AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Monday he didn’t mean to offend anyone with his comments calling the Internal Revenue Service “the new Gestapo” after Democrats and others called on the governor to apologize for and retract comments he made in his weekly radio address.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, accused Democrats of making political hay out of a non-issue, and said their calls for a retraction show why Democrats are no longer in power in Augusta.
“I know what he meant. Most regular people know what he meant,” said Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party. “I find it strange that the Democrats have nothing else to talk about.”
LePage made his Gestapo statement in his weekly radio address Saturday, in which he characterized the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s signature health care reform law recently upheld by the Supreme Court, as a law that would make the United States less free.
“We the people have been told there is no choice,” LePage said, referring to the individual mandate portion of the law. “You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo — the IRS.”
Democratic legislative leaders over the weekend called LePage’s statement “intentionally offensive” and “ignorant” and urged Republicans to also condemn the governor’s use of the term “Gestapo,” which refers to Nazi Germany’s secret police force that ruthlessly sought out Adolf Hitler’s enemies.
“This goes beyond political rhetoric,” said Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, the House Democratic leader. “The experience of the Holocaust survivors and the veterans of World War II who witnessed the true terror of the Gestapo should not be trivialized for political shock.”
But Webster and Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, weren’t going along Monday in urging LePage to retract his statement.
“A lot of us are not politically correct,” Webster said. “The Democrats want to twist everything and make it evil when, frankly, he made a comment that most people, they understand what he meant.”
“I’m not sure I would use the same words, but it was clear where he was coming from,” he added.
In a written statement, Nutting said Democrats were “carrying on with manufactured outrage” that indicated “that their party is desperately seeking a way to become relevant.”
“This is much ado about nothing,” he said. “Politicians from both sides of the aisle have invoked the word ‘gestapo’ in the past to reference heavy-handed government tactics. I probably would not have chosen that word, but I see this as a non-issue.”
But deciding to apologize for and retract the Gestapo statement “should be a no-brainer,” said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant. It’s telling that Republican leadership didn’t condemn LePage’s use of “Gestapo,” he said.
“You’ve got their party defending his use of the word,” Grant said. “To me, that sends such a strong signal that they’re either not knowledgeable or totally insensitive to the history that’s involved here and, second, that they’ve run out of legitimate arguments to make against the health care law.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Monday that LePage added the term “new Gestapo” to the radio address after she drafted it.
“It was not my intent to insult anyone, especially the Jewish community, or minimize the fact that millions of people were murdered,” LePage said in a statement issued by his office. “Clearly, what has happened is that the use of the word Gestapo has clouded my message.”
Bennett said the governor’s office is working on a follow-up radio address and that LePage personally reached out to the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine to make clear that “there was no malintent from the use of the term.”
The Alliance had issued a statement earlier Monday that said LePage’s comments were “deeply offensive to the millions of Jews and other minority groups who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.”
Emily Chaleff, the group’s executive director, said LePage apologized to the Jewish community in a phone call with her Monday. “That apology doesn’t come through clearly in his public statement,” she said.
“This is a fresh reminder of the importance of maintaining civility in the course of these important public policy debates,” Chaleff said. “It is the responsibility for all of us involved in political debate in this election year to reach for words designed to educate and inform rather than to inflame and polarize.”
Bennett said LePage didn’t apologize in his public statement because “it has more meaning for him to reach out directly to someone than to do a blanket statement through the media.”
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he was glad to see LePage “back away” from his Gestapo comments.
“Words do matter,” said Katz, who is Jewish. “Invoking the image of the Gestapo in discussing the Affordable Care Act was wrong.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said in a statement from her office that she agreed with LePage’s assessment that the health care law “will impose billions of dollars of new taxes.” However, she said, “I am glad that he recognizes that his words were poorly chosen.”
Sen. Olympia Snowe said, “I’m sure the Governor recognized the importance of issuing a statement underscoring that he had no intention of insulting anyone.”