Gov. Paul LePage took a step toward atoning for his recent actions Tuesday while also sending sharply conflicting signals about how he plans to respond to mounting pressure from Democrats and members of his own party.
In a morning radio interview, LePage said he was totally at fault for leaving a threatening voice mail last week for a Democratic lawmaker who he believed had called him a racist. He later invited Rep. Drew Gattine to the State House to have a face-to-face meeting Wednesday, and Gattine accepted.
During the day, LePage also raised the possibility more than once on the radio that he might not finish his second term because of the controversy, which has stretched on for a week.
“I’m looking at all options,” the Republican governor said Tuesday morning while appearing on WVOM, a Bangor talk radio station. “I think some things I’ve been asked to do are beyond my ability. I’m not going to say that I’m not going to finish it. I’m not saying that I am going to finish it.”
Later in the interview, he said: “If I’ve lost my ability to help Maine people, maybe it’s time to move on.”
Some six hours later, in a tweet posted from his Twitter account, LePage backed away from any suggestion that he was considering resignation.
“Regarding rumors of resignation, to paraphrase Mark Twain: ‘The reports of my political demise are greatly exaggerated,’ ” his office tweeted.
LePage also traveled Tuesday to Baileyville, in Washington County, to take part in a ceremony at St. Croix Tissue. He told WCSH-TV in an afternoon interview there that resignation was an exaggeration, but obviously an option. He also said he was talking with his family about what he should do.
“I only have to be accountable to God and my family,” he said, “and that’s the most important thing in my life.”
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, would not clarify the governor’s intentions Tuesday afternoon, saying only, “The tweet speaks for itself.”
Tuesday night, Republican leadership of the Maine House announced that their members weren’t going to take any action – as Democratic legislators had strongly urged – shooting down the possibility of convening a special session to address the governor’s behavior.
“Gov. LePage has acknowledged he is sorry, we have condemned his words for what he said, he needs to continue to work on that, but as House Republicans we are going to go out there and start talking about the issues and start talking to the voters because we believe that’s what’s important, we are not coming back in for a special session to talk about this,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
Fredette said LePage “clearly understands what he did was wrong,” but he did not specify what LePage had to do to regain the trust of Republicans in the House.
The controversy began last week when the governor told an audience in North Berwick that he’s been keeping a three-ring binder with mug shots of heroin dealers arrested since January and that more than 90 percent of the suspects are black or Hispanic. Statistics show that the overwhelming majority of people arrested for dealing all types of drugs in Maine are white, and critics have said that even if the governor’s numbers were accurate, he is wrong to focus on race.
SOME SEE POSITIVE SIGN FROM LEPAGE
Over the past week, LePage has repeated his statements about the race of drug dealers in media interviews in several settings, ranging from his Blaine House residence to a meeting with New England governors in Boston – where he was roundly criticized by regional officials for his focus on race.
The governor’s actions, and the responses of Maine of lawmakers, residents and others, have been fodder for national media attention, putting the state in an unflattering light.
One of LePage’s critics was Gattine. The governor heard that the Westbrook Democrat had called him racist – an apparent misunderstanding because Gattine actually said the governor made racially charged comments – and lashed out by leaving an obscenity-filled voice mail for Gattine, then saying later that he wished he could challenge Gattine to a duel.
Since last Friday, lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns about the governor’s fitness to hold office. Republican State Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough encouraged the governor to seek treatment.
Tom Saviello, a Republican senator from Wilton, said the governor, in his radio remarks Tuesday, started to answer some concerns.
“He has work to do,” Saviello said. “I’m glad that he’s going to have a conversation with Drew Gattine. That’s important to me personally.”
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, said LePage’s apology did not go far enough and called on legislative leaders from both parties “to get in the same room and discuss these very serious issues.”
“I believe the governor has taken away from meeting with Republicans sort of their concerns, but what I didn’t hear was an admission that the governor is willing to admit that Representative Gattine did not call him a racist,” said House Democratic leader Jeff McCabe. “Also, as part of that interview, the governor sort of tried to turn things around and make himself the victim, which that’s not really what Democratic leadership is looking for at this time.”
McCabe said Democrats still feel the best thing for LePage to do is resign. Outside of that, he said the governor needs to consider treatment.
“I’m not in the medical profession, but it’s clear that the governor needs to seek professional help,” McCabe said. “He’s crossed a line and we are questioning his well-being at this time.”
Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, pointed to LePage’s conflicting messages on whether he might resign as further evidence that he should step aside, saying Mainers are “all seeing his state of mind.”
“I think most of Maine has no idea if what he says this morning is going to stick this afternoon,” said Alfond, a former Senate president who has clashed publicly with LePage, but also worked closely with him on some issues. “I think it illustrates that he is unfit (to govern) and that his judgment and his ability to lead a complex state have been jeopardized. And he really should be doing the soul-searching he talked about this morning and should resign.”
‘I JUST LOST IT, AND THERE’S NO EXCUSE’
Democrats say they have been trying to meet with Republican leaders about next steps, but so far, that hasn’t happened,
During his radio interview, LePage did apologize to the people of Maine and to Gattine’s family for leaving the threatening voice mail last week, but didn’t apologize to Gattine directly.
“When I was called a racist I just lost it, and there’s no excuse,” the governor said. “It’s unacceptable. It’s totally my fault.” LePage said being called a racist for him was “like calling a black man the ‘N’ word or a woman the ‘C’ word. It just absolutely knocked me off my feet.”
LePage also said his wife and daughter have received hateful messages in the past several days. He blamed the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive political organization, for being behind those messages.
Mike Tipping, spokesman for the alliance, denied the governor’s accusations.
“Of course that’s not true,” Tipping said in an email response Tuesday evening. “This is another desperate lie the governor is telling to distract from his racist meltdown. It’s not going to work. We’ve all heard his threats, his anti-gay obscenities and his racist attacks for ourselves. We’re glad he’s considering resigning. We hope he does the right thing to let Maine move forward.”
LePage had scheduled one of his recurring town hall meetings for Wednesday night in Westbrook, but the event was canceled Monday. The president of the teen center where the event was to be held said Monday night that its board members voted against hosting the meeting because of audience capacity concerns. Calls to the governor’s representatives to confirm the cancellation were not returned Monday night. On Tuesday, LePage’s office said the governor had canceled the meeting.
STICKING WITH THE RACE AND DRUGS VIEWS
Several times since he made his initial comments about black and Hispanic drug dealers, LePage has returned to the issue of race – even as lawmakers have challenged his assertions. The governor didn’t soften that position Tuesday.
“The fact of the matter is this: I got all of my info in my book from the press. It’s that simple,” he said. “And when it comes to meth labs, they are essentially all Maine white people. When it comes to the heroin epidemic, it’s just the opposite. And, you know, whether it’s right or wrong, I’ll leave you to make that judgment. But I spoke fact.
“Now, they are saying … every day they say you can’t do it because of the racially charged atmosphere in our country. But the same token is all lives matter. That’s the bottom line: All lives matter.”
LePage continues to focus on the racial makeup of drug dealers. He first made the claims in January when he accused black dealers of coming up to Maine and impregnating white women.
Last Friday, in an attempt to clarify his comments at the North Berwick town hall, the governor appeared to endorse racial profiling.
“Look, the bad guy is the bad guy, I don’t care what color he is,” LePage said. “When you go to war, if you know the enemy and the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, then you shoot at red.”
LePage then turned to Fredette, who was at the news conference and serves as a military lawyer in the Maine Air National Guard. “Don’t you – Ken, you’ve been in uniform? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”
DISCUSSION BEFORE DECIDING NEXT MOVE
Rep. McCabe said he’s troubled that the governor keeps focusing on race when talking about the drug crisis. He did it again Monday in Boston at a meeting of New England governors.
“This is a meeting of governors trying to solve issues that affect the states, trying to solve and move forward with addressing the drug epidemic that is beyond Maine,” McCabe said, “and what the governor does is, he goes down to Massachusetts and he doubles down on the same comments he made here in Maine that caused such an outcry.”
Asked about that, Rep. Saviello said, “It troubles me when he singles out any minority.”
While LePage has repeatedly emphasized his concern about the impact of drug addiction in Maine, state spending on addiction treatment during his administration has actuallydeclined.
LePage met with Republican House and Senate leaders Monday night at the Blaine House and said he plans to talk with his staff and family before deciding on his next move. He said his impression from Monday’s meeting was that House Republicans want to “salvage what we can and move forward.” Senate Republicans, he said, are “making demands.”
LePage seemed to acknowledge in his radio interview that his ability to lead Maine may be in question now.
“It’s not about me. It’s about making sure that we can move the state forward,” he said. “It’s one thing to have one party behind (you); it’s another thing to not have any party behind you.”