AUGUSTA — As the owner of a vacuum cleaner shop, Dale Hatch knows about dirt. And he said that’s just what spurred Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage’s outburst at reporters who asked questions about his taxes.
“As near as I can tell, this is just another attempt for them to dig up dirt on one of the gubernatorial candidates,” Hatch said Tuesday in his shop in downtown Augusta. “We don’t have clean politics anymore. It’s all a matter of mudslinging.”
Those who know him say it was vintage LePage. And politics watchers said Monday’s outburst will actually play well with his supporters.
LePage, in the State Office Building’s press area to talk about his job-creation plan, was peppered with questions about property tax exemptions on his wife’s homes in Florida and Maine. He got angry, accused reporters of acting like snoops from the National Enquirer, and stormed out. The scene was replayed repeatedly on TV news and was prominent in Maine newspapers.
An hour later in Portland, he uttered a barnyard epithet when asked again about the tax issues. After cooling down, he circled back and offered an accounting to The Associated Press.
LePage acknowledged it was a mistake to claim principal-residence property tax exemptions in two states, and said he will return the $191 tax credit received in Maine in hopes of putting the matter to rest.
“It was an error, it was not a big deal,” LePage said. “I’m not going to defraud the state of Maine for $191.”
He said he won’t accept any future tax exemptions in either state.
Sandy Maisel, a political science professor at Colby College in Waterville, said, “I don’t think his performance surprised many people who have seen him over the years, because he says what he thinks and he doesn’t filter himself. To me, that was not a gubernatorial performance.”
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said he expects that the video showing LePage losing his cool will be replayed by those who are trying to score political points. His prediction became true before Tuesday ended.
An e-mail circulated by the Maine Democratic Party included links to video of LePage telling a reporter, “Let’s stop the bull—- and let’s answer the questions the way they should be answered.” He later apologized for his language.
Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell began running TV ads in which she personally criticizes LePage for what she sees as his weak stand on environmental protection.
Three independents – Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott – are also in the race to fill the open governor’s seat. Two-term Gov. John Baldacci is barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
LePage, a favorite of Maine’s tea party contingent and the general manager of the Marden’s discount department store chain, has called for a smaller, more business-friendly government and tax cuts.
Brewer said LePage’s outburst won’t matter to his core constituency, because a fair number of his supporters distrust the mainstream media.
“There are going to be some who say, ‘Good for him. Good for him for lashing out at the biased media,’” Brewer said.
Maisel also said Monday’s incidents probably won’t hurt LePage with his core constituency, but voters who are on the fence could back away because of the way he handled himself.
Fritz Spencer of Augusta said he thinks Monday’s events amounted to little more than “a feeding frenzy by the press,” but will nonetheless hurt the candidate.
“The press lives by controversy,” he said.