EAST HAVEN—Mayor Joseph Maturo insisted he would not resign on Thursday, even while an immigration reform group brought hundreds of tacos to his office in response to his comment this week that he "might have tacos" to support the Latino community.
A swarm of media crews fought for room while more than a dozen stern-faced protesters crowded into town hall carrying aluminum trays of warm tacos.
"Hopefully you know now that your comments have only heightened the racial tensions and help to explain how the kind of racial intolerance uncovered by the United States Department of Justice was allowed to take hold of the East Haven police department," said Latrina Kelly of Junta For Progressive Action. They read statements in English and Spanish.
The mayor was out of the office at the time, being interviewed by a local television station. His staff handed out a prepared statement in response to the demonstration. It said the taco deliveries highlight the need for a continued "process of healing and reform that I initiated immediately upon taking office."
The tacos were taken to local soup kitchens and food pantries. One was left for Maturo.
"With this delivery, we are sending an open invitation to Mayor Maturo to start an honest dialogue with the Latino community," the group, Reform Immigration For America, said on its website.
Some local Hispanics say the mayor's statement shows a lack of understanding and interest in the community.
"It's like he's saying, 'OK, I'll go out and show my face at a Hispanic restaurant,'" Pedro Gutierrez, the owner of the Guti'z bakery said. "He doesn't even know most people are Ecuadoreans here," since tacos are native to Mexico and not part of traditional Ecuadorean cuisine.
Oni Siosom, an East Haven resident of Filipino descent, who opposed Maturo in the 2011 election, stood by the mayor.
"I have known Joe Maturo for more than 30 years," Siosom said. "I have not known him to be a racist or a bigot."
Maturo has been at the center of a controversy since WPIX-TV reporter Mario Diaz asked him what he was going to do for East Haven's Latino community in the wake of the arrest of four police officers on harassment and intimidation charges.
"I might have tacos when I go home. I'm not quite sure yet," he said.
He later apologized, saying he meant no harm by what he called a "flippant" remark.
"If it harmed anybody or hurt anybody, I apologize," Maturo said. "Yeah, it's probably a little insensitive, but it was late in the day."
The police officers were arrested Tuesday after a long federal investigation. There are charged with crimes against members of the town's Latino community ranging from beating handcuffed suspects to obstructing justice.
They are all facing sentences of 10 years or longer if convicted.
The immigration group announced on Wednesday that they would bring the mayor a taco for every person who sent them a text message with the word "TACO."
The group received more than 3,500 text messages by Thursday, the website said.
"We just delivered 500 tacos to the mayor's office as a visual of all those across the country who are outraged by his careless remarks," they said.
The mayor's office released a statement in which it said it received "over 2,000 tacos."
"Recognizing that there are many in need in our State, we have arranged for all of the tacos to be donated to local soup kitchens and pantries including the 'Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen' in New Haven," the statement reads.
"The abundance of tacos that we received today underscores the importance of the issues currently facing the Town of East Haven and highlights the need for the Town to continue the process of healing and reform that I initiated immediately upon taking office. … 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. We will continue to address those challenges while also striving to provide the services our residents have come to expect."
On Wednesday, Maturo issued an apology.
"My sincerest apologies go out to the East Haven community and, in particular, the Latino community for the insensitive and off-collar comment that I made to WPIX reporter Mario Diaz yesterday regarding the recent events affecting our community and our police department," the statement reads.
Community leaders and elected officials, including Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, have been critical of Maturo's initial comment and his response when questioned on it.
"The comments … are repugnant," Malloy said in a statement released by his office on Wednesday. "They represent either a horrible lack of judgment or worse, an underlying insensitivity to our Latino community that is unacceptable."
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said that he was disgusted by Maturo's comment.
"Many have worked diligently to correct the painful history of racism in this country, and Mayor Maturo's comments are a disappointing example of how far we still have to go to," he said.
Members of the NAACP and others also criticized the remarks. The chairman of the East Haven Democratic Party called for his resignation, but Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. Stood by the Republican mayor.
"Mayor Joe Maturo is a dedicated public servant,'' Labriola said. "He works for all of the citizens of East Haven and I'm confident he can pull his community together and move forward."
"He made an inappropriate remark and he's apologized for it,'' Labriola said Wednesday.
A Facebook page called "East Haven Taxpayers Calling For Mayor Maturo to Resign" started Wednesday asks people to post a link to their wall. The page had more than 800 "likes" Thursday evening.
Federal prosecutors argued in court that one of the four police officers arrested — Dennis Spaulding — was so dangerous that he should be barred from entering East Haven while his case is pending.
Besides Spaulding, the other officers arrested were Jason Zullo, David Cari and Sgt. John Miller.
Miller and Cari were arrested at the East Haven Police Department just as their shift was ending early Tuesday. Miller was whisked out so quickly that he left his service pistol on his desk.
All but Zullo were released late Tuesday after pleading not guilty and posting bail ranging from $100,000 to $300,000. Zullo posted bail and was released to home confinement on Thursday. He is not permitted to travel into East Haven or to have contact with co-defendants, victims or witnesses, officials said.