It is clear that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has gone too far in his attacks on workers and has, in the words of Stephanie Miller, “woken the sleeping giant” of Wisconsin labor and progressives in the birthplace of U.S. progressivism. Could the same giant be awakening in Maine? Since his election in November, in a three-way race with only 38 per cent of the vote and the support of only 22 per cent of Maine’s voting-age population, Maine’s Tea Party-lite Governor Paul LePage has leveled his brash mouth at every target he can find. But when LePage had an 11-panel, 36-foot-long mural depicting the history of Maine workers removed from a state Labor Department wall, he too may have gone too far.
LePage claims he had the mural removed because of a few complaints, including one anonymous letter that complained that the mural was too pro-worker, too pro-union and at odds with the governor’s pro-business agenda. Ironically, given the subsequent censorship of the artwork, the writer likened the mural to North Korean propaganda. When LePage announced his intention to remove the mural, activists threatened to block the mural’s removal with civil disobedience, and asked about the activists’ threat, LePage said he would “laugh at them, the idiots.” But in the end LePage’s braggadocio gave way to cowardice and the mural was removed on a Saturday, under the watchful eye of, well, no one.
LePage has also called for the renaming of state conference rooms currently named after, among others, Cesar Chavez and Frances Perkins, FDR’s audacious secretary of labor, the country’s first female cabinet secretary and a woman with Maine roots.
Since the mural fracas erupted there have been several protests in the state capital of Augusta. In an April 4 demo in the Hall of Flags inside the state capitol building hundreds of protestors heard speeches, sang songs and chanted “Recall Paul” and “Put It Back!”
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D) of Maine’s first district took the unusual step of weighing in on a state government issue and called for return of the mural. And in the wake of the mural brouhaha eight Republican legislators wrote a highly unusual op-ed criticizing a governor from their own party. A citizen’s lawsuit has been filed over the removal, and the feds are demanding return of the roughly $38,000 they footed for the mural because state contract with the feds states that the mural was to remain where it was. In her statement Rep. Pingree questioned Gov. LePage’s right to unilaterally remove the mural and the wisdom of the state spending $38,000 to mothball the mural when the state is facing a gaping budget deficit, big spending cuts and teacher layoffs. At one point LePage thought he’d get off easy by shlepping the mural off one someone else, but that idea vanished like so much downeast fog when angry citizens forced the city of Portland and a Lewiston museum to reject the political hot potato. Now no one will touch it.
Adding to LePage’s woes, a Republican legislator said the state may need a process for recalling governors, something Maine does not currently have. The legislator was quick to say his words had nothing to with LePage, but few in the Pine Tree state were buying that, and while a bill to establish a recall process failed to make it out of committee, the issue is not dead.
Mainers are well aware of what is happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country, and they have tentatively begun to make parallels to their own state. Editorials in state’s newspapers have drawn a similar, tentative link.
The mural imbroglio is only the latest in a formidable heap of controversy accumulated by LePage since his minority election. Even before the November election candidate LePage said that had he been governor he would not have allowed President Obama to make a visit to Portland earlier in the year. And soon after his election LePage said the same Obama could “go to hell.” Being well trained by Bibi Netanyahu, Obama later kissed and made up.
Later on the NAACP invited LePage to a Martin Luther King Day breakfast, a tradition with Maine governors. The NAACP expressed dismay when LePage declined the invitation, at which point LePage invited the NAACP to kiss his butt.
LePage wants to roll back environmental and consumer protections, all under the mantle of “regulatory reform.” Much of LePage’s hit list is not even wanted by Business, big or small, and one of the governor’s targets was a proposed state ban on reusable beverage containers containing bisphenol-A, or BPA, which emits a chemical that mimics estrogen. Speaking about the proposed ban, LePage said the worst that could come of BPA’s use was that some women would develop “little beards.” In what has to be seen as a clear rebuke to the more extreme elements of LePage’s fruitcake agenda the Maine House voted 145-3 for the ban, and the Senate followed suit with a unanimous 35-0 vote.
The seeming gaffes by the governor have come in such a torrent it now seems that they are an intentional political calculation. But will they play in Presque Isle? According to a March 15 Lewiston Sun Journal poll, LePage’s approval rating is 43 per cent, a few ticks above his November election numbers, but fairly well below the 50 per cent figure he may need for re-election.
Maine’s contributions to the country’s political legacy have included figures such as Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice-president; Margaret Chase Smith, the first female in the U.S. Senate and defier of Joe McCarthy; Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 running mate; and George Mitchell, who brokered an end to Ireland’s civil war and now parades about the globe as the supposedly impartial broker of a resolution to the Israel-Palestine problem.
In recent years Mainers have sent Congress a steady diet of liberal, maybe even progressive, reps and do-nothing, falsely independent Republican senators, one of whom can barely speak and sounds like Lilly Tomlin’s telephone operator on downers. The Blaine House, the official residence of Maine governors, meanwhile, has been inhabited in recent years by Joe Brennan who refused to send Maine National Guard troops to Reagan’s wars in Central America; by Brennan’s antithesis, John McKernan, who earned the nickname John “McContra” for his support of those same Reagan wars; by Angus King, an allegedly Independent corporate hack; and most recently by John Baldacci, an unpopular, somnambulant corporate stooge made famous by the fettuccine in his mother’s Bangor restaurant. LePage may be trying to add to this stellar political legacy by catching the eye of Sarah Palin and landing himself the second slot on her ticket.
LePage has called for an almost across-the-board cut in state salaries, but until very recently the long list of salaries to be cut did not include his own. And LePage has been accused of nepotism for hiring his recent-grad daughter as assistant chief of staff, a state job that pays $41,000 a year, not counting free lodging in the aforementioned Blaine House.
It’s possible LePage will survive all this, as he still has a ways to go before he’ll catch up with Maine Speaker of the House Robert Nutting, pharmacist, The Department of Human Services says Nutting owes at least $876,000 for overbilling state and federal Medicaid programs over five years. Nutting says the state’s calculations are in error, that his only mistake was an incorrect interpretation of the billing rules, and that he owes only $563,000.and in a heartwarming display of bipartisanship, both Democratic and Republican state attorneys general have declined to proffer criminal charges or even go after the money. This while LePage, Nutting and their cohorts in the legislature howl for the scalps of hallucinated welfare cheats. To fully appreciate the degradation of Maine politics it helps to remember that Nutting was elected speaker after all this criminal behavior came out. And no less than 61 of 72 Democrats in the House voted for the crook. Rick Scott would be proud.
Unfortunately we don’t yet know what LePage will do about the federal government’s $38,000 demand because after less than three months on the job LePage has gone on vacation to Jamaica. It’s good to be king.
LAWRENCE REICHARD can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org