After enduring two days of criticism — much of it from members of his own party — Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster apologized late Thursday for suggesting that groups of unknown black voters showed up at rural polling places on Election Day.
“It was my intention to talk not about race, but about perceived voting irregularities,” Webster said in a written statement. “However, my comments were made without proof of wrongdoing and they had the unintended consequence of casting aspersions on an entire group of Americans. For that, I am truly sorry.”
Webster made his initial claim earlier this week in a wide-ranging, post-election interview with Don Carrigan of WCSH-TV.
“In some parts of rural Maine, there were dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on Election Day,” he said during that interview. “Everybody has a right to vote, but nobody in (these) towns knows anyone who’s black. How did that happen? I don’t know. We’re going to find out.”
Webster declined in the interview to identify any of the towns, and he provided no other specifics in interviews with the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday and Thursday.
Initially, Webster said he would send thank-you cards to all of the new voters and track whether any were returned with invalid addresses. On Thursday, he said he has no plan to send any cards.
In his apology, Webster made it clear that his claim did not express the views of the party.
By the time he sent his apology, though, his comments had offended many, including people in the party. The story also was appearing on national websites, including Drudge Report, Gawker and Politico.
The controversy comes at a sensitive time for Republicans, who lost their majorities in the Maine House and Senate in last week’s elections and are searching for ways to attract more minority voters.
Lance Dutson, a well-known Republican operative who worked for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting and ran this year’s U.S. Senate campaign of Charlie Summers, said Thursday that Webster should resign immediately.
“Webster’s statements should be cause for immediate resignation,” Dutson wrote on Twitter. “Any GOP who values future of party should demand same.”
Matt Jacobson, a Republican who ran for governor in the 2010 primary, tweeted “In Navy, when ship runs aground, Captain is relieved. Charlie Webster needs to stop talking. Now.”
Webster announced last week that he will not seek another term as chairman of the party. Republicans are expected to elect new leaders Dec. 1.
In an interview before his apology, Webster said he still believes that there were voting irregularities on Election Day and he will continue looking into it on his own time.
“I feel strongly about it,” he said. “It’s a matter of principle.”
Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Webster’s comments veer dangerously close to voter intimidation.
“It’s a great thing when new people register to vote,” he said. “We should celebrate them, not intimidate them.”
The NAACP of Maine called Webster’s claim “a racially motivated attempt to disqualify the (election) results.”
“What his statements reveal is what voters have known through this past election cycle: that racism is at the heart of the voter suppression movement,” said President Rachel Talbot Ross in a prepared statement. “The NAACP will continue to work each and every day on behalf of all Mainers, to protect their right to vote. Toward this end, we will investigate any and all potential violations of the law by Mr. Webster and his party related to his statements this week.”
Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, who was elected Wednesday as the new House minority leader, said last week’s elections should be a sign that the Republican Party must be more welcoming. Webster’s comments were not helpful, he said.
“Any time you identify specific groups in general terms, that’s hurtful,” Fredette said. “If there are specific complaints, they should be investigated, but these general statements and claims don’t help anyone.”
Since Nov. 6, there has been a national discussion about how the Republican Party will move forward. The demographics of President Barak Obama’s win over Mitt Romney suggested that the party has a problem attracting black, Hispanic and female voters. As the country becomes less and less white, the problem for Republicans could intensify.
Fredette talked of rebuilding the party during a speech on Wednesday.
He said the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan’s presidency won 49 of 50 states in 1984, suggesting that the party’s beliefs were widely supported. He said the party must be a “big tent” again.
“Any comments that turn people off, even if they energize the base, can hurt the party as a whole,” Fredette said.
Webster said Thursday that he regrets singling out black voters because people have labeled him a racist.
“I have a couple friends that I play basketball with who are black and I’m sure I’m going to get a few elbows the next time we play,” he joked.
Webster has been outspoken and controversial throughout his two years as party chairman.
He made headlines in the summer of 2011 when he alleged that scores of college students had voted without establishing residency in the state. Those claims prompted an investigation, but no fraud was uncovered.
Webster was criticized widely within his party for his handling of Maine’s presidential caucus in February.
Candidates to succeed Webster are Richard Cebra of Naples, who had to give up his House seat this year because of term limits; Beth O’Connor, a representative from Berwick who lost her re-election bid last week; and David Jones of Falmouth, a supporter of presidential candidate Ron Paul and a relative newcomer to the party committee.