AUGUSTA – Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage’s making an issue of the age of Democratic rival Libby Mitchell was a hit with supporters Saturday – but not with members of Maine’s AARP chapter.

“To reject anyone just by virtue of their age, well, it’s just discrimination and shouldn’t be done,” Nancy Kelleher, Maine state director of the AARP, said Monday.

LePage, 61, told a crowd gathered in Bath that “Libby had her 70th birthday a few weeks ago, and I’m concerned about her. We should send her home.”

Earlier that day, another Republican politician took aim at Mitchell’s age for laughs before a crowd, many of whom gathered in the midcoast for LePage’s whistle-stop tour on the Maine Eastern Railroad.

“I think we were still sending Apollo trips to the moon when she was first elected,” Rep. Jon McKane, R-Newcastle, said at a LePage campaign stop in Wiscasset. The comment was made before LePage’s train arrived.

The last Apollo mission was launched in December 1972. Mitchell was first elected to the Maine Legislature in 1974.

Kelleher said LePage’s comment was “downright wrong.”

“(Mitchell’s) got a long record — so if he’s got problems with her record or her service or her stance on an issue, go for it. Disagree with her,” Kelleher said. “But don’t dismiss her because of her age. That’s just downright wrong and ageism and it’s against the law.”

Kelleher said she’s heard from many people who were upset when they read about the remark.

“It just hit people the wrong way,” she said. “I don’t like it any more than I would if the 50-year-old candidates said that Mr. LePage was too old at age 61.”

Mitchell, at age 70, is the oldest candidate running for Maine’s top office. Also running are independent candidates Eliot Cutler, 63; Shawn Moody, 50; and Kevin Scott, 42.

Maine voters have not elected a governor older than 60 since 1959.

LePage’s campaign staff downplayed the importance of the joke Monday.

“Absolutely, age is not a consideration,” said John Morris, LePage’s chief of staff. “Some of the members of his staff are 70 years old and are working like hell, 10 hours a day, and have no problems.”

Morris said he couldn’t say why LePage made the joke or if he intended to issue an apology.

“You need to talk to Paul about that,” Morris said, adding that LePage was unavailable for comment because he was out of town.

“Paul’s closest staff has never even discussed Libby Mitchell’s age. Until I read (the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel) article, I didn’t know how old she was. Nor do I care. She’s a capable woman who is a worthy opponent,” Morris said.

The Mitchell campaign issued a statement Monday, turning to a conservative hero — Ronald Reagan — to refute age as a campaign issue.

“The stakes of this election are too high to reduce the debate to such unimportant topics,” Mitchell said in a statement. “I will borrow from former President Ronald Reagan, who Mr. LePage refers to fondly, and let everyone know that, ‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”‘

In his 1984 presidential re-election campaign, Reagan famously dismissed the idea that he, at 73, was too old for the White House. He delivered the remarks quoted by Mitchell during the second televised debate against his opponent, Democrat Walter Mondale, who was 56.

Mitchell also shot back Monday that LePage has been known to let fly with short-sighted phrases.

“Paul cannot seem to open his mouth without putting his foot in it,” she said. “It will be a better use of voters’ time if we talk about how we are going to create jobs, improve education and protect our natural resources, rather than discuss my age.”

During that same train trip, LePage made comments accusing a top state Democratic Party official of discrimination. The Maine Democratic Party demanded an apology Monday.

According to a release from the Maine Democratic Party and news reports by Maine Public Broadcasting and the Bangor Daily News, LePage alleged that Arden Manning, the coordinated campaign manager for the Maine Democratic Party, had made comments in blog posts that LePage would not be a good governor because of his French-Canadian and Catholic background.

LePage did not cite the blog or Web site where Manning had allegedly made the comment.

“This is a lie, plain and simple,” Manning said in a statement Monday.

Mary Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, said LePage’s claim has no basis.

“All our releases, Facebook and Twitter posts are public,” she said, adding that the party has long been supportive of the campaigns of Franco-American politicians including U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District.

Late Monday afternoon, Casale said Democrats had yet to hear anything from the LePage camp. Earlier Monday, a LePage campaign official said the candidate was out of town and unavailable for comment.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: rmetzler@mainetoday.com