AUGUSTA – The LePage administration sought exposure for the governor and his gun-rights stance on conservative talk shows during last month’s firestorm over requests for public records on Maine’s concealed-weapons permit holders.
Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, sent out two emails on Feb. 14 to talk show hosts who are sympathetic to gun owners in the national debate on gun violence.
The first message went to an associate producer at Fox News in New York City, with a request to forward it to national television political commentator Bill O’Reilly.
The second went to Howie Carr, a conservative radio host in Boston who aired a segment condemning the Bangor Daily News for making a Freedom of Access Act request for the permit information.
The Portland Press Herald obtained Bennett’s emails through a Freedom of Access request to the governor’s office for public records related to the concealed-weapons controversy.
The Bangor newspaper’s request generated a withering backlash from gun owners and activists and prompted the Legislature to enact an emergency bill making the permit information secret for 60 days.
Lawmakers are now debating legislation that would take the information off the public record permanently – for the first time since 1981.
The Press Herald received more than 500 pages of emails that were sent to and from the administration’s staff.
Most were from activists and constituents expressing outrage or fear that the Bangor newspaper intended to publish the concealed-weapons data. Others showed how the administration scrambled to get the temporary ban.
The emails from Bennett to Carr and Fox News producer Daniel Hillsdon reveal that the administration saw a political opportunity in the backlash.
Both emails contained a statement from LePage, who said, “If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the governor has his.” They included a link to the governor’s Twitter post, which included a photo of him showing his permit for the camera.
“Wondering if you can pass this along to Bill O’Reilly’s folks?” Bennett wrote to Hillsdon. “Very interesting!”
Twelve minutes later, Bennett emailed Carr directly.
“It’s been awhile since you’ve chatted with Governor LePage,” she wrote. “Thought you might find this interesting.”
Bennett said in an interview Thursday that the emails were self-explanatory.
“My job is to make sure the governor’s message is heard loud and clear,” she said. “There are certain shows that … gain or have a large audience, and sometimes I reach out to them.”
She said, “I did that on my own. It’s part of my job.”
It’s routine for political communications staffs to solicit media coverage, particularly during a controversy. The goal is to amplify politicians’ messages and get as much exposure as possible.
LePage, for example, has appeared several times on Carr’s program. He appeared on conservative talk shows across the country when he attended events hosted by the Republican Governors Association.
LePage once plugged O’Reilly’s book “Killing Lincoln” in his weekly radio address. O’Reilly returned the favor by mentioning LePage during his popular Fox News show, “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Bennett said the emails to Carr and O’Reilly produced no immediate response. However, Carr did mention the governor, and the Twitter picture of him holding up his concealed-weapons permit, during his show on Feb. 15, the day the Bangor newspaper rescinded its records request.
Republicans and gun-rights Democrats used the controversy to show their allegiance to gun activists and gun owners. The emergency legislation to shield the data was sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the assistant majority leaders of the Senate and House.
Lizzy Reinholt, communications director for the Maine Democratic Party, said emails like Bennett’s are common in her line of work. Reinholt said conservatives proved adept at using the concealed-weapons permit flap for political gain.
She said Bennett’s emails showed how the controversy wasn’t “completely organic.”
“They were trying to stir it up and they did,” Reinholt said. “They were very successful.
She said, “I almost have to give them kudos. … They saw an opportunity and they seized it to build a well-orchestrated press campaign.”
Said Bennett, “It’s all about messaging and getting the word out to as many people as we can. It was nothing more than that.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
On Twitter: @stevemistler