By Michael Melia
EAST HAVEN, Conn. — The office of East Haven's mayor was blasted with prank phone calls and a delivery of hundreds of tacos Thursday after his now-famous quip that he would address accusations of anti-Latino bias by eating tacos, a remark that left emotions raw in the town's large Hispanic community.
Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. has apologized several times but resisted calls for his resignation over remarks he made to a television reporter following Tuesday's arrests of four town police officers, men described by one FBI official as "bullies with badges."
Maturo held regular meetings Thursday as Connecticut's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission called on him to resign.
"The Latino community is upset and deeply wounded in what should have been a day of redemption for them," the commission's acting executive director, Werner Oyandel, said in a written statement, calling the comment "unprofessional and given in poor taste."
An immigration rights group, Reform Immigration for America, delivered 400 tacos to his Town Hall office in protest, though Maturo had left shortly beforehand for a meeting. A soup kitchen picked up the tacos, but one was left symbolically for the mayor.
In a statement released by his office, Maturo said the abundance of tacos highlights the need for healing in the town.
"The events of the past few days have focused our Town, and my administration, on the need to deal sensitively and compassionately with the challenges currently facing our Town," he said.
His office fielded a steady flow of calls, some with prank comments about tacos and others from supporters who want him to stay in his job.
Maturo has been mayor off and on since 1997 in this predominantly white, blue-collar town on the shore of Long Island Sound where Latino residents comprise about 10 percent of its population of 29,000. East Haven has been under federal scrutiny since the U.S. Justice Department launched a civil rights probe in 2009 that found discrimination and biased policing against Latinos.
A federal indictment accuses the four police officers of assaulting people while they were handcuffed, unlawfully searching Latino businesses, and harassing and intimidating people, including advocates, witnesses and other officers who tried to investigate or report misconduct or abuse.
The taco flap came after a reporter for New York's WPIX-TV asked Maturo on Tuesday, "What are you doing for the Latino community today?"
Maturo's response: "I might have tacos when I go home; I'm not quite sure yet."
Maturo, who is of Italian heritage, then said he might have spaghetti or any other kind of ethnic food, growing increasingly angry as he told Diaz to "go for it, take your best shot" to make the "taco" comment seem to imply something he did not intend.
He has called himself a "jerk" for the comment, which he called an off-the-cuff quip made at the end of a long, stressful day of interviews.
The video of Maturo's comments has spread across the Internet on social networks and media websites. It led Connecticut's largest paper, The Hartford Courant, to call for his resignation in an editorial that declared: "The Mayor is an Idiot." A Facebook page demanding Maturo's resignation had more than 750 supporters Thursday afternoon.
The town's Democratic Party is demanding the resignation of Maturo, a Republican, and he has fielded criticism from state and local officials including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who said on a conference call Thursday from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Maturo's remarks were "pretty bone-headed."
Many residents were still angry Thursday in East Haven, where 38-year-old Jose Tapia, a cook originally from Ecuador, joked, "We've got tacos!" as he left a bakery with a bag of bread.
"I took it as a joke, but deep inside, it's the true version of racist, that comment," he said.
Pedro Gutierrez, the owner of the Guti'z Bakery, said the comment showed the mayor is out of touch because many Latinos in East Haven are from Ecuador, where tacos are not a part of cuisine, as they are in Mexico. But he said it also shows disrespect for all Hispanics.
"He clearly thinks of us as a third-class people," he said.
Others were more forgiving, saying they viewed the comment as a misstep, but not something that should end Maturo's political career.
Others in East Haven said people are being too sensitive.
Paul Esposito, 70, a lifelong resident, made a special trip Thursday to East Haven Town Hall to express his support, telling Maturo's receptionists, "I don't want him to resign. People make mistakes all the time."
Those who know Maturo say that he's not an idiot or a bigot, but that if the taco comment was meant to be a joke, it was clearly a misstep they think he genuinely regrets.
"It's baloney. They're making a mountain out of a molehill," said Michael Liso, 65, who said he worked as a firefighter with Maturo and has known him for 40 years. "That's why you put erasers on pencils. ... It's over and done with. Now let's move forward."
Maturo, 60, asked East Haven residents in a written apology Wednesday to "have faith in me" and the town. Whether he can make peace soon with Latino residents upset by his taco comment remains to be seen.
Marcia Chacon, a native of Ecuador and co-owner of My Country Store, said the one remark by Maturo destroyed some of the goodwill he had earned in the community by hosting a recent open house with the police department.
"We realized that he is a racist person," she said. "We realized it is worse than we thought."
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Maturo has said he will no longer publicly discuss the quip. Messages left for several of his political allies at the state and local levels were not immediately returned Wednesday and Thursday.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press