PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure has been so pockmarked by vitriol that it took an episode marked by racial remarks on drug dealers, a profane voicemail to a lawmaker and an invocation of a duel to outdo himself.
This is where Maine politics lies in 2016, but it’s showing itself to be the Republican governor’s biggest controversy yet.
That’s not just because there’s no evidence behind LePage’s statement that nearly all drug traffickers arrested in Maine are black, Hispanic and from out of state.
It’s also shown by the strong negative reaction: Top Democrats have called for LePage’s resignation and Republicans — including some who have held back on criticizing the governor in the past — are mulling a formal censure. One is even raising concerns about LePage’s health.
First, this demands a recap of LePage’s actions in the past week.
At a town hall forum Wednesday in North Berwick, LePage responded to an audience member’s question by saying he keeps a binder with information about alleged drug traffickers arrested in Maine and that more than 90 percent of them are “black and Hispanic people” from Connecticut and New York.
Then came criticism, which sparked Thursday and Friday meetings between LePage and reporters.
After a reporter told him that Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, had criticized him for the remarks on drug dealers, LePage left Gattine a voicemail calling him a “socialist c—-sucker.” The governor later told the Portland Press Herald that he’d like to have duel with Gattine, in which he’d point his gun “right between” Gattine’s eyes.
That led Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, to call for LePage’s resignation on Friday, when LePage released a statement saying he was angered by Gattine and “used the worst word I could think of” on the voicemail, saying the duel reference was “simply a metaphor.”
Then, he took questions at his first open news conference since the aftermath of his January remarks about black drug dealers and white Maine girls, making an analogy to war in which he said one must “identify the enemy” and “the enemy right now … are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”
LePage showed off his binder on Friday, but no data to support his 90 percent assertion.
LePage’s said on Friday that his binder is full of news articles and mugshots. If it’s full of alleged drug traffickers of color, it’s not a full picture of Maine’s opiate crisis.
That crisis led to 189 drug overdose deaths in 2016’s first half, putting the state on pace to shatter last year’s record, 272.
Data like what purportedly are in LePage’s binder are hard to come by: Spokespeople for the Maine court system and the Maine Department of Public Safety said the agencies don’t keep records of the races of people charged with drug crimes.
But 301 — or 70 percent — of the 430 state prison inmates convicted of any type of drug trafficking self-report as white, according to data provided Friday by the Maine Department of Corrections. Another 98 — or 23 percent — self-report as black.
That total is disproportionate in Maine, which is 95 percent white. Figuring out why blacks are overrepresented, however, is tricky.
On one hand, police have said that out-of-state gangs are a piece of the drug trade here. But on the other, a 2015 study from the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine found racial bias in Maine’s juvenile justice system.
Either way, LePage’s thesis is wrong, reducing a complicated public health and crime problem to a caricature.
Top Democrats haven’t reacted this strongly to past LePage controversies, and Republicans came out against him, too.
It’s not news that Democrats criticized LePage on Friday, but Gideon’s Portland news conference with Gattine on Friday was notable for two reasons.
She called on LePage to resign, which is something that Democratic legislative leaders have resisted, even in 2015, when there was a public campaign to write to LePage urging him to step down.
More jarring was this line from Gideon: “There is behavior here that is indicative of this man not functioning normally.”
The political backdrop here is Gideon’s behind-the-scenes campaign to succeed term-limited House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, in 2017. Part of that is to be seen as a main voice of opposition to LePage, and it relies on Democrats keeping the House in the 2016 elections.
But she wasn’t alone in invoking remarkable concerns about LePage’s health. Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, said she had “deep concerns” about LePage’s behavior and in a statement Sunday said she did not know “whether it is due to substance abuse, mental illness or just ignorance. Things definitely appear to be out of control.”
She hoped that LePage’s family, friends and staff would intervene, adding that “I believe in most of the governor’s policies and I always believed his heart was in the right place, but I can no longer remain silent about his behavior and what it is costing all of us.”
And Sen. David Woodsome, R-North Waterboro, said Friday on Facebook that LePage’s attack on Gattine “deeply saddens and upsets me,” saying the governor has “jumped off the cliff of professionalism and personal stability.”
Volk’s statement Sunday also raised the possibility of a special legislative session to censure LePage. Jim Cyr, a spokesman for Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said there are “ongoing discussions” within the party caucus on that subject.
A Saturday letter from Democratic legislative leaders to their Republican counterparts ratcheted up pressure, saying they should “take the necessary steps to get the Governor the professional help that he needs, or encourage him to step down from office.”
Certainly, some of this could be attributed to election year politics. But the harsh response — especially from Volk and her ilk — shows that it’s not purely partisan and that LePage is herding his party into a hard corner where even the governor’s health is part of the public dialogue.
The agenda-driven hot takes will burn out, but the voicemail and Department of Corrections data remain, undermining LePage’s arguments that he’s been misinterpreted or is intentionally defying political correctness to draw attention to a problem.
On the contrary. LePage’s penchant for making politics personal has forced Republicans to talk about him, not the issues and principles they want to focus on during the upcoming campaign.
BDN writer Jake Bleiberg contributed to this report.