Gov. Paul LePage surely still wants to accomplish things in office. Yet his own actions and statements have profoundly reduced his influence and power.
While the governor’s outrageous statements have gone viral many times, the velocity and widespread response to LePage’s latest remarks seemed faster and more intense. One reason was the content, with its curses, threats of violence against a legislator, false statistics about the racial composition of drug dealers, and identification of black people and Latinos as “the enemy.” Not only were those comments grossly unprofessional, but they labeled entire racial groups in derogatory terms.
LePage also sparked a national and international uproar because of how his comments fit with the incivility and racial overtones of the candidate whom LePage wants to be president. Donald Trump has used violent language, saying of one protester, “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya.”
Hillary Clinton recently laid out Trump’s racist campaign connections and history in meticulous detail. Trump went after a federal judge for having family that immigrated to the United States from Mexico, he hired a top staffer from a publication that traffics in negative racial stereotypes, and he has a history of birtherism toward President Obama and racial discrimination in his real estate business. Because LePage is a proud Trump supporter, the press connected the dots of racial and menacing remarks.
One result is that the state’s image has taken a hit, particularly since the Maine Legislature has not even censured the governor. Journalist Patrick Whittle reported, “Some occasional Maine tourists interviewed by The Associated Press said they are canceling plans or avoiding coming to the state because of LePage’s actions.” One tourist interviewed by Whittle decided to spend Labor Day in New Hampshire rather than in the Pine Tree State.
LePage’s comments could dissuade people from moving to Maine for school or work or to start or relocate a business. Young Americans are more racially diverse and less accepting of racial denigration than other age groups. And African-Americans, particularly black women, are starting businesses faster than any other group. According to the U.S. Census, “black or African American-owned firms grew 34.5 percent between 2007 and 2012” while “the total number of firms in the United States increased 2.0 percent during the same period.”
All of this follows 20 months of a second term in office for LePage during which he became a near lame duck rather quickly. After a reelection campaign sharply focused on several policy areas in which LePage muted his rhetoric, the governor quickly ran into political difficulty. LePage fought with Democrats and Republicans about a budget plan that would shift taxes toward the sales and property taxes, both regressive sources.
Less than six months into his second term LePage had staged what one reporter compared to “a scene from a surrealistic dream,” honking a pink pig toy next to a Christmas tree with ornaments bearing the faces of legislator from both parties. Since then, Maine has experienced stretches during which LePage vetoed every bill and seemingly forgot the deadline for vetoes and unsuccessfully went to court to get more time. Legislative work is increasingly done without the governor, but he is needed if the state stands to make progress on so many issues.
LePage’s base will stick with him, creating difficulties for Republican Party leaders and some GOP elected officials who want to be more independent but know that LePage’s supporters want them to be loyal to the governor. Republicans face a time when trickle-down economic approaches have been discredited and alt-right, white supremacist, anti-immigrant populism is a demographic and ethical dead-end. Standing with Trump, a candidate who made campaign contributions to the attorneys general of Florida and Texas, who then dropped fraud probes into Trump University, hurts many politically.
LePage’s premature lame-duck status creates opportunities for policy creativity and political leadership from Democrats, Republicans and other elected officials. They can address issues such as job creation, education, health care, drug abuse, fair taxation, transportation, and housing. It will not be enough to be anti-LePage. Because LePage holds the constitutional reins of the governorship, legislators need to work together in sufficient numbers to craft compromises that can pass over LePage’s veto. What happens in November will affect what can be accomplished during the last two years of LePage’s governorship.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine and faculty adviser to the UMaine College Republicans. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.