AUGUSTA, Maine — Chanting “Recall Paul” and “Put it back,” a crowd of artists, union members and activists demanded on Monday that Gov. Paul LePage return a mural that has become an unlikely symbol of the friction between the Republican administration and Maine’s labor unions.
Monday’s events actually began in the State House Hall of Flags with a rally to “bring our war dollars home” as speakers called on Congress and President Obama to end U.S. overseas military operations.
The gathering then shifted gears to what organizers described as the “second part of a double-header” of rallies held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Speakers during the second rally, some of whom also spoke during the anti-war event, called on the LePage administration to return the labor-themed mural to its original location.
“He has tried to neuter the Department of Labor by removing the key soul of its mission,” said Robert Shetterly, a Brooksville artist and organizer of both events.
It’s been more than a week since workers removed the 11-panel, 36-foot-long mural from the Maine Department of Labor building in Augusta on orders of LePage administration officials. LePage decided to take down the mural depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement after receiving a handful of complaints that it was too pro-union and one-sided for a department responsible for working with both employers and employees.
In a new twist to the drama, a U.S. Department of Labor official notified the state on Monday that Maine would have to refund federal money that helped pay for the mural unless it is returned to its original location or displayed in another employment security office. The federal government paid roughly 63 percent of the $60,000 cost.
The removal of the mural created by Tremont artist Judy Taylor came at a time when Republican governors and lawmakers nationwide are going head to head with organized labor. The controversy has only inflamed tensions in Maine, as evidenced by the tone at Monday’s rally.
Speakers called LePage an embarrassment and a “coward” for quietly removing the mural over the weekend days after the uproar began. Members of the crowd held signs reading “Art Thief” and “LePage Must Go” while speakers accused the unabashedly pro-business governor of trying to erase the history of worker struggles in the state.
“This is not leadership,” said Bruce Gagnon, a political organizer. “Since when is the governor’s job to be chief art critic?”
Although held just outside of the governor’s office, rally attendees had no hope that LePage would hear their angry comments — at least not personally. The governor is vacationing in Jamaica this week with his wife, a fact that drew rebuke from several speakers.
One woman shouted “Make it permanent!” after a mention of LePage’s vacation. Another woman held a sign reading, “Another idiot for the First Amendment,” a response to LePage saying, “I would laugh at them, the idiots” when asked his thoughts on the prospects of people using civil disobedience to block the mural’s removal.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett declined to comment Monday on the tone of the rally.
Last week, LePage told GOP lawmakers and reporters that he regretted the timing of the decision to remove the mural and said he needed to do a better job of toning down his statements.
But tensions between the Republican governor and GOP lawmakers became more evident Monday with the publication of an op-ed piece in several Maine newspapers in which Republican senators criticized LePage for some of his more inflammatory remarks since taking office.
“We feel compelled to express our discomfort and dismay with the tone and spirit of some of the remarks coming from him,” states the opinion piece. “Were this an isolated incident and not a pattern, we would bite our collective tongues, because we are all human. But, unfortunately, such is not the case. We feel we must speak out.”
The Maine Republican Party, meanwhile, attempted to shift the focus of the mural controversy onto former Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, who is apparently depicted in one panel of the mural.
“The real story here is not that Governor LePage decided to move this mural,” the Maine GOP said in a written statement. “The real story is that Baldacci’s Labor Commissioner wasted $60,000 of taxpayer funds to decorate her office with a painting of herself.”
In an email sent last week, artist Judy Taylor said neither Fortman nor anyone else asked to be included in the mural.
“The speculations are meaningless to the content of the mural and its purpose, as I used so many models and composites of hundreds of individuals who walked into my studio,” Taylor wrote.
Since being taken down from its location in the Department of Labor just over a week ago, the mural has been stored in what administration officials say is a safe and secure place awaiting arrangements for it to be put on display elsewhere in the state.