Gov. Paul LePage traveled to Washington County on Thursday to make a macho show of defiance of the federal government and take credit for a change for which he deserves little.
LePage’s problem? There was no federal edict left to defy by the time he arrived at the public boat launch at Cobscook Bay State Park, and the matter he was taking credit for settling was one he could have solved — but didn’t — with a few phone calls and collaboration rather than a made-for-TV standoff.
What Maine residents witnessed was a LePage more concerned about political showmanship — especially when he can lambaste Democratic President Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, his Democratic opponent in next year’s gubernatorial race — than solving problems in a productive fashion.
It all happened after employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service barred access to the Cobscook Bay State Park boat launch, a ramp used regularly by a few dozen fishermen.
The boat launch is a part of Cobscook Bay State Park, which is located in the federal Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge but which Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry operates under a lease arrangement with the federal government.
The refuge and the state park within it shut down on Oct. 1 when the 16-day partial government shutdown began. While no barricades went up at first to block access to the boat launch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees left notices on the windshields of vehicles parked nearby stating the refuge was closed.
County and state officials say they received word from the federal government during the second week of the shutdown that the public would be allowed access to the boat launch despite the notices left on windshields. But last week, Fish and Wildlife Service employees erected wooden, orange barriers at the launch entrance.
From the federal government, we saw an unneeded zeal to close off a public space such as the Cobscook Bay State Park boat launch, which is managed jointly by Washington County and state government. The federal government incurred an unnecessary cost to enforce the boat launch’s closure.
From LePage, we saw an exaggeration of the entire matter. Fishermen, after all, had simply pushed aside the wooden sawhorses so they could go about their business and use the boat launch.
On Tuesday, LePage’s office announced the governor’s plans to travel to the boat launch to publicly call on the Obama administration to reopen the launch.
Meanwhile, Michaud’s office had started working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a day earlier to address the boat launch’s closure. The next day, the congressman’s staff received unofficial word from the agency that its employees wouldn’t enforce the boat launch’s closure. On Wednesday, the guidance became official, so Michaud’s office — along with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s and Sen. Angus King’s offices — formally announced the news in a press release.
“It appears that after my administration raised this issue on behalf of local fishermen, Congressman Michaud has announced federal agents will stop enforcing their barricade,” LePage shot back in a news release of his own a couple hours later. “The questions are then: why is Mr. Michaud announcing policy and why did it take my announcement of a visit for him to take action?”
By the time LePage visited the boat launch Thursday, the federal government had reopened, making his point largely moot. But his point had already been made moot days earlier: While he issued bombastic statements about the boat launch’s closure, others — from both parties and all levels of government — were handling the matter behind the scenes.
If LePage felt strongly enough about solving the problem, he could have gone the collaborative route. He could have reached out to members of the state’s congressional delegation and worked with them to resolve what, in the end, was a simple federal matter.
Instead, he was more interested in scoring political points against the president and his Democratic rival for the Blaine House.