Maine Gov. Paul LePage is again attracting national and international attention — and stirring debate in the process — after his order to remove a mural depicting the history of the state’s labor movement from the Department of Labor offices.
National outlets such as The New York Times, where the article was No. 8 on the most-emailed list Thursday evening, NPR, CNN, Fox News, USA Today and Politico ran news stories about the controversy on Wednesday and Thursday, sparking concern and mockery from bloggers and TV personalities such as MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart.
The governor’s office continued to defend the move Thursday, calling it a “tangible change” that will help Maine attract more business.
Backing for the move seemed to be coming mostly from Maine, judging by public comments on news websites and an editorial from the Sun Journal of Lewiston, which wrote: “Today’s Department of Labor is not a museum, it is a place where workers and private industry must meet to work through their differences in a purely neutral setting.”
“Moving the mural to the museum where more people will view it is not national news,” said one commenter on the BDN’s website. A post on the conservative website AsMaineGoes stated: “I cannot imagine being a company working with the Department of Labor to solve a labor relations issue and being called to a meeting in the Cesar Chavez” room.
The tone from national media was a bit harsher.
On Thursday’s episode of “The Daily Show,” faux newsman Jon Stewart included the governor’s decision in a segment titled “Governors Gone Wild.”
“The Department of Labor with a mural celebrating labor,” Stewart said, pausing for effect. “Now I’ve seen everything.”
“The mural is one-sided,” Stewart said, referencing LePage’s rationale for removing the painting. Then he quipped, “Do you understand how murals work?”
Stewart joked that a new mural will be installed with panes such as “Daddy Warbucks Gets a Shoeshine” and “Donald Trump Classes Up the Moon.”
Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley and a secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, wrote an article titled “A governor destroys history in the name of promoting business,” published on sites such as the Christian Science Monitor, mocking a comment from a LePage spokesperson that the mural is “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals” by asking, “Are we still in America?”
He noted the history of the labor leaders depicted in the mural and compared the economic challenges they faced to the challenges Americans face now.
“Governor, you might be able to erase some of Maine’s memory, but you’ll have a hard time erasing the nation’s memory — even if it’s not in keeping with your pro-business goals,” he wrote.
A post on the liberal blog Daily Kos mused that “maybe LePage is feeling sensitive because one of the mural’s panels depicts child labor, and he is supporting a rollback of child labor laws,” referring to a bill to increase the hours teens are allowed to work.
And a blogger for British newspaper The Guardian played on a statement that the governor is trying to balance labor and business history:
“Yes, balance. I bet there’s a Martin Luther King statue or avenue or something somewhere in Maine. Shouldn’t there be a nearby Bull Connor Boulevard? In fact they should intersect. Think of p.r. and tourism possibilities, governor!” he wrote.
Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the governor, said the recent national attention — as well as previous coverage of LePage’s remarks by national outlets — hasn’t affected the governor’s pursuit to make Maine more business-friendly, other than tying up the press office.
“Our focus was on making a needed change to decor at the Department of Labor. We’re trying to achieve some balance,” Demeritt said. The national media “can make their own coverage decisions.”
And in the end, Demeritt said, “Any person who’s going to be a good businessperson in Maine is not going to check in with Rachel Maddow before making their decision.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the University of California Berkeley professor. He is Robert Reich, not Richard Reich.