Ehrlich says he didn't mean to offend

But governor reiterates multiculturalism position

May 14, 2004|By David Nitkin and Tom Pelton | David Nitkin and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he did not intend to offend immigrants with remarks labeling multiculturalism as "bunk" and "crap," but reiterated his position that adherence to common American values is a cornerstone of a well-functioning society.

"Clearly, I certainly don't want anybody to be offended. But on the other hand, I meant very clearly to distinguish between how we should celebrate our diversity and ethnicity, but the important point here is assimilation," Ehrlich said during an interview on WTOP radio in Washington yesterday morning.

"It has always been the goal," said the governor. "And to those who believe that assimilation is not the goal, that's where the real debate lies, in my view."

Ehrlich called the station shortly before a group of Hispanic, Native American and African-American civil rights activists gathered in Baltimore to demand apologies for recent comments from Ehrlich and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

"It's clear that Ehrlich does not believe in the value of cultural differences," Ricardo Flores, president of Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, said during a news conference at the Fells Point offices of CASA of Maryland Inc., an advocacy group. "He believes that a multicultural society cannot survive. That is a very extreme and very scary position."

The activists also announced the filing of an ethics complaint against two Baltimore-area delegates who they claim verbally attacked and ridiculed Hispanic lobbyists this year.

The complaint asks the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics to reprimand Dels. Richard K. Impallaria and Patrick L. McDonough, Republicans who represent portions of Baltimore and Harford counties, for an incident in March inside a House of Delegates building that required police intervention. The delegates were the lead sponsors this year of several bills to crack down on illegal immigrants, and the scuffle occurred after a hearing on one of the bills.

The continuing debate over language, immigration and cultural values was touched off a week ago during a state Board of Public Works meeting, when Schaefer criticized fast-food restaurant workers who don't speak English.

Ehrlich was absent from the meeting but endorsed the sentiment the next day during an interview on WBAL radio. "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," the governor said.

Immigrant groups and political opponents have pounced on the remark as an example of insensitivity and fear-mongering, but the governor has not backed away from his argument and has rebuffed requests for apologies.

The governor said yesterday that he distinguishes between multiculturalism -- which he said fosters separation and weakens democracy -- and legitimate ethnic pride and celebration.

"I've been German of the year. ... I take pride in my German heritage, but for my common cultural values, I look to America," Ehrlich said on the radio station. "The goal here is assimilation. The goal here is to strengthen the melting pot which is America, not to separate ourselves out.

"I look to the common values, and the common cultural values which are American -- capitalism, democracy, freedom and obviously a common language. ... I really believe the incredible support my statement has received from all around the state reflects the vast majority view," he said.

The Hispanic activists in Baltimore said the Ehrlich and Schaefer comments appear to be a continuation of an anti-immigrant movement that is permeating the state capital.

"Since the beginning of the session in Annapolis, we have been receiving attacks from delegates and other people," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland.

The governor was defended yesterday by Luis Borunda, a Baltimore businessman and chairman of Hispanic Republicans of Maryland, who said Ehrlich has reinvigorated Hispanic outreach and minority business efforts in the state.

"The political enemies of this Administration are rearing their heads and see multiculturalism as their opportunity to try and make the governor appear as though he is somehow anti-minority," Borunda said in a statement. "Multiculturalism seeks to undermine the fabric of America by putting our differences ahead of our commonality."

Four activists with CASA of Maryland Inc. and another group yesterday filed the ethics complaint. The activists alleged that Impallaria angrily accused a Hispanic lobbyist of being an illegal alien after a hearing March 18 on a failed bill that would have created a task force to study the "financial impact of illegal immigrants on Maryland's job market."

The complaint also asserts that McDonough pushed a union leader who tried to intervene in the argument, requiring police intervention.

McDonough, a 60-year-old radio talk-show host from Middle River, said his confrontation with an activist was not a push, but that contact occurred when he raised his arm to defend himself from a union leader who rushed at him.

He said the ethics complaint was an attempt to intimidate and silence him.

"The American people want something done about the problem of illegals," said McDonough. "This is a nation of immigrants, but it's a nation of legal immigrants and a nation of laws."

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