AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Democrats attempted to ratchet up the pressure on GOP gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage on Tuesday, accusing the candidate of potentially slanderous statements against a Democratic party official.
The chairman of the Maine Republican Party, meanwhile, fired back by suggesting that Democrats are focusing on creationism and other social issues in an effort to distract voters from the economic problems facing Maine.
“Rather than talk about the issues, this is the only way they can beat this guy,” said Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine GOP.
On Tuesday, Democratic officials once again called on LePage to apologize for statements over the weekend in which he said that the Democrats’ 2010 campaign manager, Arden Manning, had suggested LePage was not fit to be governor because he is Catholic and of French Canadian descent.
Manning has denounced the accusation as “a lie, plain and simple.” And on Tuesday, the Maine Democratic Party insinuated that LePage’s statements could land him in legal hot water — even while citing the controversy in an appeal for campaign donations.
“If Mr. LePage made this statement with reckless disregard of the truth, it could potentially be ruled as slander against Mr. Manning,” Dan Walker, the party’s chief legal counsel, said in a statement. “We would encourage Mr. LePage to publicly admit that this false statement was a mistake.”
The LePage campaign declined to comment on the issue or to make the candidate available for interviews.
The brouhaha began Saturday during a “whistle-stop” fundraiser for LePage. During an interview on the train with several reporters, including a representative of the Bangor Daily News, the Waterville mayor lamented that “there is a lot of racism in Maine.”
He mentioned Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s against Catholic French Canadians living and working in the state but also suggested discrimination against Maine’s smaller ethnic groups still occurs — including to himself.
“My opponents are saying that I am not fit to be a governor because I am French Catholic,” LePage said, according to a recording of the interview supplied by the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
Asked to be more specific, LePage said such comments have been made on a number of blogs. He then named Manning specifically.
“The guy, his name is Arden Manning. [He] is the guy that is spilling this garbage,” LePage said.
“He is saying that because of your French Catholicism you are not fit?” pressed MPBN’s Susan Sharon.
“Yeah,” LePage replied. “He calls me a creationist. I tried it, though. I did try. I went to the river and tried to part it and it didn’t move. I tried to walk across my pool and I sunk,” he said with a laugh.
Democrats still were not chuckling three days later, however.
Manning acknowledged again Tuesday criticizing LePage’s statements on creationism and other issues. But Manning denounced as “lies” any suggestion that he opposed LePage because he was French Canadian or Catholic.
Manning said neither he nor the Democratic Party has ever mentioned LePage’s religious affiliation or French Canadian heritage — a claim supported by a review of the party’s public e-mails and press releases. Manning said he does not even maintain a blog, and his Facebook page did not contain any references to LePage’s religion or ethnicity.
“I have concerns because it is a lie from somebody who is running for governor,” Manning said Tuesday. “And I have concerns from a personal perspective because these are lies about me personally.”
Creationism has cropped up during both the primary campaign and since. LePage has said that he believes children should be taught “everything possible and let them make their own minds up about how they want to live their lives.”
But he has also said local schools should decide educational policy. And he has said that jobs, not social issues, should be the focus of the gubernatorial campaign.
“We have to concentrate on jobs, fiscal responsibility, accountability and having common-sense regulations for the state of Maine,” LePage said in June.
As the leader of the Maine Democratic Party’s 2010 campaign effort, Manning has repeatedly verbally attacked LePage’s policy stances since he won the GOP nomination in early June.
Many of those missives use LePage quotes in an attempt to paint the candidate as a right-wing extremist or “Tea Party darling” out of step with mainstream voters.
And while relatively few of Maine Democrats’ written attacks have mentioned creationism, Democrats have already made creationism a talking point and are expected to continue hammering away at the issue through November.
For instance, in a July 6 e-mail to Democratic faithful seeking campaign contributions, Manning refers to LePage as “woefully out of touch with mainstream voters” and as “an unabashed agent of the Christian Right.”
“He opposes the Maine Human Rights Act, does not support a woman’s right to choose, and he is opposed to any recognition of same sex families in Maine,” Manning wrote. “He also believes that his religious views on creationism should be taught in Maine’s public schools.
“He calls the Christian theory of creationism a fact and says it is ‘a learning tool for our kids,’” Manning wrote. “Creationism is for Sunday school. Science is for public school.”
But Webster, chairman of the Maine GOP, sees no reason for LePage to apologize. According to Webster, Democrats have been targeting LePage’s religion and French Canadian upbringing by painting him as an extremist.
“They have attacked him from the first day because he is French Catholic,” Webster said. “They have talked about creationism and abortion and to me that is saying because you share French Catholic values, you are not fit to be governor of Maine.”
Webster accused Democrats of taking a page from their 2006 playbook, when they also aired ads targeting GOP nominee Chandler Woodcock on the creationism issue. But Webster said he believes the ploy will backfire this year.
“They can’t debate the issues,” he said. “They have created this problem of where Maine is today.”
During the whistle-stop tour, LePage also caused a dust-up when he made a joke about the age of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell. Noting that Mitchell recently celebrated her 70th birthday, LePage, who is 61, said he was concerned about her and that “I think we should send her home.”
That prompted complaints from the Mitchell campaign as well as the AARP. During a call to WVOM radio’s “George Hale-Ric Tyler Show” on Tuesday morning, LePage apologized to Mitchell but also accused the media of taking his joke out of context. He then said he would communicate with the media only in writing in the future.