AUGUSTA, Maine — While lawmakers spent their morning on Tuesday arguing whether to override Gov. Paul LePage’s budget veto, two groups of Maine voters were having their own conversation at the State House — about their views of the governor.
Several dozen self-described conservative activists were first, turning up inside the State House’s central Hall of Flags to cheer their support for LePage and his veto of the state budget. Their presence also signified a deeper endorsement of the governor’s hardball tactics and his devotion to his own policy agenda at any perceived political cost.
Larry Grimard of Jefferson was one of those activists. He said he supported LePage’s efforts to keep asylum seekers and other legally present immigrants from accessing welfare. And while he thought it was an “extreme measure,” he also backed LePage’s effort to waste lawmakers’ time by vetoing nearly every bill they pass.
“I don’t like it, but I think it’s necessary,” Grimard said.
The pro-LePage gathering featured several well-known leaders from Maine’s Republican and right-leaning circles, including the anti-tax crusader Mary Adams, Cumberland County GOP Chairman Eric Lusk and Dennis Keschl, a former Republican lawmaker from Belgrade who now heads a group called the Maine Citizens Coalition. The coalition, said Keschl, is a nonpartisan advocate for constitutional and free-market principles.
However, most of the several dozen attendees were simply supporters of LePage like Grimard. Many held LePage campaign signs from 2010 or 2014. Others had homemade props, such as Adams’ cardboard pitchfork, emblazoned with the slogan “Sustain veto, or resign!”
“I came here today because I’m a hardworking taxpayer in Maine and I really care about what happens in this state,” said Susan Dench, founder of the Informed Women’s Network, a conservative group. “I think it’s really important for [LePage] to hear there are voices out there [who support him]. In this state, we have media that’s not exactly favorable to fiscal conservatism.”
Later, outside the State House, another, larger group rallied in support of the four lawmakers who have asked the Legislature’s watchdog committee to investigate LePage for potential wrongdoing and overreach of his executive authority, stemming from his threat to withhold state funding from Good Will-Hinckley if it did not fire its newly chosen president, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.
Like LePage’s allies, though, the message of his roughly 200 critics, largely left-leaning, was about more than just the controversy over LePage’s recent treatment of a political foe.
“Paul LePage up to this point has been an embarrassment, but his recent actions constitute a threat to the integrity of our state,” said Mark Krogman, a Yarmouth resident who handed out bumper stickers emblazoned with “impeach” in all capital letters. “We all learned on the playground that if you don’t confront a bully, it emboldens their behavior.”
Unlike the usual anti-LePage gatherings in Augusta — which often are mobilized by political groups, such as organized labor or the progressive Maine People’s Alliance — the crowd at Tuesday’s rally swelled with a hodge-podge of Mainers seemingly united only by a desire to see LePage investigated and possibly impeached.
“Impeach the bully” and “Enough is enough” were common refrains from the crowd. One man carried a sign that simply read “Unfit to Govern.” Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, played guitar and sang, “A governor, not a dictator! The people shall be heard.”
The rally was organized by two retired lawyers — Democrat Becky Halbrook of Phippsburg and Republican Cushing Samp of Saco — who said they spread the word via email and Facebook.
LePage’s combative style has had detractors for as long as he’s been in the public eye. But since winning re-election last year, LePage has seemingly become more strident, and he has governed with wartime posture toward not only political opponents but the entire Legislature.
He forced the Maine Community College System president to resign by flat-funding the system. A political action committee run by his daughter made robocalls against GOP lawmakers, and LePage promised to oppose them at the polls if they defied him. He pledged to veto every bill in protest of the Legislature’s independence. The Good Will-Hinckley scandal is most recent.
This has pushed criticism of LePage to a fever pitch. More than 10,000 people have signed a petition on the progressive MoveOn.org website calling for LePage’s impeachment, and the improptu anti-LePage rally at the State House — organized by two retired lawyers — drew some 200 people Tuesday.
LePage has defended his decisions by saying he was endorsed in substance and style by the 48 percent of Maine voters who returned him to the Blaine House last year. He’s frequently commented that while lawmakers are elected by their districts, he was elected by the whole state.
“I was elected to stand up for the people of Maine,” LePage told the 50 or so supporters who rallied around him on Tuesday. “I’m going to continue to work for you with every ounce of blood and breath I have in my body.”
Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said that while LePage’s recent actions are favored by his supporters, they’ve had an even more profound effect on his opponents.
In pushing for Eves’ firing, Schmidt said LePage has “pretty much given people who are opposed to his agenda a gift, with a big red bow on it.”
“There have been a lot of people who oppose LePage’s policies, and a larger group that opposed LePage personally,” Schmidt said. “That’s fair, because he’s made his persona part of his governing style. What we’re seeing now is that because of the way he’s treated people in the Legislature, and the way he is gleefully obstructing the process, means people who opposed him before see an opportunity to reach out to the public to make their case.”
Four lawmakers — Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and Reps. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship; Ben Chipman, D-Portland; and Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell — have asked the Government Oversight Committee to launch an inquiry into LePage’s recent actions.
Warren, who along with Evangelos and Chipman attended and spoke at the anti-LePage rally, said questions about the governor have moved beyond the realm of the political and the partisan.
“It’s about what kind of politics we’re going to have here in Maine,” she said. “Are we going to forsake our traditions of civility and bipartisanship and go down the road of bitter, and divisive and punitive political warfare?”
The Government Oversight Committee will consider the investigation requests on Wednesday.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.