AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage caused his biggest controversy yet, but it seems that he’ll emerge unscathed in the Maine Legislature, if not in the public’s eye.
A partial alliance between Democrats and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, fell apart Friday, effectively nixing a special legislative session where lawmakers could have condemned the Republican governor.
The uproar began when LePage told a North Berwick town hall audience that nearly all Maine drug traffickers are black or Hispanic out-of-staters, then left a voicemail in which he called a Democratic legislator and critic a “socialist c—-sucker.”
Democrats wanted him to resign, which LePage said he was considering Tuesday, but ruled out Wednesday. Then, Democrats pushed a session to seek his removal. Thibodeau wanted the Legislature to censure him. House Republicans didn’t want to return.
On Friday, Thibodeau withheld authorization for an open-ended special session on LePage pushed by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. Thibodeau said Senate Republicans don’t want impeachment and he wouldn’t preside over a “circus.”
For that, LePage can thank a close relationship with House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, and possible overreach by Democrats, who want LePage gone but are now almost certainly stuck with him.
Opposition from House Republicans always made even a symbolic censure difficult.
During his tenure, LePage has had a difficult relationship with the Legislature. He has mostly feuded with Democrats, but Republicans — especially Thibodeau — have also drawn his ire.
LePage and Thibodeau have been feuding since 2015, when Thibodeau worked with Democrats to pass a state budget over LePage’s veto. Fredette eventually voted for it, but only after he and his caucus went against the rest of the Legislature to oppose an earlier deal.
They have been a LePage-friendly minority since, sustaining vetoes of key proposals, including a solar energy reform bill spearheaded this year by Freeport Rep. Sara Gideon, who aims to succeed Eves.
The call for legislative action against LePage culminated in a Tuesday summit of House Republicans, from which Fredette emerged to announce that while nobody in the caucus endorsed LePage’s comments, they wouldn’t support a special session, citing the estimated per-day cost of $43,000 as a key reason.
That move effectively killed any session, as the Maine Constitution says a majority of members in each political party must agree to come back.
Democrats alienated Thibodeau after taking an aggressive tack on LePage.
If Eves and Thibodeau made the call under the Constitution for a special session, it would trigger polls of members in both chambers, and even if it failed, a roll call could be released to put members on the record about LePage’s comments.
That could prove a powerful election tool for both sides: Democrats could put pressure on vulnerable Republicans, who could in turn demonstrate independence from LePage.
It looked possible until Thursday, when Eves and Senate Minority Justin Alfond, D-Portland, reiterated to reporters their call for LePage’s resignation or removal in strong language, with Alfond calling LePage “unhinged.”
Eves angered Thibodeau when he told reporters that the Senate president — who would become governor if LePage left office — would be a better executive “if you are a conservative and you care about conservative principles.”
After the Democrats’ media scrum, Thibodeau said “there will be no Gov. Thibodeau” and nobody in his caucus wants impeachment.
On Friday, he blamed Democrats for politicizing the issue — noting that censuring a Maine governor has never happened and “is not a small thing” while saying Democrats and Fredette put him in a hard spot.
“It’s the world I live in,” Thibodeau said. “I signed up for this duty; I guess I shouldn’t complain about it.”
Impeachment isn’t impossible, but Democrats likely won’t have enough votes in January to remove LePage.
A governor has never been impeached, but it’s not as hard to do it as it could be: A majority vote in the House sends it to the Senate for a trial, where 24 of 35 members can oust the governor.
The first vote could happen in the current political environment, because Democrats control the House, although an unsuccessful January bid from progressives to impeach LePage didn’t even pass that low bar. But with Republicans controlling the Senate, the conviction wouldn’t come.
Democrats may be primed for legislative gains after losses in 2014. A Bangor Daily News analysis updated in June gives them advantages in 18 Senate and 80 House seats, enough for majorities even excluding five toss-up districts in the Senate and nine in the House.
If you give all those Senate toss-ups to Democrats in a best-case scenario, they’re at 23 — one vote shy of conviction. A narrower majority of 20 or so is more likely.
In campaigns, Democrats will link LePage, his comments and the Republican response to vulnerable GOP candidates, especially Thibodeau, who could lose re-election in a rematch with Democrat Jonathan Fulford, who took him to a recount in 2014.
The state party tweeted Friday that Thibodeau works for LePage, a statement with which he and the governor would disagree.
But even if Thibodeau goes, LePage is probably here to stay until his term ends in early 2019.