Politicians show support for multiculturalism

Schaefer, Ehrlich remarks draw strong reaction at a council meeting

Howard County

May 11, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Maryland's governor and comptroller might not like multiculturalism, but Howard County's politicians embrace it.

At a meeting yesterday in Ellicott City, Howard County Council members told leaders of a Korean-American group that they likely will get up to $10,000 in county money to pay bilingual liaison workers as part of a pilot project intended to learn how much help immigrants need to gain access to county services.

"The match seemed to fit well with what we do," said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "We are about constituent service."

Sue Song, president of the Asian and Korean-American community associations of Howard County, said the county's 20,000 Korean-Americans - by far its largest immigrant group - want more of a partnership with local government.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s radio remarks last week upset her, she said, because "I don't think he has any interest in diversity or any respect for multiculturalism. What really bothers me is that he doesn't have any interest to learn about it."

In her presentation to the Howard County Council, she said Korean immigrants "feel bad about not being able to speak English." Often, when problems occur, they don't know how to get help, she said.

"When students fail, parents feel ashamed and they won't talk to anybody," Song told the council. "We have to reach out."

Ehrlich appeared on a talk radio show last week and defended Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's outburst at a Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday in which he complained that he had trouble ordering food at a McDonald's restaurant because of a worker's limited English skills.

"I don't want to adjust to another language," Schaefer said. "This is the United States. They should adjust to us."

In defending Schaefer, Ehrlich referred to "multiculturalism crap" and said the concept, which he did not define, is "bunk." He said ethnic pride is appropriate, but multiculturalism is "damaging to the society, in my view."

During yesterday's meeting, Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, called Ehrlich's remarks "incredibly insensitive, unfortunate and irresponsible."

"We all know how important the foreign-born population is," Ulman said, noting that he has Korean-American merchants as private legal clients "who feel badly they don't speak English as well as they'd like to. They work six days a week in dry cleaning" to put their children through college, he said.

Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, said Ehrlich's remarks were "regrettable. He got up on the wrong side of the bed."

A spokesman for Ehrlich said the governor would not apologize for the words or tone of his comments but reaffirmed that "various ethnic groups are essential to the fabric of life in Maryland and in the United States."

But the spokesman said Ehrlich believes that "various groups need to develop a singular culture as Americans."

The two council Republicans noted that Ulman criticized Ehrlich, a Republican, but didn't mention Schaefer, a fellow Democrat.

Still, Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said he supports the pilot project to help Korean-Americans, as did Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, who missed the morning meeting.

"I think diversity is a good thing for our county - it makes us stronger," Kittleman said.

Merdon said his district has "a large Korean population. For the most part, they're left without any connection or communication with county government."

The county should reach out to them in a "reasonable" way, he said, without duplicating the efforts of a private county group called the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network.

He did not criticize Ehrlich's remarks, saying they were "realistic." People who come here from other countries "do need to make an effort to assimilate to our culture," he said.

Song said the Korean community is a relatively closed culture, and when problems arise, adults who lack English fluency are often reluctant to reach out for help.

That is why the community, with help from a Horizon Foundation grant, set up a 12-hour- a-day phone "Care Line" in October. It received almost 300 calls last month, she said.

The county money will enable the hiring of bilingual workers who can relay problems to Barbara Russell, a County Council staffer designated to help find solutions.

Roy Appletree, director of the network, said his group sees 1,500 people a year, and has one worker who speaks Korean.

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