AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday called attention to the fact that Attorney General Janet Mills is filing a complaint against his administration for holding a meeting at the Blaine House in violation of Maine’s open meeting laws.
LePage’s mention of the suit during his public town hall meeting in Boothbay Harbor seems on its surface to be foolhardy. It highlights the controversial April 25 meeting, which Mills and others have said violated the law because the public was not allowed in. That LePage doesn’t follow the letter of the law when it suits him not to has been a chief criticism from his opponents on everything from some of his welfare reform initiatives to his refusal to appoint a commissioner for the Department of Education.
However, LePage volunteering the information — and taking a shot at Mills in the process — advanced his message and served more than one political purpose.
It continues LePage’s “me versus them” narrative. A central theme for LePage is that anyone who questions him is working to undermine his vision for Maine: the Legislature, labor unions, Democrats, Senate Republicans, special interest groups, public school administrators, the federal government and the media, to name just a few. Mills, the Democratic attorney general who has often been at odds with the governor, has been the frequent subject of his ire, such as in 2014 when Mills refused to represent LePage in a suit involving Medicaid that she deemed unconstitutional.
At a time when an increasing number of voters expresses disgust with government and bureaucracy, LePage continues to portray himself as an outsider — despite six years in office — and to argue that he is fighting an entrenched Democratic regime that favors big government over his smaller, more business-like vision for how the state should be run.
It’s another of LePage’s arguments about why the voters should elect Republicans to the Legislature. Members of the House and Senate elect the attorney general. When Republicans had the majority in 2011, they elected Republican William Schneider to the post, but Schneider was unseated by Mills, who has held the post since 2013. LePage later nominated Schneider to the Maine District Court bench. That the attorney general should be in agreement with the governor has long been argued by LePage.
In 2015, LePage proposed a bill that would have had attorneys general take office as gubernatorial appointments, instead of being elected by members of the Legislature, but that bill was rejected by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
It supports LePage’s argument that government wastes money at every turn. During Wednesday’s town hall meeting, this was LePage’s chief criticism of the suit he says was brought by Mills.
“The attorney general is going to have to give the Department of Education money to hire the lawyer. There’s going to be a fine, so they’re going to have to give us money for a fine,” said LePage. “It’s a $500 fine. Give me a break.”
In the past, LePage has said the Legislature appropriates so much money that the executive branch is unable to spend it all. He has criticized municipal-level government for setting property tax rates too high. And he has been very rough on lawmakers during budget deliberations, including in June 2015 when his staff erected a Christmas tree with lawmakers’ pictures on it outside his office and used rubber pigs to protest items they had included in a budget bill.
In essence, LePage is arguing — again — that checks and balances in the system, which have thwarted some of his initiatives, are too expensive.
LePage is heading off a possible run for governor by Mills. Mills deflects questions about whether she is preparing a run for governor in 2018, when LePage is term limited out of office, but she is on the short list for preferred candidates among some Democrats. She could be a formidable foe for whoever the Republican nominee could be, which is part of the reason LePage has been chipping away at her for so long.
LePage’s comments at his town meetings are mostly off-the-cuff, but they are usually built around the narrative thread of “I have a vision that will improve Maine if others would stop getting in the way.” Whether he planned to reveal Mills’ complaint against him or not, it fit well into the narrative that LePage has woven for the past six years.