Gov. Paul LePage has drawn widespread condemnation for a racially charged comment he made during one of his regular town hall meetings to promote his policy agenda in Bridgton on Wednesday night.
About 30 minutes into the meeting, which was rebroadcast Thursday night, LePage responded to a question about how he was tackling substance abuse in Maine. He began talking about how much of the heroin is coming into Maine from out-of-state drug dealers.
“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” LePage told a large crowd. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”
LePage’s comments quickly flashed across social media and online news sites around the nation Thursday night, being picked up by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” and Buzzfeed, to name a few.
Among those voicing criticism was the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“LePage’s racist rants sadly distract from efforts to address one of our nation’s most pressing problems,” said Hillary for America’s Marlon Marshall in an emailed statement.
Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director, defended LePage’s remarks Thursday night, saying the governor wasn’t speaking about race, but about the emotional toll that drugs have on children.
“The governor is not making comments about race. Race is irrelevant,” Steele said in a statement he emailed in response to a request to have the governor explain his comments. “What is relevant is the cost to state taxpayers for welfare and the emotional costs for these kids who are born as a result of involvement with drug traffickers. His heart goes out to these kids because he had a difficult childhood, too. We need to stop the drug traffickers from coming into our state.”
Steele didn’t respond to a message left on his phone Thursday night, an email with a follow-up question on his statement or an email requesting an interview with the governor.
CONDEMNATIONS AND NO COMMENTS
Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said in an interview that the comments “at best were coded racism,” designed to divide Maine people.
“It’s outrageous,” Bartlett said. “Everybody should be denouncing his comments and what they’re intended to provoke. I would call upon all Republicans to stand up and say this is wrong and it’s not acceptable in our public discourse. It’s simply indefensible.”
He said the comment fits into a national narrative being expounded by Republicans, who are increasingly using “pretty overt racist language and imagery rather than talking about the merits of public policy.”
National Democrats sought to use LePage’s comments to influence the Republican presidential primary. The National Democratic Committee issued a statement calling on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who traveled to Maine about a half-dozen times in 2014 to stump for LePage’s re-election, to renounce LePage’s endorsement of his presidential campaign. In July, Christie came to Maine to announce LePage’s endorsement.
“Paul LePage’s comments are disgusting, racist and represent the worst form of conservative politics – one that plays to the darkest elements of the Republican Party’s base,” Michael Tyler, DNC director of African American media, said in a written statement. “By remaining silent, Gov. Christie condones LePage’s racist comments and his world view.”
LePage is known for his blunt talk and crude comments. He once told the Maine NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and vowed to tell President Obama to “go to hell.” He also accused a Democratic lawmaker of having “no brains” and being “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”
Lance Dutson, a Republican consultant who runs the Get Right Maine website, which seeks to restore a more moderate brand of Republicanism in Maine, described LePage’s latest remark in a blog post as “one of the most offensive statements yet from this governor.”
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, refused to comment on the governor’s remarks. Instead, he took aim at Dutson. “We don’t respond to attacks from disgruntled former staffers,” Savage said.
Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett did not return a voicemail message seeking comment.
LEPAGE CRITICIZED IN OTHER MATTERS
Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, who is suing the governor over his interference in a private job offer, said in a written statement that “LePage should be ashamed of himself.”
“What a terrible example for our children,” Eves said. “Now more than ever we need leaders that bring us together to work toward making life better for families, not worse. The governor’s crude comments have no place in Maine or any other decent society.”
Alison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the remark was “race-based fear mongering, reminiscent of shameful times in our nation’s past.”
“At a time when we should be focused on coming together to solve Maine’s addiction problem, the governor has opted instead for divisive, racist rhetoric,” Beyea said in a written statement.
Maine Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he had neither heard the governor’s comment nor read reports about it. He declined to provide a reaction when LePage’s comments were read to him by a reporter.
Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, was reached by a reporter, but his cellphone cut out. He didn’t return a voicemail seeking comment Thursday night.
None of Maine’s congressional delegation – Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree – responded to requests for comment Thursday night.
The firestorm over the comments comes as the governor is being sued in federal court by Eves, who accuses LePage of using intimidation to prevent a private school from hiring Eves as its president. Maine Democrats are weighing whether to introduce a resolution censuring LePage over the allegations, and a group of lawmakers is considering a separate order calling for an investigation into possible impeachment charges against the governor.
Dutson first made LePage’s comment public with a post on the Get Right Maine website, shortly before Lake Region Television, a local access station, posted a video recording of the town hall event online at 5 p.m. Thursday, a day after it was held.
Several Portland television stations had reporters or photographers covering the event Wednesday night, but none of the stations broadcast a story that night making reference to the racially charged comment. Station managers didn’t return calls seeking comment Thursday.
CROWD MOSTLY LEPAGE SUPPORTERS
The local access video showed a crowd that appeared to be dominated by LePage supporters, applauding his desire to keep young people in Maine, cut income taxes, eliminate student debt and require able-bodied people to work, rather than receive welfare.
Although some chuckled when LePage recited the names of “D-Money” and the other drug dealers, the room fell quiet and there was little discernible reaction when he finished his remark with the reference to impregnated young white girls.
The meeting in Bridgton, a town in western Maine with 5,200 residents, was the latest in a series of town hall gatherings that LePage has been holding to build support for his legislative agenda, which includes the elimination of the state’s income tax, and to criticize his opponents, especially those in the Legislature.
On Wednesday, LePage talked about a plan to reduce student debt through a partnership with the Finance Authority of Maine and the Alfond Family Foundation.
He also accused legislators of diverting funding he had earmarked for the elderly to help “illegal immigrants,” a term his administration often uses to describe people who are here legally seeking asylum from violence and political persecution in their homelands. Maine asylum seekers mostly come from African countries.
LePage has been accused of making a racially insensitive comment before. In August 2013, he reportedly told a group at a private function in Belgrade that President Obama “hates white people.” The remark was made at a meet-and-greet with the governor, first lady Ann LePage and Bennett, who had just been selected as party chairman. Two Republican lawmakers, who were not identified, confirmed the remarks to a reporter.
The governor denied making the remark.