O'Malley rebuts `English' remarks

As mayor criticizes Ehrlich, immigrants rally for apology from governor

May 12, 2004|By Jeff Barker and Tom Pelton | Jeff Barker and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Leading a rising chorus of bilingual outrage, Mayor Martin O'Malley delivered a pointed rebuttal yesterday - in Spanish - to recent remarks by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer deriding multiculturalism and those who don't speak English.

"Few of us would be here if our non-English-speaking relatives hadn't struggled for a few years - or decades - to learn English," O'Malley said during his radio show on WBAL-AM. "This is something we should try to remember if we're inconvenienced for a few minutes during the course of our daily routine because someone is learning English."

The mayor, who studied Spanish in high school, was referring to Schaefer's complaints a week ago about a McDonald's restaurant cashier who couldn't speak English. The next day, Ehrlich said, "Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem."

In Silver Spring yesterday, community groups and elected officials held a news conference and demanded - in English, Spanish and Korean - that Ehrlich apologize. The governor elaborated but declined to back off. "The words stand on their own," he said.

The organized criticism of Ehrlich and Schaefer was from two key political jurisdictions: Montgomery County, the state's largest and most ethnically diverse, and Baltimore, a Democratic stronghold where Schaefer served as mayor from 1971 to 1987.

At the Silver Spring event, Ehrlich was urged to apologize by Montgomery County Council members, state lawmakers and community activists for what they called "an attack on our humanity" that taps into "Archie Bunker barstool rhetoric."

The heavily Democratic County Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing its "deep concern over Governor Ehrlich's ill-chosen remarks." Ehrlich is a Republican while Schaefer, like O'Malley, is a Democrat.

Several of the Montgomery leaders said they couldn't help but take Ehrlich's remarks personally. The suburban county is comprised of 40 percent minorities and is home to more new immigrants than anywhere else in the state. Nearly half of all of Maryland's foreign-born residents live there.

"This is an attack, an attack on our humanity, on our communities," said state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Democrat. As she spoke, she waved a white McDonald's bag to punctuate her remarks.

`Us vs. them'

Del. Peter Franchot, another Montgomery Democrat, likened Ehrlich's remarks to those made by Bunker, the bigoted character on television's All in the Family in the 1970s.

The governor's "us vs. them" rhetoric appears to be having "a very inflammatory, inciting effect," Franchot said. He cited several threats received in the past week by CASA of Maryland, a community group offering immigrant services.

Gustavo Torres, the group's executive director, said in an interview that he couldn't definitively establish a link between the governor's comments and threats he said were received in two telephone messages and a letter.

Torres said the letter contained a death threat, and one of the phone messages included a statement that "they were going to send everybody to Iraq." He said CASA was preparing to file a police complaint.

Ehrlich, in an impromptu news conference after a bill signing yesterday, suggested that he was trying to bring people together, not divide them.

"We celebrate our ethnicity, we celebrate our history," he said. "It's a common culture, though, and the last message we want to send out is to separate ourselves in different cultures."

Of Americans, Ehrlich said, "We are all immigrants, obviously. We celebrate our immigrant status, which is a wonderful thing."

Montgomery County Councilman Tom Perez said that if Ehrlich is serious about aiding immigrants, he should use state funds to eliminate a backlog of more than 2,000 county residents waiting to take English classes. Perez said many immigrants "work two and three jobs and still find time to take English courses on the weekend in order to acquire better-paying jobs."

Perez said he would seek General Assembly sponsors for a bill next year compelling the state to pay for the classes. He said it was too early to say how much that might cost.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor would consider such a bill on its merits and "in the context of the budget deficit that this governor inherited and which still persists today."

`Missed ... the point'

Schaefer could not be reached for comment yesterday. But his spokesman, Michael Golden, said: "I think what the mayor and others critical of the comptroller have missed is the point he tried to make. People working on the front lines, providing customer service, should be able to speak the English language. The comptroller is certainly sympathetic to immigrants. But it's not fair to the customer, or to the immigrants themselves, to be put in this situation, where they cannot transact business because they can't speak the language."

Golden noted that, when Schaefer was governor in 1994, he vetoed a bill that would have made English the official language of Maryland.

Schaefer was lampooned during a lunch yesterday afternoon that O'Malley organized with Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Baltimore and several other local business managers and owners.

"If you don't know Spanish, and you want to go to McDonald's and order a Big Mac, you just say, `Un Big Mac,'" Diaz said.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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