HARTFORD, Conn. — The Connecticut mayor who made a quip about tacos when asked what he could do for his town's besieged Latino community has no plans to step down, though calls for his resignation grew Thursday in his community and statewide.
East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. apologized for the comment made during a taped interview Tuesday about the FBI's arrest of four town police officers accused of harassing East Haven's Hispanic population, and he is asking residents to have faith in him.
He has said he doesn't plan to leave the mayoral post, a position he has held off and on since 1997 in this predominantly white, blue-collar city on the shore of Long Island Sound where the Hispanic population has spiked in recent years.
On Thursday, Maturo spent most of the morning in meetings, emerging only to present a proclamation to a longtime employee.
Emotions were still raw among many residents of the town, 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.
The 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.
The video of Maturo's comments has spread on Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and media websites. They also 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 600 supporters Thursday, and an advocacy group for immigrants announced plans to deliver a single taco as a protest symbol to Maturo's office.
That group, Reform Immigration for America, also asked people to text the word TACO as a show of concern over the comment, received more than 2,200 and planned to send about 500 tacos to an East Haven-area soup kitchen.
East Haven has been under federal scrutiny since the U.S. Justice Department launched a civil rights probe in 2009 that found a pattern of discrimination and biased policing against Latinos, who make up 10 percent of the city's 28,000 residents.
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 town's Democratic Party is demanding the resignation of Maturo, a Republican, and he has fielded criticism from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, and other state and local officials.
Others in East Haven said people are being too sensitive.
"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."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
Associated Press reporter Michael Melia and photographer Jessica Hill also contributed to this story from East Haven.