AUGUSTA –– Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday fiercely defended comments he made about race and drug dealers at a town hall meeting Wednesday in North Berwick, where he said he keeps a binder of photographs of drug dealers arrested in Maine and that more than 90 percent of them are black or Hispanic.
In a tense exchange with two reporters outside his State House office, LePage said: “Let me tell you something: Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers. You ought to look into that!”
The governor then stormed off, saying over his shoulder, “You make me so sick!”
Moments later, LePage summoned the same reporters to the Blaine House, where he said in a 30-minute interview that race isn’t a factor in his decisions about fighting Maine’s opioid drug crisis. Asked why he brought up the race of the suspects in his binder, LePage criticized the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for not printing all booking mugshots of those charged with trafficking in heroin.
“That’s what gave me the idea of going to the jail and getting the pictures, and then a couple of weeks later you started to print them again,” LePage said. “You know and I know and everybody in the state knows that the overwhelming majority of the people that have been arrested this year, coming out of Connecticut and New York, have been black and Hispanic, it’s not a matter of race, it’s a matter of fact. Are there some white ones? Yes, there are some white people.”
The Press Herald/Telegram routinely publishes photographs taken when accused drug dealers are booked in county jails when it is able to obtain them, and it has not altered that practice. However, police departments don’t always make photographs available.
LePage and his communications director, Peter Steele, refused to show the newspaper the governor’s binder of mugshots Thursday. The Press Herald/Telegram has filed a request for a copy of the binder’s contents under the Freedom of Access Act.
RENEWED CRITICISM FOR COMMENTS
The governor first raised the issue of drug-dealing and race in January at a town hall meeting in Bridgton. He returned to the subject Wednesday in North Berwick, in response to a question from Andrew Ritchie, a black audience member who said he is a businessman from New York and a former Maine resident.
“Let me tell you this, explain to you, I made the comment that black people are trafficking in our state. Now ever since I said that comment I’ve been collecting every single drug dealer who has been arrested in our state,” LePage said. “I don’t ask them to come to Maine and sell their poison, but they come and I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ringed binder, are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx and Brooklyn.”
The exchange between Gov. LePage and Andrew Ritchie begins at the 51-minute mark of this audio:
The governor’s statement drew criticism Wednesday night from the ACLU of Maine, which said statistics show that white people are more likely to sell drugs than black people.
On Thursday, the ACLU also filed a Freedom of Access Act request for the governor’s binder of drug suspects.
“According to the governor, Maine police are nine times more likely to arrest people of color for selling drugs than white people, even though we know white people are just as likely to commit drug offenses. This alarming disparity in arrests raises significant concerns that Maine law enforcement is participating in unconstitutional racial profiling,” the ACLU’s Maine executive director, Alison Beyea, said in a prepared statement.
“Racial profiling goes against the very principles and values on which our country was built,” Beyea said. “Sadly, the LePage administration does not seem to understand that in this country there is a rulebook for government action, and that rulebook is called the Constitution. The Constitution is clear that our government cannot treat people differently because of the color of their skin. We cannot let our elected official abandon that cherished value.”
Data on drug arrests by race in Maine was not available Thursday, but the most recent national figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that in 2012, 38 percent of people arrested for drug trafficking were black.
ANGER OVER BEING LABELED RACIST
LePage ignited debate over race and drugs with his comments in January.
“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 said at the Bridgton meeting. “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.”
When asked Thursday what he would say to those who believe he’s a racist, LePage said he is not, and that it angers him that his political rivals and the media assume he is racist.
“If I am a racist for trying to get black people and Hispanic people and white people and Asian people who come up (Interstate 95) with heroin that will kill Mainers, then I plead guilty,” LePage said. “I do plead guilty.”
LePage also took aim at specific lawmakers, saying his focus on the drug crisis in Maine is serious and shouldn’t be tainted by “election-year politics.”
“I am here to save lives, and anybody that wants to sell their poison in Maine, I am here to put them in jail,” LePage said in the interview with two reporters.
“It is infuriating and to all Mainers, I am a little bit upset with these people continually calling me a racist when I grew up on the streets being harassed by all these white people because I was a poor French kid with nothing and I resent it and I’m angry at it and I think Mainers should be appalled and willing to throw these people out of the Legislature,” LePage said.
RACES OF DRUG CRIME SUSPECTS
He took particular aim at Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. LePage said Gattine’s opposition to legislation that would have made heroin possession a felony harmed efforts to fight the state’s drug crisis.
LePage also said Gattine had called him a racist, but Gattine denied it.
Asked if he believes blacks and Hispanics commit more drug crimes than white people, LePage said he doesn’t know.
“I don’t know and I don’t care, quite frankly, all I know is Maine people are dying,” LePage said. “That’s all I care about.”
LePage said he has been in contact with some of the drug users’ families.
“I do talk to the family members, I feel real bad,” LePage said. “In fact, I just met with a cousin of a young man, who quite frankly I was shocked he was a neighbor in Boothbay, a 29-year-old, good, handsome-looking man with a child, it was heartbreaking to see him pass – I did speak to his cousin and I was very happy to see the trafficker was evicted from the house that he was living in.”