PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage calmly weathered a torrent of disruptions during a student-organized town hall at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus Tuesday evening.
LePage was interrupted repeatedly during the hourlong event by chants of “black lives matter” from roughly 25 protesters, some of whom shouted profanities at the Republican governor as they were escorted out of USM’s Hannaford Lecture Hall.
“I would say this: All lives matter. All lives matter,” LePage responded, as a handful of protesters chanted and others among the roughly 100 people in attendance booed and hissed.
The talk was LePage’s first public forum in Maine’s largest city since a tense 2015 town hall.
It came as the Legislature intensifies its consideration of his $6.8 billion two-year budget and amid anxiety at USM spurred by anti-Muslim graffiti repeatedly found on campus.
Despite protesters interrupting one at a time throughout the event, LePage largely stuck to his core themes of consolidating school districts, reducing the cost of energy and lowering taxes. He only occasionally got drawn into exchanges with his critics and mostly refused to be baited by accusations of racism, which have stung him in the past, provoking comments that spiraled into national controversy.
Early in his talk, a young woman stood and shouted at LePage that the protesters were “committed to dismantling white supremacy.”
“Good, go for it,” the governor said, raising his fist in the air as she walked out of the room.
LePage’s substantive remarks were limited by the persistent interruptions, but he did repeat several of his long-held policy positions, calling Medicaid expansion an unaffordable “boogieman”; claiming high taxes are driving people out of the state; and insisting he has not cut education funding.
He also said his relationship with federal immigration authorities has improved “because in the previous administration they were not working. … Now they are doing their jobs.”
Earlier in April, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested a Maine man of Somali descent inside a Portland courthouse. The arrest apparently was the first of its kind in a Maine court and has been decried as a threat to the justice system by more than 170 lawyers, including Attorney General Jane Mills, a Democrat who often has sparred with LePage.
LePage was the second Republican elected official to draw protesters at USM in recent months. Controversial state Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, also was protested when he gave a fiery speech on immigration in February. He and LePage were invited to speak on the college campus by the local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group.
LePage took questions following his brief talk, but after several disruptions from protesters, a student organizer shifted to reading a list of pre-submitted questions. The governor, however, seemed largely unfazed by his challengers.
“Despite all the commotion, I survived,” he said before leaving.