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Maine governor restarts MLK Day tradition

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic Governor Janet Mills is renewing a tradition abandoned by her predecessor of celebrating the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with the NAACP in Maine’s largest city.

Mills, the state’s first female governor, is set to participate in a private dialogue Monday with students of color hosted by the Portland chapter of the NAACP at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. She’s also set to deliver public remarks at the event that typically draws 700 people.

Democratic state Representative Rachel Talbot Ross, the longtime president of the NAACP’s Portland branch, said the group is ‘‘excited’’ to have the governor take part after a long hiatus by former Republican governor Paul LePage.

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‘‘We were unfortunately not able to welcome Governor LePage to this event for the eight years he was in office, although we would have truly welcomed him if he had been available,’’ she said.

When LePage took office in January 2011, Portland’s NAACP chapter raised concern over LePage declining several invitations for its events. When a reporter asked LePage about his response to the NAACP, the former governor laughed as he said: ‘‘Tell ‘em to kiss my butt.’’

‘‘If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them,’’ he added, referring to a black Jamaican, Devon Raymond, who was taken in by his family.

LePage added to the controversy when he proclaimed that he would not be ‘‘held hostage’’ by special interest groups, a label that angered civil rights groups.

The governor’s office said LePage had ‘‘scheduling conflicts’’ that prevented him from attending that year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Instead, he attended an NAACP breakfast event in Waterville, where he served as mayor before becoming governor.

Ross said she’s happy for Mills’s return to longstanding tradition followed by past governors of attending the largest MLK Day event in the state.

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‘‘We’re always humbled to have the governor join us in this observance, and it affords our young people the opportunity to engage with our highest elected officials in the state in an atmosphere that is both reflective and purposeful, but also celebratory in many ways,’’ she said.

Mills, for her part, said she wants to welcome diverse voices into the public conversation.

‘‘She wants to ensure that everyone — the young, immigrants, people of different cultures, people of different color, people of different orientations — feel at home in Maine,’’ her spokesman Scott Ogden said in a statement.