AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to remove a mural depicting the history of the labor movement in Maine struck a raw nerve as critics lashed out in correspondence that poured in from all corners of the country, with several dozen writing letters vowing to cancel summer vacations.
The raw outpouring of emotion, with people opposing the governor’s action by a margin of more than 9-to-1, flooded the governor’s office with several thousand emails in less than a month.
“Your attacks on the working class of your state are just appalling to me and, despite my love of the Maine coast, I will not set foot or spend one red cent there,” wrote Audrey Fine Marsh of Media, Pa.
Using Maine’s Freedom of Access law, The Associated Press obtained and reviewed more than 1,000 emails, faxes and letters that poured into LePage’s office in the weeks after he removed the mural that was installed in 2008. Featuring Rosie the Riveter and other figures from Maine’s labor history, the 36-foot mural included 11 panels, each 7 feet tall.
LePage was alerted to the mural by a “secret admirer” who claimed it was an affront. LePage determined it presented a one-sided view that bowed to organized labor.
The ensuing flap came on the heels of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s introduction of a bill that stripped away the right of most public employees to collectively bargain for their benefits and working conditions, whipping up emotions of labor supporters to lash out at both governors.
All told, LePage received more than 2,500 emails, letters and faxes from March 16 through April 8. The AP reviewed 1,135 letters, emails and faxes from across the country; another 1,450 electronic faxes came from people filling out an online form on the website of an advocacy group.
According to AP’s analysis, 92 percent of the individual letters opposed the governor’s action; the figure becomes even more lopsided when the faxes from the advocacy group Maine’s Majority are factored in.
LePage concedes the uproar and lawsuit filed over his actions created an unwanted distraction, but he insists that he did the right thing by taking the mural down. Symbolically speaking, the governor feels that the labor mural suggested the Labor Department cared only about workers, not businesses.
“That needed to happen to create a cultural change in that department and the mentality that both job creators and employees are on a level playing field,” said spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
Some letter-writers agreed with the governor.
“Hang in there. Don’t let the liberal screwballs, the media, the crybabies and the art culture dissuade you from the superb job you’re doing,” wrote Anthony Soychak of Rockwood, Maine.
Said Mary DiGioia, of Alpharetta, Ga.: “Congratulations to you for your courage in taking down the proletariat artwork in the state Department of Labor office.”
But the vast majority opposed the governor’s decision. Diana Dionne-Morang, 2008 history teacher of the year from Gardiner, Maine, wrote that the labor mural serves as “a tribute to the sacrifices and travail of our Maine ancestors that deserves recognition.”
And Deon Gordon of Dallas responded with sarcasm: “If business is not represented here, why not just add a mural of a rich man lighting a cigar with a $1,000 bills?”
The flood of electronic and snail mail overwhelmed the governor’s office, which has only two constituent services workers dedicated to reviewing correspondence and forwarding it to the appropriate contact.
About three-dozen of the more than 200 people who identified themselves as being from out-of-state vowed to vote with their wallets in boycotting Maine, a disturbing development in a state known for its lobster and rocky coast and for which tourism is the biggest industry.
Some said they’d been coming to Maine for years but won’t do so this summer. One vowed to cancel an elaborate wedding expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“Every summer for 11 years my family has traveled to enjoy a vacation in Maine. This year we will not be doing that. Your decision to remove the mural disgusts us. You are a low life. Off to Massachusetts!” wrote Jack Kear of Madison, Wis., reflecting the sentiments of some out-of-staters.
Sentiments like those may make some in the tourism industry uneasy.
“The governor’s tagline is ‘open for business’ and hopefully that tagline will be kept firmly in mind during the all-important summer tourism season and into the future,” said Michael Boland, who operates a pair of restaurants in Bar Harbor and in Portland. He said “every little bit” counts when it comes to tourism.
But Kathryn Weare, general manager and owner of The Cliff House in Ogunquit, described the labor mural brouhaha as a “tempest in a teapot.” She said Maine’s tourism industry is far more concerned about gas prices and consumer confidence as the summer season approaches full swing.
But Marsh, the former vacationer from Pennsylvania, told The AP that politicians like LePage should be mindful of unintended consequences of their actions.
“They’d better watch it because Maine is ‘Vacationland.’ They want all kind of vacationers, not just right-wing vacationers or pro-business vacationers,” she said.