Perturbed by his difficulty ordering food at a local McDonald's restaurant, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer unleashed a tirade against Maryland residents who don't speak English yesterday - prompting criticism that his comments showed a lack of tolerance for other cultures.
The former governor aired his complaints about non-English speakers at a meeting of the state Board of Public Works, on which he serves. Schaefer frequently uses the board as a forum to express his often-controversial views, whether or not they have anything to do with board business.
He said his comments were prompted by a recent visit to McDonald's during which the woman taking his order didn't speak English. The language barrier, he said, delayed the transaction.
"I don't want to adjust to another language. This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us," the comptroller complained. "The people who come here should become part of American [sic], become Americanized and speak the language."
Schaefer also vented his ire at McDonald's for distributing bags with "every language on there except English." He said he wouldn't return to that McDonald's anytime soon but did not specify which restaurant he had patronized.
McDonald's Corp. did not immediately respond yesterday to a call to its Illinois headquarters. The company is in the midst of a global advertising campaign around its "I'm lovin' it" tag line, and some restaurant bags and cups feature the slogan in many languages.
The head of a group that advocates for the rights of immigrants called Schaefer's comments "unacceptable for a politician" and said the comptroller should be held to the same rules as others who hold public office.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, said Schaefer's remarks show "a lack of tolerance and a lack of respect for different cultures and languages."
Torres said Schaefer doesn't understand the obstacles immigrants face.
"Our Latino and immigrant communities are working very hard to improve their English. We have a big waiting list because we don't have enough space or funding to provide additional English classes," Torres said. He added that Maryland ranks behind West Virginia in its funding of language education for adults.
The comptroller's comments were not appropriate for a pub-
lic meeting, said Del. Susan C. Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat who is one of two Asian-Americans in the General Assembly.
"I think every immigrant group that comes here is trying to learn English the best they can. They know that in order to succeed you have to learn English. I know that is how my grandparents felt," said Lee, who is of Chinese descent.
In his remarks, which lasted about two minutes at the opening of the meeting, Schaefer said he had a similar experience yesterday morning at the same fast-food chain.
"I went today, the same thing, only there was a lady from a different country," he said. "And one of our, one of our American citizens [was assisting her]. I gave my order to the new girl. Nice little girl. She was very accommodating. The little girl beside her had to take the order. People are wondering, 'What the heck is this?'"
Fellow board members Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, sitting in for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp listened to Schaefer without commenting.
Kopp said later in the day that she disagreed with Schaefer's remarks, which she said were not "appropriate or necessary," and regrets that she didn't say something at the time.
"America's great strength is its diversity and Americans owe a great debt to immigrants over the years, including Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi," Kopp said. In Schaefer's defense, she noted that later in the meeting he expressed support for increased funding for Montgomery County schools because of the large number of non-English speakers they serve.
Regan D. Hopper, a spokesman for Steele, declined to comment on Schaefer's remarks.
Michael Golden, a Schaefer spokesman, said after the meeting that he did not know when the first incident occurred or where the McDonald's was though he believes it was near the comptroller's Severna Park home. He said he could not reach Schaefer for a response to the criticism of his remarks.
In his remarks, the comptroller indicated that he knew he would be seen as politically incorrect.
"Of course I'll most likely lose all the Latin votes and all the other votes. But it is just not right. It is not right," he said.
Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said Schaefer frequently gets away with remarks that would not be accepted from Ehrlich, Mayor Martin O'Malley or most other politicians.
"He has an image now as a grumpy old man, so people kind of expect this kind of thing from him," Crenson said.
He noted, however, that while immigrants don't make up a large proportion of Schaefer's Baltimore base, they can have a significant impact in a statewide Democratic primary.
"There are plenty of Latinos in the Washington suburbs and he's going to hear from them," Crenson said. He added that if Schaefer seeks re-election in 2006 at age 85, "he may face another form of discrimination - that directed against age."