Former Economic Commissioner Denies Reported Racist Remarks

Former Economic Commissioner Denies Reported Racist Remarks

Gale Courey Toensing
4/29/11

Maine’s former commissioner of economic development czar who resigned earlier this week has denied reports that he made racist and offensive remarks at a Chamber of Commerce awards banquet and other events and has claimed he is the victim of a political attack, the Bangor Daily News reported Friday.

Philip Congdon, who suddenly resigned his post on Wednesday, April 27, told the Bangor Daily News (BDN) Thursday night that he was puzzled by the comments attributed to him in a flurry of media reports.

“I’m being accused of saying things that I did not say, but I don’t know how to refute them,” Congdon told the BDN a day after his resignation. “I think there is a political agenda here.”

Reports alleged that Congdon told members of the Aroostook County business community at the event on April 1 that the country’s downturn in the economy and education could be traced to the civil rights movement and allowing black people access to American universities, that if Aroostook County residents wanted economic development they needed to “get off the reservation and make it happen.”  He also attributed problems with Aroostook County young people to having “bad parents,” and said Maine's potato farmers were wasting their spuds by selling them for French fries rather than vodka.

His comments, particularly the one about getting off the reservation, drew quick – and unfavorable – responses from Indian leaders.

“Usually people are a bit more subtle than that,” said Kirk Francis, the chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation. “You have four federally recognized tribes in Maine to whom these comments are extremely insensitive at best and the civil rights affirmative action comments are much more than that. I won’t use the word, but it is what it is.”

“In a nation that promotes diversity as both its foundation and its greatest strength, I am disheartened and outraged by the racism, prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination that still prevails in America today,” said Kitchki Carroll, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes and a citizen of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. “While many may wish to believe that this form of hate no longer exists, or worse yet turn a blind eye upon, examples such as this remind us that it is still present in profound ways. The perpetuation of such ignorance and hate is the reason we have failed to achieve true justice and equality for all as a nation.”

The following day, Condgon denied making the comment. “I did not tell anybody in Aroostook County to ‘get off the reservation,’” Congdon said, according to the BDN. Instead, Congdon said he may have told a group that he, himself, was going to get off the reservation as a flippant way of saying he was about to say something not necessarily consistent with the administration of Gov. Paul LePage. Congdon also claimed to be part Penobscot Indian and would not intentionally offend American Indians.

According to Wickionary, the expression “to go off the reservation” has negative connotations no matter what one’s intention may be or where it’s directed. Here’s how the web site defines “to go off the reservation”:

  • (literally) To leave a reservation to which one was restricted. Quotation from April 10, 1872, United States Congress, The Congressional Globe: The Indian may go off the reservation, he can steal from the whites and run back to the reservation with impunity.
  • (US, politics) To break with one's party or group, usually temporarily. Quotation from January 31, 1960:  Harry S Truman, “Dear Joe”, from Strictly Personal and Confidential: The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed: I'll never forget 1948 when these so called "liberals" (synthetics I call them) went off the reservation and gave New York to Dewey.
  • (by extension) To engage in disruptive activity outside normal bounds. Quotation from 1965, Drew Middleton, The Atlantic Community: A Study in Unity and Disunity: When the Russians do go off the reservation, as they did early in April 1965, their object is not to challenge the Western allies of yesteryear, the United States, Britain, and France, but to impress upon West Germany their support for East Germany and its claim to West Berlin.

LePage became aware of Congdon's remarks on Monday and "took immediate action on the matter," the governor’s spokeswomen Adrienne Bennett told the BDN. She declined to say whether Congdon was fired or was asked to resign.

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