By Stephanie Reitz
HARTFORD, Conn. — In a world of polished politicians, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr.'s tendency to speak his mind without hesitation or much self-censorship has earned him loyal friends and vehement foes over the decades in his suburban Connecticut hometown.
But now, it's also earned him a place in the national spotlight as the mayor who, after four of his police officers were arrested Tuesday for alleged anti-Latino bias, said he "might have tacos" as a way of doing something for those minorities.
Maturo has since apologized for the remark, which he made during a taped interview at his office with a New York television station and which spread through cyberspace at blistering speed.
It came in response to a reporter's question about the FBI's arrest of the four officers in this shoreline town, which has been under federal scrutiny since the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights probe in 2009 that found a pattern of discrimination and biased policing.
The town's Democratic Party is now demanding the resignation of Maturo, a Republican, and he's fielded criticism from Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy and other state and local officials.
The video of Maturo's comments quickly spread on Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and on media outlet sites late Tuesday and throughout Wednesday. They also prompted Connecticut's largest paper, The Hartford Courant, to call for his resignation in an editorial that declared: "The Mayor is an Idiot."
Those who've known Maturo say 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.
"He's a very regular sort of person, very generous, very loyal, and I know he cares very deeply about all of the people that the represents," said Christopher Healy, a former Connecticut state Republican party chairman.
"This is not at all to underestimate how serious these words were and how hurtful they were to many people, but I do know he takes his job seriously and cares deeply about the community," Healy said.
But Marcia Chacon, a store owner in East Haven, said she and other Latinos took offense at the mayor's "taco" comment.
"This is an insult against us," Chacon said. "I thought `Wow, here we are in East Haven, and this is the person who is supposed to help us.'"
Maturo asked East Haven residents in a written apology Wednesday to "have faith in me" and the town as it faces the discrimination allegations, in which the four officers are accused of engaging in patterns of harassment and intimidation against Latinos, who make up 10 percent of the approximately 28,000 people in the blue-collar town.
Maturo, 60, is an East Haven native through and through. He attended local schools and colleges, became an electrician and electrical inspector, and served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War before returning to his hometown to become a firefighter.
A back injury forced him to leave that job, but he'd developed a bug for politics and served as a legislative clerk for Republicans in the Connecticut General Assembly and won a spot on East Haven's town council in 1993.
He became mayor in 1997 and was re-elected every two years until Democrat April Capone defeated him by 25 votes in 2007.
When he defeated Capone by 34 votes to reclaim the seat last fall, he reinstated the police chief she had suspended amid the federal discrimination probe, and he rebuffed the bias allegations with strong words of support for East Haven's officers.
This week's "taco" quip wasn't the first time that Maturo's tendency to speak and act without much self-censoring has landed him in trouble, though previous scrapes usually only made local headlines.
In 2004, for instance, the mayor — known by friends to be particularly handy — became concerned that one of the town grates was an immediate hazard, so he hopped down into a sewer hole and removed it himself.
He also installed corner edges in his office and helped a worker install light switches in the library, earning a grievance against him from union members who said he was usurping their work with his impromptu repairs.
"Pretty cheesy," he said at the time of the grievance, though they've since made peace.
Whether Maturo can make peace soon with Latino residents upset by his "taco" comment remains to be seen.
Messages left for several of his political allies at the state and local levels were not immediately returned Wednesday, and East Haven's Republican Party chairman was mulling whether he intended to comment publicly.
In addition to issuing his written apology, Maturo talked Wednesday with hosts of a local radio show on which he frequently appears. Otherwise, he has said he would no longer publicly discuss the quip, which he called a "dumb, off the cuff, stupid comment" as he grew increasingly tired Tuesday after 14 interviews.
"In all that time, I made one mistake — and it's gone viral," he told the hosts of WPLR's "Chaz & AJ in the Morning" show.
It came after WPIX-TV reporter Mario Diaz asked Maturo during an interview 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."
Diaz then said, "You realize that's not really the comment to say right now, you `might have tacos tonight'?"
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.
Others said it was hard to interpret the comment as anything but a stereotypical jab.
"It goes to the root of the racial profiling allegations here in East Haven," said city Democratic Town Committee Chairman Gene Ruocco. "Everyone knows the seriousness of this matter and for him, as the leader of our community, to say something so utterly insensitive is a complete disgrace. He should be ashamed of himself."
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press