Gov. Paul LePage’s political opponents pounced on him Tuesday for saying that 47 percent of able-bodied Mainers don’t work.
The governor made the remark to a conservative women’s group in Falmouth last week. The event was recorded secretly by someone who attended, and the recording has subsequently been leaked in a series of short installments by a liberal activist and blogger, Mike Tipping.
It’s unclear where LePage got the statistic he used. There is no statistic that indicates, by itself, the percentage of able-bodied Mainers who work.
Data published by the Maine Department of Labor shows that 65.3 percent of the 709,025 Mainers who are eligible for work — those 16 and older who aren’t incarcerated — are employed or actively looking for work. Just over 60 percent are employed, according to the data released in August.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Maine’s labor force participation — those employed or looking for work — is slightly higher than the national average of 63.3 percent.
Tipping, whose blog is published on the Bangor Daily News website, said Tuesday that the governor’s remark bears an uncanny resemblance to the infamous 47 percent remark by 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Romney told supporters that 47 percent of Americans would unconditionally support President Obama because they were entitled and “dependent upon government.”
Like LePage’s remarks, Romney’s were secretly recorded. They later became fodder for supporters of the president’s re-election bid.
LePage has a history of comments that even he concedes are politically damaging.
WHERE THE NUMBERS CAME FROM
In the recording, LePage is told that his speaking event at the Dockside Grill is almost over. He says he wants to make two points before leaving, the second being a reference to “workforce development.”
“About 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work,” he says.
“What?” a woman in the audience says incredulously.
LePage says, “About 47 percent. It’s really bad.”
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor is concerned about the number of Mainers who are on welfare relative to those who are employed.
In an email, she first highlighted the governor’s impoverished upbringing and then linked to a paper by the Maine Heritage Policy Center in 2010 showing the percentage of Mainers receiving various forms of public assistance, including Medicaid, cash assistance and food stamps, which, when combined, equaled 48.4 percent. Bennett said LePage was referring to that when he made his remark last week.
Bennett acknowledged that public assistance numbers have no correlation to employment, saying, “We don’t know” whether recipients are working.
In Maine, the average monthly benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is $124.10. The monthly benefit from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families averages $149. Benefits can be combined, but it’s unlikely that anyone could survive on one program alone.
Additionally, most recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are required to look for employment, so they would be counted in the 65.3 percent who are participating in the labor force.
“The governor understands that not everyone who is dependent on taxpayer dollars is â€˜able-bodied,’ ” Bennett wrote in her email, “but he does believe that everyone, regardless of their ability or physical condition, can contribute to society in a meaningful way.”
RIVAL CANDIDATES SLAM GOVERNOR
The Republican governor, who will seek re-election next year, was quickly criticized by his opponents.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democratic candidate for governor, said in a prepared statement that LePage’s remarks don’t reflect the Maine workers he knows.
“I worked for 29 years at Great Northern Paper Company and I know that Maine workers are some of the hardest-working in the world,” Michaud said. “They take pride in their work and they deserve a governor who will take pride in them. It’s time we have a governor who will lift Maine up and be a champion of this state, not put it down with misinformation and attacks.”
Michaud’s campaign immediately parlayed the comment into a fundraising opportunity, while the Democratic Governors Association drew a parallel to Romney’s 47 percent reference from 2012.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler said the comment shows that LePage isn’t “worthy of leading” Mainers.
Cutler said it was “patently false and insulting to the people of a state known for their work ethic and ingenuity.”
The 54-second snippet from LePage’s 90-minute speech to the Informed Women’s Network group is the sixth released by Tipping. Each clip has been less than a minute, including two that are shorter than 30 seconds.
The governor’s allies have criticized Tipping for not publishing the entire speech. Tipping said Tuesday that each clip is in context, and that he plans to release the entire recording.
Asked why he didn’t publish the entire speech from the start, Tipping said, “There are so many claims in this that it takes a while to fact-check them. I wanted to give each of these a full (blog) post. Everything that I’ve put out deserves at least a few paragraphs (of explanation).”
Tipping works for the Maine People’s Alliance, an activist group that has long helped Democratic candidates get elected through get-out-the-vote drives. Since LePage was elected, the group has become increasingly aggressive.
LePAGE STANDS BY MOST COMMENTS
Some of the recorded clips have been clarified by the governor, including one in which he said he was hiding a $47 million surplus from the Legislature.
In another, LePage said his civil emergency proclamation in response to this month’s federal government shutdown was designed to nullify the state employees’ labor contract.
His communications office said later that the surplus claim was made in jest, and the Maine State Employees Association said the Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from repealing labor contracts.
Other clips include the governor’s views on wind power and a claim that he has a strong lead in the polls.
In the latter clip, LePage also says his willingness to take a forceful stand could prove costly. He refers to the long political careers of former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and current Sen. Susan Collins, saying, “Let me tell you about Susan and Olympia. The only way you survive a long time in Maine politics is you sit the fence, and if you don’t, like I’ll be lucky for a full term.”
LePage has acknowledged that his impolitic or inaccurate remarks are costly to his political career. He has vowed recently to have his staff duct-tape his mouth shut. But in a story published by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, the governor expressed few regrets for what he has said.
“I have what I consider is a decent sense of humor,” he said in the story. “I don’t take myself very seriously and I have found, in Augusta, politics is very serious and I don’t take it seriously because I don’t like it.”
He said that the only comment he lamented was when he said in a television interview that a Democratic lawmaker was giving it to Maine people without Vaseline.
“It was a terrible one and I regret it … everything else I’ve said … I still believe them,” LePage said.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @stevemistler