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Maine governor backs away from ‘Gestapo’ comment

PORTLAND, Maine — After causing a furor by comparing the IRS to the Gestapo, Governor Paul LePage backed away from the remark Monday, saying he did not mean to offend the Jewish community or to minimize the Holocaust while attacking President Obama’s health care overhaul.

The Republican governor made the comment in his weekend radio address as he assailed the US Supreme Court ruling that upheld the health care law, saying the decision ‘‘made America less free’’ and gave Americans no choice but to buy health insurance or ‘‘pay the new Gestapo, the IRS.’’

‘‘It was not my intent to ­insult anyone, especially the Jewish community, or minimize the fact that millions of people were murdered,’’ the governor said. ‘‘Clearly, what has happened is that the use of the word Gestapo has clouded my message.’’

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LePage has a well-earned reputation for blunt rhetoric, previously telling the Portland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to ‘‘kiss my butt,’’ calling protesters ­‘‘idiots,’’ referring to state government middle managers as ‘‘corrupt,’’ and even saying he would tell Obama to ‘‘go to hell.’’

His statement on Monday was the closest he has come to an apology.

State Senator Roger Katz, Republican of Augusta, has pointed out that the governor’s rhetoric sometimes overshadows his accomplishments.

‘‘Words do matter,’’ Katz said. “The governor’s choice of them in the radio address is a good example. Invoking the image of the Gestapo when discussing the Affordable Health Care Act was wrong, and I’m glad that he’s backed away from those comments.”

The Gestapo was Adolf ­Hitler’s secret police in Nazi Germany, and it was ruthless in its pursuits, which included assist­ing the Nazi SS in rounding up Jews.

Although he regretted his choice of words, LePage still lambasted the health care law ruling, saying Americans will be forced to endure rationing of health care and that they will be required to buy health care or pay a tax.

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‘‘We no longer are a free people,’’ the governor said in his statement. “With every step that Obamacare moves forward, our individual freedoms are being stripped away by the federal government.”

The governor’s Gestapo ­remark drew a bipartisan ­rebuke from two former state senators: Republican Phil ­Harriman and Democrat Ethan Strimling.

Strimling said the remark represented language that is ‘‘racially charged and ethnically tinged,’’ and Harriman agreed that it was insensitive.

‘‘I just felt that while the word may have been vivid to make his point about how the government has new power, it was equally insensitive to him to not recognize that that word for many people brings back heart-breaking memories,’’ Harriman said.

Robert Bernheim, executive director of the Holocaust & ­Human Rights Center of Maine, urged politicians to avoid apply­ing Nazi terms to democratic institutions and political decisions in America.

‘‘For the governor, in a prepared statement, to equate the work of the IRS to a criminal organ­ization like the Gestapo in order to enhance his criticism of the recent Supreme Court ­decision to uphold so-called Obamacare reflects ignorance of history at best,’’ Bernheim said in a statement.