PORTLAND, Maine — The charge made by a former LePage Cabinet member that the governor isn’t interested in working with the city of Portland because it was “against him” has prompted a response from the state’s largest community.
In a statement issued after his resignation Wednesday, former Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Norman Olsen wrote that Gov. Paul LePage had rejected further collaboration with Portland to attempt to reinvigorate the groundfishing industry in the city.
“Portland was against him, he said, and we will not work with that city. Rather than work with Portland, he said, we’ll build a new port somewhere,” Olsen wrote.
Adam Fisher, a spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage, disputed those comments Thursday, saying the governor never said what Olsen is claiming.
“The governor doesn’t make decisions based on who voted for him or who didn’t,” said Fisher. “His interests are what are the best policies for the state of Maine.”
Fisher noted LePage’s recent support of a tax break on diesel fuel used for fishing boats, aimed specifically at encouraging the industry to operate out of Portland instead of Gloucester, Mass.
LePage said Thursday night that Olsen’s problem was a communication issue.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” he said. What Olsen said Wednesday is “absolutely incorrect. The man does not want oversight and he wants to run it his way or the highway and he took the highway on his own.”
Olsen resigned Wednesday citing antagonism from the fishing community, resistance to his initiatives by DMR staff, and a lack of support from LePage among the reasons.
The comments Olsen subsequently attributed to LePage about Portland quickly prompted a letter from Mayor Nicholas Mavodones, who is seeking a meeting with the governor.
“I trust you understand that regardless of the veracity of these statements, the public and the city of Portland need to be reassured that economic development in all Maine communities, both large and small, are a priority for the governor’s office,” Mavodones wrote. “More germane to Mr. Olsen’s claim is a need to clearly understand your commitment to the state’s marine industries of which groundfishing has and continues to be an integral part.”
Mavodones noted that Portland has worked with every governor “to expand economic opportunity and spur growth for all industries including marine-based businesses.” That included such developments as the International Marine Terminal lease agreement with the Maine Port Authority to expand cargo shipping and the passage of recent legislation creating exemption for the purchase of fuel for local groundfishing boats, he wrote.
“Statements implying that the governor’s office ‘will not work’ with Portland, true or not, are harmful to the business climate both locally and statewide,” Mavodones wrote. “I hope that you will clear this matter up publicly by reassuring local business owners and employees that the economic engine of Portland is, and will continue to be, an important priority for your administration, and by meeting with city officials and members of the groundfishing industry to discuss ways we can work together to help bring our groundfishing fleet and the jobs and economic opportunity that comes with them back to Maine.”
The governor’s office released a statement Thursday saying Acting Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, who replaced Olsen, has contacted Mavodones to “reaffirm the administration’s willingness to work directly with the city toward the shared goal of revitalizing the groundfishing fleet in this critically important port.”
Groundfisherman Terry Alexander, a prominent figure in the industry, said he hadn’t heard Olsen’s allegations about LePage’s views on Portland.
“I think he’s screwing up badly if he doesn’t want to work with the city of Portland in the fishing game — it’s a huge mistake, if it’s true,” said Alexander.
There is a lot the state and city need to work together on to support the industry, said Alexander, who runs two boats out of Cundys Harbor, the Jocka and the Rachel T, landing fish in Portland and Massachusetts. Issues include dealing with the sales tax on fuel, draggers landing lobsters and infrastructure needs along the waterfront.
“They certainly need to build that back up because groundfishing is on the rebound,” said Alexander. “There’s a lot of fish being landed, and they’re all being landed down south [in Boston].”
Christopher Hall, vice president at the Portland Regional Chamber, said he thought the governor and the Portland business community had a strong relationship. LePage met with Chamber officials before last November’s election,spoke briefly at an Eggs and Issues breakfast the Friday after the election andheld his first “Capitol for a Day” in Portland. And the governor has confirmed he will be the guest speaker at the October Eggs and Issues, Hall added.
“That’s what I know. I know the business community in Portland has a warm and continuing relationship with the governor, and I expect it will continue,” said Hall. “I have no idea what the commissioner was talking about.”
Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that Portland is the state’s largest economic booster, with an oversized number of jobs and revenue coming from the area.
In a 2007 Policy One Research report done for the Portland Regional Chamber, researchers said that 38.9 percent of the state’s population was in the Portland area, as were 42.4 percent of the jobs. The region also represented 44.2 percent of total state personal income, and 42.7 percent of gross state product.
But in addition to being seen as an economic engine, Portland is also widely seen as a Democratic stronghold in the state, jokingly referred to by some as “the People’s Republic of Portland.” In 2010, LePage won the Republican primary in Portland handily, with 909 votes. Second place went to Portland resident Steve Abbott with 558 votes. But LePage came in third in the general election in Portland, receiving just over 19 percent of the vote with 5,153 votes. Unenrolled candidate Eliot Cutler took Portland with 12,023 votes, and Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell came in second with 8,440.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, suggested that the source of the statement — Olsen, a former U.S. State Department official — gave a degree of heft to the allegations.
“This is a troubling statement by a commissioner who was unanimously approved by the Marine Resources Committee and by the full Senate,” said Alfond. “I fully believe that something was said about the city of Portland — and that’s troubling because the governor of the state of Maine represents the entire state of Maine, and if he is against any Maine community because of how they voted in the past election, or how he believes he’s perceived in that community, it undercuts his credibility and people’s belief that he is working for the entire state.”
Alfond said he believed the Republican party leaders were targeting Portland and other service-center communities, and pointed to changes in the formula for school funds that moves almost $1 million in funds from Portland to rural schools and cuts to human services as examples.
In response, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he was “sorry that Senator Alfond remains so embittered about his failure to convince the Legislature that the flawed … school funding formula should remain unchanged.”
“It’s puzzling that Justin would cast this issue in such partisan terms, given that the bill had bipartisan sponsorship and bipartisan support in both the House and Senate,” Raye said. “LD 1274 is not unfair to Portland. The fact is that Portland will still get more state education funding over the next two years, just not as much more as it would have if the flaws in the EPS funding formula had remained unchecked.”
Brian Duff, a political scientist at the University of New England, said the LePage administration has turned out to be a “profoundly unpredictable thing.” This latest brouhaha is part and parcel of that, said Duff.
“Paul LePage definitely has a habit of speaking off the cuff. Who knows if he really said that? On the other hand, it’s not going to strike anybody as out of character,” said Duff.
But, said Duff, if LePage did make that comment to Olsen, the governor is correct.
“Portland is against him. When he runs for re-election, he’s going to lose the city of Portland by a massive percentage,” Duff said.
Duff said the city and state do need to work together, but he also anticipated the governor would play to his supporters, as well.
“Is Paul LePage going to be more responsive to the northern half of the state? Definitely,” said Duff. “I don’t think that’s so surprising.”
Mavodones’ push to meet with the governor was equally unsurprising, said Duff.
“For a city like Portland, for traditional Maine moderates who are trying to decide the best way of dealing with this administration, you look for these little openings,” he said.
And while Duff didn’t see LePage winning Portland in a re-election bid, he did argue that a stronger state economic picture in several years would be important to any such campaign.
“If he wants the Maine economy to begin to speed up a little bit, a lot of that has to happen in Portland,” Duff said.