AUGUSTA, Maine — When Gov. Paul LePage comes to your town, expect his defiant brand of bombast. Just don’t expect all the facts to check out.
The Republican governor started doing town hall-style meetings last year as a way to take his case to the public during a budget battle with the Maine Legislature. Since then, he’s held approximately 30 across the state. On Wednesday, he’ll be in Boothbay Harbor.
They’ve led to some of his most infamous comments, including assertions that out-of-state drug dealers often impregnate “young, white” girls in Maine and refugees spread diseases such as the nonexistent “ziki fly.” But his more normal rhetoric often is unscrutinized.
The Bangor Daily News took a transcript of LePage’s June public forum in Richmond and checked about 80 statements of fact. The analysis found scores of mistruths and misunderstandings of basic government functions.
Off the mark on welfare
The governor didn’t seem to grasp several facts around welfare programs his administration has targeted for reform, including apparently mixing up Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal-state cash assistance program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
— Most egregiously, he said half of all SNAP transactions were made between midnight and 4 a.m. The actual number between midnight and 3 a.m. was 0.65 percent.
— He said recipients of TANF were “elderly,” even though the program is for families with children.
— He said the number of TANF recipients has dropped from 14,000 to “2,000, I think,” during his administration. The first figure is right, but in May, there were nearly 5,100 cases, encompassing nearly 8,500 children.
— He said people taken off the TANF program “are working now,” even though that’s not tracked and it’s a program for children, most of whom aren’t working.
— He said he wants SNAP benefits to go to “nutritional foods” and “not to drugs, not to cigarettes, not to alcohol.” The problem? Federal law limits food stamps to in-store use on food and drink. Buying medicine, cigarettes or alcohol is prohibited.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Samantha Edwards didn’t return a Thursday email seeking clarification on LePage’s welfare statements.
A sampling of other false claims
— LePage said a referendum to expand background checks to private gun sales and transfers would apply if you were letting “your son use your gun,” even though family is exempt under the proposal.
— He said Maine’s hourly minimum wage was $7.65. It’s $7.50.
— He said 40 million visitors come to Maine between May 31 and Labor Day, but Maine only had 33.9 million visits in all of 2015, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.
— He said the percentage of Mainers heating their homes with oil has dropped from 82 percent to “about 60 percent” since 2011. It’s actually dropped from 68.8 percent in 2011 to 62.2 percent in 2014, for which the latest U.S. Census data are available.
— In an argument about cities and towns not being conducive to business, he said the shuttered Verso mill in Bucksport sold for $58 million in 2014, but it was assessed at $700 million. The actual assessed value was $360 million.
The town halls can be seen as LePage’s attempt to tighten control of his narrative.
Questions are screened by his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, though she often allows confrontational ones. His appearances can generate newspaper headlines in rural areas. Evening starts give reporters little time to check facts or seek out Democrats before deadlines.
Sometimes, controversial remarks go unnoticed: The “young, white” girls comment wasn’t reported by media at LePage’s Bridgton town hall in January until it was flagged by an operative who has criticized the governor, after which it went national.
This fits a recent theme from LePage. There are few opportunities to hear from him personally now, other than town halls and his weekly, deferential radio appearance with WVOM hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler.
At an April event, LePage told WABI he was “retired” from talking to media, which he hammers at town halls for perceived unfairness. This policy was reiterated to WMTW last week, when LePage also ducked out of a press conference on domestic violence without taking questions.
But LePage has won two elections behind his bombastic and often fact-free style. It has only produced approval ratings around 40 percent, but that plurality is a rabid one. While LePage has dealt with hecklers and protesters, his public forum audiences usually are friendly.
At a June town hall in Augusta, Sharon Mason rose to thank LePage for making the state better for retired veterans like her husband, “rather than the drug dealers from New York who are certainly moving in here and the people who simply want a big, old welfare handout.”
“Thank you,” LePage said. Then he joked, “We’ll put you on the payroll.”
So, while we fact-finders quibble, LePage’s traveling act often lands as intended with audiences. That’s why you shouldn’t expect the routine to change anytime soon.
BDN writers Christopher Cousins, Darren Fishell and Matthew Stone contributed research.