AUGUSTA, Maine — A federal judge’s dismissal of a legal dispute between Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves and Republican Gov. Paul LePage could embolden an already confident governor who has bulldozed a path to his political whims, no matter who finds themselves in his path.
Though the legal battle over LePage’s coercion of Good Will-Hinckley to fire Eves as its president is headed for an appeal, U.S. District Judge George Singal’s decision to reject Eves’ case illustrates just how powerful a governor who pushes the envelope of his authority can be.
In essence, Singal ruled that LePage is legally immune as long as he operates within the scope of legislative business, and that threatening to withhold discretionary funding from Good Will-Hinckley unless it fired Eves is within those bounds. Singal also suggested that the courts are not the right place to resolve disputes between the executive and legislative branches.
“Such battles are an inevitable and intended part of a government built on the separation of powers,” he wrote in a 44-page decision released on Tuesday. “The federal courts serve as a poor substitute mechanism for resolving such disagreements. In fact, many of the doctrines discussed herein were developed to avoid the use of the judicial branch to resolve political disputes that are rightly reserved for the electorate.”
Reaction to Singal’s decision offers no reason to suggest LePage will soften his attacks on his political opponents.
Meanwhile, Democrats continue unrealistic calls for more civility.
“Hopefully, the next generation of lawmakers will have a chance to bring civility to Augusta,” said outgoing Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond of Portland in last week’s Democratic radio address. “After six years under Gov. Paul LePage, we’ve gotten used to name-calling, obstructionism and the gleeful way the governor has done everything he can to throw wrenches in the gears of progress. … When leaders in our state insult their opponents and Maine people, make threats and behave badly, it trickles down.”
Alfond’s criticisms of LePage in this instance are a departure from his past efforts to maintain polite politics in the face of innumerable insults and outbursts from the Republican governor, including once calling Alfond a “little spoiled brat.”
Alfond says he’s hopeful that the 128th Legislature will “reset the culture in Augusta,” but that hope is belied by LePage, who has no practical reason to soften his political approach.
LePage will characterize Eves’ lawsuit as a blatantly political attack and use it to campaign against Democratic legislative candidates.
LePage has already inserted in his messaging that the Eves suit and a legislative investigation of the Good Will-Hinckley affair were politically motivated wastes of time that distracted lawmakers from addressing some of Maine’s most pressing problems. He is certain to continue that line of reasoning in the months between now and the November election. Why? Because there is strong evidence that it is working and it deflects attention from LePage’s numerous gaffes and inflammatory rhetoric that have attracted national and at times, international scorn.
More political retribution is not out of the question.
LePage has established a pattern of punishing his enemies by vetoing their bills en masse, trashing them in public and supporting robocalls to their constituents. Furthermore, he has said the verbal attacks against lawmakers such as Eves and Republican Sen. Roger Katz, with whom LePage has often been at odds, will continue.
“There’s a federal lawsuit going on and that will vindicate everything we’ve done,” said LePage to reporters outside his office in October 2015. “Then it will be my turn.”
LePage has a long history of making statements he doesn’t follow through on — ranging from “I’m moving my offices out of the State House” to “I’m running for Congress” — but there’s another side of that coin: LePage isn’t shy about bulldozer politics.
Democrats still don’t have a counterpoint to LePage — or a winning message for voters.
In 2014, Democratic candidates focused their campaigns around an anti-LePage message. That resulted in them losing seats in the House and majority control of the Senate and in LePage trouncing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud.
Headed into this year’s legislative elections, LePage is reminding voters at just about every weekly town hall meeting he hosts that they should send more Republicans — and the most conservative ones possible — to the Legislature if they want more of what LePage has given them in the past six years.
Democrats’ messages focus on policies, concepts and ballot initiatives — such as raising the minimum wage and imposing a new tax on income over $200,000 per year to support public education — both of which play directly against LePage’s ideology. While those initiatives could bring out young voters and Democrats, there is likely too much else on November’s ballot — from the presidential election to a state referendum to implement background checks on gun sales — to make them deciding factors in legislative elections.
The Democrats lack a leader with a strong voice to shout back at LePage. In recent years, the most virulent Democratic voice against LePage is author Stephen King of Bangor — who has attacked LePage repeatedly, including calling some of the governor’s comments “divine assholery.” But the chances of King running for office are akin to LePage endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.
The Democrats do have potential firebrands-in-waiting.
The results of elections are far from certain, former Democratic senator and failed congressional candidate Troy Jackson of Allagash is a virtual lock to retake his former Senate seat. That’s because the incumbent, Republican Sen. Peter Edgecomb, is not running to reclaim the seat. Edgecomb is one of several Senate Republicans who are bowing out of office, and the conventional wisdom is that Democrats have a legitimate shot at retaking the majority.
If those scenarios play out, it is likely that Jackson, who has held leadership positions before, could become Senate president or Senate Democratic leader. Among all Democrats — especially those in leadership positions — Jackson has come the closest to matching LePage’s rhetorical fire.
Also running for Senate is House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, who also is known for his spirited retorts to the governor’s actions. McCabe’s path to the Senate is less clear than Jackson’s because McCabe faces Republican incumbent Sen. Rodney Whittemore.
McCabe and Jackson could be a formidable duo to stand up to LePage, though that scenario would likely feed divisiveness in Augusta as opposed to mending it.
The Trump factor could trump all.
With Donald Trump as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, inflammatory rhetoric among elected leaders is likely to increase, spurred by the passions of their fed-up supporters.
That is likely to extend to Maine, where like just about everywhere else the political backlash against divisive politics, which has been predicted by the Democratic establishment, has failed to materialize.
“I’m not a big fan of Donald Trump, although he should give me a stipend or give me a bonus for starting this whole thing about being outspoken,” said LePage in early March, just a few days before he about-faced and endorsed Trump’s candidacy.
It’s possible that Trump could pay the fee suggested by LePage in the form of more Republicans in the Legislature. It also is possible that the Trump candidacy could backfire and that Clinton supporters or voters appalled by Trump could flood the polls, indirectly clipping LePage’s wings and rendering him largely irrelevant during his final two years in office.
Then again, if we’ve learned anything about LePage, it’s that he’s resilient in the face of unprecedented political adversity.