THORNDIKE, Maine — Flanked by his commissioners, Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday night tackled questions on topics that included education reform, job creation, property tax reform and teachers’ pensions during a town hall event at Mount View High School.
Most of his answers were received warmly from the majority of the 150 people in the room. But an angry outburst from the mother of a dead soldier who accused the governor of being a draft dodger was a dark counterpoint to the otherwise cheery tone of the event, which capped Waldo County’s service as Maine’s Capitol for a Day.
Ryan Drake of Unity asked one of the first questions, which elicited a long, enthusiastic response from LePage.
“What’s being done to bring new businesses into the state?” he asked.
The governor said that his administration so far has worked to streamline regulations and to reform health care, but that the next problem is the matter of Maine’s high energy costs. He said that some Southern states pay half as much for electricity as Maine does.
“If that problem isn’t solved, we will not prosper,” he said, adding that he’ll be going after energy costs in January.
Something else that must be fixed in order to attract business is the state’s education system, he said, gesturing around him at the nearly new school complex.
“You see this most beautiful building,” LePage said. “We spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to build beautiful schools, but we will not pay our teachers. That is disgraceful.”
He said that businesspeople have good jobs available but not qualified workers to fill those positions, even though the state’s unemployment rate tops 7 percent.
“People looking for jobs don’t have the skills to take them on,” LePage said. “We’re going to elevate the standard and push kids a lot harder in schools. We’re going to make sure teachers have proficiency in the courses they teach. Not just a teaching certificate.”
He and Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen have been excited by pilot education programs that seem to be making positive changes for students. LePage also said that Maine no longer can expect every student to aspire to go on to college.
“We’ve taken shop, home economics and business courses out of our schools and put them into tech centers. We call them second-class citizens,” he said. “We’ve got to change that.”
Then it was Catherine Burns of Skowhegan’s turn to take the microphone. First she elicited applause from the audience when she asked who among them had served in the military. Then she held aloft a photograph of her son, U.S. Army Sgt. Brett Pelotte, who died in 2003 of a heart attack while serving in South Korea. Burns sounded near tears when she accused the governor of dodging the draft when he went to live in Canada during the early 1970s while the Vietnam War was raging.
LePage said he wasn’t a draft dodger and went to Canada to marry his college sweetheart. He told her his draft number and said that during anti-war protests at Husson College during that turbulent era, he stood firmly on the side of the military.
“I am very sorry you lost your son. I am very proud of every military person,” he said.
But that didn’t placate Burns, who wore a “61 percent” sticker signifying her opposition to LePage.
“You are a hypocrite!” she shouted, raising the ire of the audience in the high school auditorium.
“You’re a liar!” a man yelled at her from the back of the room.
Burns left, going to the hallway to collect herself.
“I’ve had it with the denials of why he went to Canada,” she said. “I don’t like hypocrisy. I don’t like liars.”
Meanwhile, back in the auditorium, Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Robert Winglass, who is also a retired Marine general, defended the governor.
“There’s nobody I know who’s more patriotic than our governor,” Winglass said. “He looks out for veterans. All of us can be very proud.”
When the town hall continued, a man from Freedom told the governor he recently had moved home from Ohio, where his adult daughter with Down syndrome worked in a YMCA as part of a day program.
They registered in Maine for her to take part in a similar program but were told that there are 100 people like her on the waiting list and that no one has come off the waiting list in years.
“I know that I’m speaking for someone who has no voice, and for a population that’s very vulnerable and powerless,” the man said. “I think that not only is she being very discriminated against, she has tremendous gifts to offer.”
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew called those waiting lists “a crime.”
“We truly are committed to understanding how we can identify resources to absolutely reduce those waiting lists,” she said.
A small percentage of people with mental disabilities absorb a significant amount of the state’s resources, she said.
“We’re looking at making changes to start to free up additional resources,” Mayhew said. “We can’t be all things to all people. But we’d better be serving our most vulnerable population.”
After the event, many said that they appreciated having the governor and his commissioners come to them and listen to their concerns.
“I thought it was a good start,” said Clem Blakney of Unity. “Very informative. It was good to hear good, honest answers.”
Outside the school, a Searsport couple discussed Burns’ outburst.
“It upset a lot of people. It was a personal attack,” said Judy Otis, a U.S. Navy veteran.
Her husband, Norman Otis, said that he is sorry for Burns’ loss but that her comments seemed “uncalled for.”
“It was quite disrespectful. Not the time or place,” he said.