AUGUSTA, Maine — During an education summit Monday in New York, Gov. Paul LePage was asked again on live national television to address something that has saddled his administration for months.
NBC anchor Brian Williams directed a question at LePage about his well-documented but controversial decision to remove a labor mural from the Department of Labor’s office waiting room.
Prefacing the question, Williams said many people outside Maine only know LePage because of the mural flap, and he asked the governor whether the painting’s removal had anything to do with the governor’s stance on organized labor.
“I have absolutely nothing against organized labor. My objection to the mural is simply where the money came from,” LePage responded. “The money was taken out of the unemployment insurance fund, which is dedicated to provide benefits to unemployed workers. They robbed that account to build that mural. Until they pay for it, it stays hidden.”
Williams then asked the governor to clarify his stance on unions.
“I came up through organized labor my whole life, and so I have no problem with a hardworking person,” LePage answered. “But when you work for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, you cannot rob money to pay for something that you want to see — otherwise you just take it out of your pocket and pay for it.”
In the past, LePage has said he ordered the mural removed because it depicted a one-sided view of Maine’s labor history, which seemed to contrast with his comment on Monday.
LePage didn’t know about the funding source at the time he ordered the mural to be removed, a fact confirmed by his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett. Additionally, official statements from the governor’s office released after the removal never mentioned the funding.
Asked whether the governor changed his story this week, Bennett said not at all.
“The administration originally removed the mural because of its messaging. It was then discovered how the mural was funded and that these funds could have been put into the Unemployment Trust Fund for Mainers to benefit from,” she said. “When the governor learned of this it further supported the decision.”
Bennett also criticized the question and the media’s initial coverage of the mural removal.
“The governor took part in this panel discussion to speak about education; however, it is clear that NBC had an entirely different agenda for Gov. LePage,” she said. “With limited time to answer the question, the governor chose to speak about the most disturbing aspect — that this money could have been put into the Unemployment Trust Fund rather than used on a mural. This information was under-reported by media this spring.”
Maine AFL-CIO Director Matt Schlobohm, however, said it’s clear the governor is changing his story to suit whatever audience.
“The Governor has had every opportunity to take the high road, admit he made a mistake and end Maine’s mural embarrassment. Instead of making new excuses and spreading disinformation, he should restore the mural to its proper place,” Schlobohm said.
The labor mural removal is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit submitted by a group of residents who wanted to see the artwork restored. A U.S. District Court judge has not yet decided whether the suit should go to trial.
Maine’s attorney general, in a court briefing on that lawsuit dated Aug. 8, claimed the mural was removed because it did not reflect the LePage administration’s views on labor. Attorney General William Schneider did not reference the mural’s cost or funding source as an argument, but instead focused on the governor’s freedom of speech.
As for the funding sources, the money used to buy the mural came from a larger pot of federal money given to the state when the new labor offices were built, Department of Labor spokesman Adam Fisher said.
The $60,000 for the artwork represented a percentage set aside for art that, in some cases, is required under a state statute. It was not required in this case, Fisher said, but leaders at the time decided to apply the Percent for Art statute to this project.
Shortly after the mural’s removal, Aroostook County Republicans began raising money to buy the mural from the federal government. That group reportedly raised $2,300 in the first week, but it was unclear Thursday if that fund was still active. Hayes Gahagan, chairman of the Aroostook County Republicans, did not respond to a request for information on Wednesday.
The mural was taken down on March 26 after LePage claimed he had received numerous complaints about its depictions. Asked to provide evidence of those complaints, the administration produced one letter, signed only by a “secret admirer,” that calls the artwork propaganda similar to what is used in communist North Korea “to brainwash the masses.”
Bennett said Wednesday the media wants to focus only on that letter, but she said there were numerous other complaints that couldn’t be documented.
During the recent legislative session that ended in June, LePage and other Republicans initiated “right-to-work” legislation to allow workers in union shops to forgo paying dues if they choose not to join the union. Labor groups and many Democrats oppose right-to-work laws and equate them to union busting.
Lawmakers did not act on the union-related legislation, but the debate is expected to continue when the Legislature reconvenes early next year.
Bennett stressed that while the governor is not anti-union, he does have a problem with wage garnishment of state employees regardless of whether they are unionized.
Asked whether that or other labor-related issues might be addressed during the coming legislative session, she said, “We’re not there yet.”
Despite widespread speculation and numerous rumors, the current location of the mural, installed in 2008 under then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, has not been revealed. Most believe it is in storage somewhere in Augusta.
LePage told NBC’s Williams that the mural was “under safe lock and key.”