Gov. Paul LePage is no racist. At least not in any classical sense of the word.
Instead, his conduct suggests a lack of awareness or concern with the larger world outside the small circle of mostly older white men he has surrounded himself with. He appears to see little value in understanding perspectives different than his own.
Last week, Gov. LePage answered a critique by the NAACP with a schoolyard epithet that does not befit the highest office in the state. It’s an embarrassment and an insult to the people of Maine and the NAACP, which has earned respect through generations of struggle against violence, hatred, bigotry and oppression.
When the organization was critical of the governor for not attending Martin Luther King Day events and for declining efforts by the group to meet with him, he responded by telling them they could “kiss my butt.”
He then defended his actions by saying he’s very busy and that he has a black son.
During the campaign, the transition and now during his first week in office, the governor has demonstrated a devil-may-care attitude toward the facts, his critics and the image that he is building with the public.
He, and his defenders, have adopted Popeye’s attitude: “I yam what I yam.”
So far, that’s not good enough.
There’s a reason actions like the hiring of his daughter, skipping MLK events and telling the president to “go to hell” and the NAACP to “kiss my butt” receive such negative attention. And it’s not because there’s a liberal media conspiracy aligned against him.
It’s because they’re wrong.
All of the actions can be defended. He hired his daughter, because he needs someone he trusts as an assistant to his chief of staff. His schedule was full, and there are only so many hours in the day. He was joking or indelicate. He’s just a blunt, plainspoken man telling it like he sees it. He uses street language.
It all rings hollow. They’re excuses, not answers.
The governor rightly has great discretion in hiring his personal staff, but those decisions are not above reproach.
Managing the nuances and inherent conflicts of the governor’s schedule is complex and requires practice and experience to handle well. But at the same time, the governor can make things happen that the rest of us can’t. He can arrive late, leave early and have other folks accommodate the demands of his schedule.
Had he wanted, Gov. LePage could have found a way to publicly participate in MLK Day events. In fact, he could have created an event at the time and place of his choosing. In fact and a bit unexpectedly, he did attend an MLK Day breakfast in Waterville.
Inside the echo chamber that develops around any governor, it’s easy to lose the broader perspective. And when your closest advisers look and think like you do, when loyalty is the attribute you value most, the governor puts himself and his agenda at risk.
The political truth of the matter is that the NAACP is not a friendly audience for Gov. LePage. There is risk in meeting the group. There’s an opportunity for uncomfortable questions and an argument. It wouldn’t be the pep rally that his Red Tape Audit Tour generates.
But that doesn’t make the NAACP just another “special interest” group.
With the world watching, the men and women of the NAACP have put themselves on the receiving end of clubs, fire hoses and attack dogs to stand up for the rights of all people. They traded their freedom and, in some cases, their lives for an ideal that is fundamental to our country, that all people are created equal.
Racism, inequality and injustice are not things of the past, suitable for history lessons and little else. Whether you agree with the NAACP on every issue is irrelevant. The struggle for tolerance and equality continues, and the group is on the frontline of the fight.
The members of the group deserve to be treated respectfully, even if a tight schedule and political differences make that hard.
The governor’s staff cringed when he said that the NAACP could kiss his butt.
I’m cringing not because he said it, but because I’m afraid he meant it.
David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at email@example.com.