood and that he didn’t make others that were attributed to him.
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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Buck said. “I’ve talked with my colleagues around the state, and what we experienced here was not unique.”
Mr. LePage became aware of Mr. Congdon’s remarks last week and “took immediate action on the matter,” spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said. She declined to say whether Mr. Congdon was fired or was asked to resign.
Mr. Congdon, 69, retired to Maine eight years ago and met Mr. 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 a slow decline for decades.
But rather than speak about opportunities, Mr. 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.
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.