AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s television, the subject of one of many State House melodramas in recent months, hovered above the media throng that gathered in the Hall of Flags as this year’s legislative session came to a dramatic finish Wednesday. It played a video of a scripted interview between the governor and his spokeswoman. The volume was off.
LePage spoke, but nobody could hear him.
Lawmakers heard plenty from LePage during the contentious legislative session, but this week a majority of them — including 30 of 73 Republicans — didn’t listen, and voted to override the governor’s veto of the state’s $6.3 billion budget.
The Republicans’ rebuke of LePage further revealed a divide in the party that goes back to the beginning of the legislative session and the 2012 elections, which swept Republicans out of power in the Legislature. Two Republican leaders even took on LePage publicly in a rare act of defiance that could reverberate into next year’s election.
The governor’s forceful personality has led some to conclude that this week’s split by Republican leaders and rank-and-file members was personal. But there is also evidence that the rift is ideological.
LePage appeared to acknowledge the schism this week, while driving a wedge in further. He blasted fellow Republicans on Wednesday for participating in the “country club” atmosphere of the Legislature and lacking the “courage” to follow his lead. He even hinted that he may not seek re-election.
“I will say this, the Maine Republican Party is not a very strong party,” LePage said.
On that, LePage and his Republican critics appear to agree.
In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s budget veto override, the governor’s supporters were quick to note that a majority of Republican lawmakers voted with LePage to reject the compromise budget for the two years starting July 1.
Also, by Wednesday, LePage had vetoed 51 bills and Republicans had helped to sustain most of those vetoes.
The budget vote marked a noticeable shift. Not only did many Republicans buck LePage, they did so loudly.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, played significant roles in brokering the budget compromise with Democrats, who control the Legislature. They also secured enough votes in their caucus to ensure that the budget got the two-thirds vote required to override LePage’s veto.
In doing so, both drew the ire of LePage and his supporters. During a rally of conservative activists last week, LePage said some Republicans in the Legislature had lost their nerve by voting for the budget.
“Cowards!” one activist yelled.
Commenters on a well-known conservative website blasted Katz for attempting to compromise on Medicaid expansion. The senator was dubbed a RINO, a “Republican In Name Only.” One commenter suggested that Katz is predisposed to support liberal policies because he is Jewish and an attorney.
Some commenters suspect that Katz will challenge LePage in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Katz told a reporter Thursday that he doesn’t plan to run, but he did little to discourage the speculation this week.
In a searing newspaper opinion column posted online after the budget vote and published in newspapers Thursday, Katz hammered the governor’s “unfortunate tone” and inability to apologize to a Democratic senator who LePage said had “no brains” and was “giving it to” Maine people “without providing Vaseline.”
Wrote Katz, “(LePage’s) use of vulgarity and schoolyard taunts to demean his Democratic opponents. His failure to offer real apology. And then his insulting of Republican legislators who choose to disagree with him.
“I am embarrassed,” he wrote.
Katz’s column quickly went viral as it was picked up by media outlets, including The Washington Post.
Fredette delivered a more measured rebuke during a floor speech before the vote to override LePage’s budget, saying, “The level of vitriol I have witnessed and the circular firing squads I have seen among Republicans cannot stand.”
At least twice, Fredette looked over his shoulder and timed the delivery of his critique with a glance at Republicans sitting behind him.
Fredette and Katz are different leaders, but both were considered willing to compromise with Democratic leaders when lawmakers took their oaths in December.
Republicans had a difficult choice after the 2012 election. Would they pick leaders who were fiercely loyal to LePage, or choose compromise agents?
Many Republicans privately blamed LePage and his penchant for controversy for allowing Democrats to take back the Legislature. Democratic candidates didn’t just run against Republican policies, they ran against LePage.
Senate Republicans chose to balance their leaders, picking Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, a staunch LePage supporter, and Katz, a moderate.
In the House, the leadership battle was fierce, pitting Fredette against Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, another staunch LePage supporter. It took three votes for Fredette to win. Fredette’s backers worried that Davis and a campaign of obstruction would guarantee a budget impasse and a government shutdown.
While some Republicans were reluctant to fully back LePage, they knew the governor’s veto power would give them leverage to negotiate with Democrats.
“We need a leader that is going to hold us together or we’re going to get rolled,” Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said in December.
Republicans stayed united early in the session, backing LePage’s plan to pay off the state’s debt to Maine’s hospitals and sustaining his vetoes of Democratic-backed bills.
The rift was exposed as budget negotiations slogged toward a deadlock. Republicans tried to defend the governor’s budget while knowing that his plan to cut municipal revenue sharing offered them no political cover in their districts.
Some had been assured that LePage had an alternative plan.
Other Republicans worried that LePage wanted a government shutdown. That belief grew when the governor’s budget chief, Sawin Millett, told reporters last week that there was “no plan B.”
Fredette referred to Millett’s comment Wednesday.
“There is no Plan B,” Fredette said. “I repeat — there is no Plan B — nor have I been approached with a Plan B.”
Meanwhile, pressure was mounting on Republicans to reject the budget compromise. Conservative activists emailed and called lawmakers who planned to vote against LePage.
Fredette and Katz plowed forward, convincing 28 other Republicans to support the compromise. Those Republicans continued to take heat on Thursday.
Vic Berardelli, state chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, said in a media statement that the vote showed it is time for the party to take stock of its “values and some individuals reconsider their loyalties.”
“Some Republicans cowered behind the skirts of municipal officials who are cowards and will not face their voters to defend profligate spending,” said Berardelli.
In his Cabinet room Wednesday, LePage made a similar critique of Republicans and Democrats alike. He took no solace in his victories this session, comparing himself to former British Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who won most of his victories against the American colonists until losing the biggest battle of all, the Battle of Yorktown.
Outside in the Hall of Flags, the governor’s television featured a new message. Several lawmakers walked by. Only a few looked up to read it.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: