AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s leading liberal activist group has apologized to a disabled Lisbon lawmaker for distributing a flier in his district that said the legislator, who uses a wheelchair, had “no spine” and refused to “stand up” to Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
The flier was distributed by Maine People’s Alliance to highlight opposition to Medicaid expansion by Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon. The sheet was styled as a parody prescription. It featured Crafts’ photo and a list of his “ailments,” including “No Heart: voted to deny health care to 70,000 Mainers,” and “No Spine: Failed to stand up to Gov. LePage’s bullying.”
During the recently concluded 126th Legislature, LePage on five occasions vetoed efforts to expand Medicaid under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s very disturbing to my family,” Crafts said by phone Monday. “Not for me — I’m in politics, so I understand — but for my father? He’s 81 years old, and got a flier saying his son has no heart, no spine.”
Outcry from Republican lawmakers and activists went into overdrive over the weekend, with many calling for MPA to apologize to Crafts and for Democratic leaders to distance themselves from MPA, which often works alongside Democrats in Augusta.
“They [Democrats] benefit so much from MPA’s activism here in the State House, that we think it’s important they speak out on things like this, and distance themselves from this divisive and radical organization,” said House GOP spokesman David Sorensen.
Maine People’s Alliance staff on Monday said the flier was intended only as a commentary on Crafts’ opposition to Medicaid expansion. The same flier — including the prescription language — was also distributed in the districts of other lawmakers who voted against the expansion effort.
Crafts said a spokesman for MPA called him to apologize on Friday, and also told him the language on the flier was not meant to refer to his use of a wheelchair. He said he had accepted the apology.
Ben Chin, MPA’s top political staffer, repeated the apology on Monday.
“We were not intending to attack Rep. Crafts for anything other than his vote on Medicaid expansion,” Chin said. “We used a poor choice of words, and we regret that. Thankfully, he accepted our apology.”
While the issue may be over as far as Crafts is concerned, two Democratic lawmakers are reaching out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle to oppose what they called “unsettling” tactics by MPA.
One of them, Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, said that aside from the flap around Crafts, the “heartless” and “spineless” motif from MPA went a step too far. Jones and Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, sent an email to several House Democrats asking them to “be willing to speak out when we see injustice in campaigning.”
The flier “is just really poor at informing the electorate,” said Jones, who voted in favor of Medicaid expansion, on Monday. “It doesn’t appeal to our better angels. This just fuels the fire with divisiveness and vitriol. There’s a way you can say, ‘Rep. Crafts voted against Medicaid expansion, which would have done this and this,’ without framing it in this kind of language.”
In an interview Monday, Jones said that while he found the flier appalling, he was equally upset by the Republicans’ reaction, which he viewed as needlessly political. Party staff had used the Crafts incident as a means to attack MPA and attempt to drive a wedge between the group and its Democratic allies.
“It’s equally offensive,” he said. “Is [the flier] distasteful? Yes. Is it destructive to the civil discourse? Yes. But to further exacerbate the problem is also inappropriate.”
On Monday, MPA spokesman Mike Tipping said that while the language chosen may have been unintentionally insensitive to Crafts, he stood by the message on the flier. He also said Republicans were trying to distract attention from their voting record.
“There’s been a clamor on something everyone already agrees was unintended, and has been apologized for,” he said. “They’re trying to mislead from the real issue. … 70,000 people are being denied health care. 157 people could die next year as a result. I certainly don’t think our language, saying people should stand up to Paul LePage, is harsh.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.