AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage told top Democrats on Thursday that he is moving his office out of the State House after they raised objections to his use of a hallway to make a political statement.
LePage accused Democrats of attempting to censor him.
At the center of the dispute: a television.
Democratic leaders met with LePage on Thursday morning to discuss a flat-screen TV outside his office in the Hall of Flags, an area that is technically part of the Legislature.
The television flashes several messages, including the number of days it has been since LePage proposed a budget and a bill to pay the state’s $186 million debt to its hospitals.
After each message, the screen flashes, “What’s the holdup?” The number on the screen Thursday was 133.
Earlier this week, after officials questioned the use of the space, the TV was rolled closer to LePage’s office and began displaying Section 4 of the Maine Constitution: “Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish sentiments on any subject …”
The TV stayed in the hall through Thursday. It wasn’t clear if LePage really will move his office. He worked out of his Blaine House residence Wednesday and Thursday.
In a written statement Thursday, he said, “If I have to remove myself from the toxic climate of censorship by Democrats in the State House to defend the taxpayers of Maine, then that’s what I will do.” His staff will stay at the State House, the statement said.
Vacating the office might not be an option.
State law requires the governor to “keep his office at the State House open for the transaction of the business of the state during all normal working hours of the State House.” When the governor is absent, the law says, “his private secretary shall be in attendance.”
According to the Democrats, leaders met with LePage to discuss the “unauthorized” television and invited him to request permission from the Legislative Council to keep it there. The council is made up mostly of Democratic lawmakers.
Democrats said LePage told them that he and his staff would leave the office as of July 1.
“In government and in life, there are rules that need to be followed. It is disappointing and frustrating that the governor thinks he’s exempt,” Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland said in a prepared statement.
House Speaker Mark Eves said the governor’s action is “unprecedented, but nonetheless consistent with his pattern of behavior.”
“Storming out when you don’t get what you want is not leadership,” Eves said in a written statement. “He continues to be an unwilling partner at every turn and that is unfortunate for the people of Maine.”
But the governor, in a statement, said Democrats are engaging in a “disturbing pattern of censorship.” That’s partly a reference to a face-off Sunday, when the Democratic Senate chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee refused to let LePage address its members.
“Now they are saying that the governor of Maine cannot have a TV in the waiting area,” LePage said. “Maine Democrats are taking their cue from the Obama administration in Washington, D.C., which has violated the free-speech rights of American citizens and used the power of the government to silence those who disagree with them.”
David Boulter, executive director of the Legislative Council, which controls most State House facilities, said he recently struck agreements about the TV with LePage’s office, but the agreements were violated.
On May 9, Boulter said, the governor’s office agreed that the television screen would be in his reception area. On Monday, Boulter said, LePage’s office agreed to remove the screen from its current location.
“It is jurisdiction of the council and if the office wanted to have something outside, they could send a request to the Legislative Council and the council would take it up,” he said. “I have not received a request.”
Boulter said the content of the television message is not the issue.
“It’s a long history of keeping it dignified as a place of the Legislature and a place of government,” he said. “Each office having their messages go up, it would change the dynamic here quite a bit.”
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, disputed Boulter’s characterization. She said the governor’s office shut the TV off Tuesday to see what legislators’ reaction would be. She provided an email from Boulter that day with the subject line “TV.” The body of the message said only, “Thank you.”
“We wanted to see if it was the message or the TV,” Bennett said. “That’s when it became clear to us that it was about the message.”
On Thursday, Bennett said the governor was conducting “business as usual” from the Blaine House. She said there were no immediate plans for the office staff to move.
LePage contradicted that later in the day, in an interview with a scrum of reporters.
“No, no, no. We’re going to move the office,” he said.
When asked where, he said he didn’t know. “You know a good real estate guy?” he joked.
Top Democrats weren’t amused.
Eves and Alfond said they were upset that so much attention was directed to the issue on the day that the governor vetoed a bill that would provide Medicaid health care coverage to low-income residents and pay the state’s hospitals about $186 million in overdue Medicaid reimbursements.
“This meeting with the governor is an example of the types of meetings that happen,” Eves said. “It was about three minutes long. … The governor did the talking, we did the listening. He said he’s moving out. We said OK.”
Alfond disputed LePage’s claim that Democratic leaders are responsible for the dysfunctional relationship.
“He insults people. He goes after people personally, he distracts people. So instead of talking about covering tens of thousands of people (with health care), paying back our hospitals, (reporters) now are here covering a trivial story,” Alfond said. “The governor wants to move out. By all means, go ahead. We’re going to continue to work.”
The relationship between LePage and Democrats has been icy since the Democrats won back majorities in the House and Senate in last year’s elections. LePage irked Democratic leaders when he scolded them during swearing-in ceremonies in December and refused to meet with the party’s new leaders at the start of the session.
David Cheever, the state archivist, said the Legislature’s ownership of the State House has occasionally produced disagreements over artwork in the hallways. But, he said, the television flap appears to be unprecedented.
Public spats over seemingly trivial matters are not.
In 1975, independent Gov. James Longley called legislative leaders “pimps” during a luncheon at the Blaine House. It was one of several head-turning statements by Longley, whose exploits became the subject of Willis Johnson’s colorful book, “The Year of the Longley.”
Cheever said the Legislature used to share a small airplane with the governor for traveling to public events. Occasionally, the governor would take the plane to an event to which presiding officers were also invited — and leave them behind.
Cheever said the state got rid of the airplane around the time Republican Gov. John McKernan served with a Democratic majority in the Legislature.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 620-7016 or at:
Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at: