AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage catapulted himself into the national media spotlight again Tuesday with controversial comments widely viewed as racially insensitive.
On Tuesday, one day after the nation celebrated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday, LePage on WVOM radio echoed criticisms that President-elect Donald Trump has leveled at U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights pioneer who has called Trump’s presidential victory illegitimate and who is one of dozens of politicians who have said they will boycott Trump’s inauguration this week.
“John Lewis ought to look at history,” said LePage, whose office did not respond to questions from the Bangor Daily News about his statements. “It was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant who fought the Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.”
Hours after his radio appearance on WVOM, LePage doubled down on his comments when he told a Portland Press Herald reporter that the NAACP should “apologize to the white people, to the people from the North, for fighting their battle.”
The NAACP in Maine did not apologize. Rachel Talbot Ross, leader of the Maine chapter, issued a statement that read, in part: “The ripple effects of this insult reverberate far beyond Maine’s African American community. It’s a painful reminder to every person in Maine and those nationwide that the fight for equal rights and dignity continues. The NAACP remains dedicated to this fight today and tomorrow. We also welcome the opportunity to correct the governor’s historical assessment of the civil rights movement.”
Meanwhile, national media and representatives of civil rights groups rushed to criticize LePage, while it was difficult to find anyone who had publicly come to his defense.
Vanity Fair labeled LePage’s advice to Lewis “ more insulting than Trump’s,” and Democrats in Maine pounced, including an emailed fundraising request that featured a photo of Lewis with party Chairman Phil Bartlett and harsh words from a legislative leader.
“This disparagement of others does not represent who we are as Mainers,” said Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport in a written statement. “I implore the governor to take the time to reflect on why he has, yet again, crossed the line.”
Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said LePage was wrong in multiple ways.
“Sadly, Gov. LePage is so eager to dismiss black leaders like John Lewis that he would rather give credit for the civil rights movement to Rutherford Hayes, a mediocre president whose election ushered in the Jim Crow era,” said Beyea.
An established pattern
One of the angriest and most notorious blow-ups of LePage’s tenure as governor came last year after he thought Democratic state Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook called him a racist — Gattine didn’t — and LePage responded by leaving an obscene voicemail for Gattine and challenging him to a duel.
The fiery response to any suggestion — even an unfounded one — that he might be “racist” sheds a bit of light on the governor’s views on race relations. As with so many other aspects of his public life, LePage seems to take racial politics personally — and to make decisions based on a tightly focused worldview that’s based on his life experiences and conservative ideology.
LePage and his wife, Ann, helped raise a black man that they call a son, and according to insiders, the LePage family’s philanthropy has shown no bounds when it comes to race.
“If they want, they can look at my family picture,” said LePage in January 2011 after he refused an invitation to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally event hosted by the NAACP and said they could “kiss my butt” when he was criticized for it.
“My son happens to be black, so they can do whatever they’d like about it,” said LePage.
LePage’s racially charged comments have punctuated his tenure as governor, starting with the comment aimed at the NAACP.
He said “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” come to Maine to sell heroin and “incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we’ve got to deal with down the road.”
LePage later said he wished he’d used different words but lambasted the media instead of offering an apology.
Later last year, LePage said he keeps a three-ring binder on his desk that proves 90 percent of Maine’s drug arrests involve black or Hispanic offenders. That claim was later debunked after freedom of access requests produced the binder and showed that more than half of the arrests documented in it were of white people.
LePage has suffered little in the way of practical consequences for his racially fueled comments. He won re-election to his second term in 2014 by a wider margin than his 2010 win, despite four years of pounding from Democrats and their allies.
An attempt to impeach LePage in September 2016, resulting directly from the comments that sparked the conflict with Gattine, failed to gain any significant traction.
A parallel effort by some lawmakers to censure LePage or discipline him for the incident also failed to gain any traction at all.
In Maine, the nation’s whitest state, political punishment for statements perceived to be racially insensitive have been muted compared to more diverse parts of the country. Portland, the state’s most racially diverse city, also is a hotbed for liberalism and the Democratic Party, which allows LePage to dismiss concerns raised by people of color there as being part of the withering public relations campaign his opponents have waged against him since he took office.
Why does it matter?
The fear is that people in high places surviving racist remarks normalizes racism. Another emerging trend is of lawmakers saying anything they want as gospel, said Jeffrey Selinger, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College.
“There’s a confluence of factors where you have this new card that can be played by politicians, ‘I’m just being politically incorrect,’” said Selinger. “That has given license to legislators to say almost anything.”
Selinger said LePage is a sort of pioneer in this regard but that his rhetoric could come back to haunt him, particularly if he decides to run for U.S. Senate, as he has said he might.
“If he should decide to run for Senate, I think these comments are going to weigh him down,” said Selinger. “It’s so breathtaking to hear someone suggest that there’s something owed from one race to another.”