AUGUSTA — Unable to agree on how severe the punishment should be, top leaders at the State House will do nothing to sanction Gov. Paul LePage for repeatedly making racially charged comments and threatening a lawmaker.

Instead, Democrats are blaming Republicans for being unwilling to remove LePage from office, while Republicans accuse Democrats of trying to score political points in an election year.

The partisan breakdown demolished efforts Friday to schedule a special session of the Legislature to consider action against the Republican governor – even though both parties earlier seemed to agree that LePage had gone too far.

It remains unclear whether LePage broke any laws last week when he left an obscene voice mail threatening Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, and later told reporters that he wished it was 1825 so he could duel Gattine and point the gun “right between his eyes.”

It’s also not known what the long-term impact will be of LePage’s statements that more than 90 percent of the dealers bringing heroin into Maine are black and Hispanic, and that they are “the enemy” in the state’s war on drugs.

FREDETTE: NOT WORTH THE COST

What is clear is that the Legislature won’t be doing anything about it anytime soon.

The 10-day controversy seemed to come to a close Friday even as House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, began to poll all 151 House members on whether they wanted to convene a special session to address LePage’s actions. Democrats have called on LePage to resign and want the Legislature to consider impeachment.

Eves’ bid was in part quelled by LePage loyalist and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who convinced his caucus that the governor had atoned by apologizing to Gattine and others, and by promising to seek “spiritual guidance.”

Fredette said considering other action wasn’t worth the $45,000 to $50,000 a day it would cost for a special session.

Fredette, while disparaging LePage with hard words at times, also has refused to say outright whether he believes LePage should resign or not. On Friday, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he wouldn’t poll the 35 members of the Maine Senate on whether they wanted to return.

“It is regrettable that Democratic leadership, with their actions, has made the goal of holding the governor accountable much more difficult,” he said. “The last thing our state needs now is to have the legislature look even more like a circus, and I have no desire to be the ringmaster.”

Thibodeau previously had said Senate Republicans were interested in holding a special session to “hold the governor accountable” for his inflammatory rhetoric.

‘A NOT SO VERY NICE MESSAGE’

The controversy started when LePage held a town hall meeting in Eves’ hometown of North Berwick on Aug. 24. Answering a question from a member of the audience, who later admitted he had intended to bait LePage, the governor said 90 percent of those arrested for trafficking heroin in Maine since January are either black or Hispanic.

LePage then said he was keeping a three-ring binder of suspect mug shots, press releases and news clippings to prove it. The comments drew criticism from the ACLU of Maine, which said if the governor was telling the truth Maine likely had a racial profiling problem. The next day, Gattine told a television news reporter that the governor’s comments were “racially charged” and were not helpful in developing solutions to Maine’s opioid addiction crisis.

LePage later erupted on camera when a television news crew and a reporter from the Portland Press Herald asked him about the binder and Gattine’s comments. After storming from the State House, LePage later invited reporters to talk with him at the Blaine House, his official residence, where he proceeded to say he believed Gattine had called him a racist and that he had left Gattine “a not so very nice message.”

Under a Freedom of Access Act request from the Press Herald, Gattine released the voice message to the newspaper, which posted it unedited on its website. The uproar that ensued put LePage in the national spotlight for days and triggered a series of radio interviews, news conferences and private meetings in which LePage tried to explain himself and apologize, while also reiterating his belief that most of those trafficking heroin in Maine are people of color from other New England states or New York.

Statistics on Maine arrests for making or selling all types of drugs in 2014, the last year for which FBI Criminal Justice Information Service data is available, show that only 14.1 percent of the 1,211 people charged were black.

Legislative leaders decided to step into the fray after Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, noted in a Facebook post Sunday that she felt LePage needed to be officially “censured” and she raised the question of whether his angry outbursts were the result of substance abuse or mental health issues.

On Friday afternoon, following days of meetings and negotiations, and just several hours after Eves announced he was polling House members, Thibodeau expressed frustration about how things were playing out. He said Democrats’ efforts to force the Legislature into an impeachment scenario, and even the vote to return to a special session, were meant more to tarnish Republicans by making them look like they were sticking up for or even justifying LePage’s actions.

“Let’s be honest, it’s a campaign issue,” Thibodeau said. “I think there are many folks that see this as a great opportunity to maximize their political advantage.”

‘NOT A SMALL BUMP IN THE ROAD’

With only a five-seat advantage in the Senate, Republicans running in districts where voters are evenly split between the parties see LePage’s actions as a liability and worry that their failure to address his actions could be a liability against their Democratic foes.

House Republicans, in close races in several districts, also were not relishing the notion of having their votes counted on whether they wanted to sanction LePage or not. For many, it’s a vote that could cut both ways, either alienating them with LePage’s die-hard conservative base or alienating them from moderate Republicans who have tired of the governor’s penchant for drawing negative attention to the state.

Thibobeau said that Senate Republicans wanted a significant action taken against LePage but didn’t want to remove him from office. Thibobeau told reporters that coming back for a special session to sanction a sitting governor with an official admonishment had never occurred before in state history.

He said he hopes that people outside Maine realize that many in the Pine Tree State are saddened and disappointed by LePage’s actions and don’t share his views.

“I think the governor does realize this was not a small bump in the road, this was a very large disappointment for many, many people and I’m not interested in making excuses for that,” Thibodeau said.

Were the circumstances reversed, with a Democratic governor at the heart of the controversy, Thibodeau wasn’t confident Republicans wouldn’t have attempted to use the situation for political gain.

“Maybe Republicans would have done some of the same things, but it does reflect poorly on the entire Legislature when we cannot work together to come back,” he said.

HOUSE MEMBERS POLLED

Eves, in a statement Friday morning, said he had asked House members to answer the question: “Do you consent to coming in for a special session of the Legislature to take action regarding the governor’s conduct?”

He set a deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday for responses. That process will proceed and lawmakers who do not respond to the question by the deadline will be logged as a ‘no’ vote, Eves said.

“Democrats have been clear throughout this latest crisis caused by the governor,” Eves said. “The governor’s conduct was reprehensible. Maine cannot afford to spend the next two years lurching from crisis to crisis caused by Gov. LePage’s erratic behavior instead of working on issues facing Maine people. He is unfit to serve as governor and must resign or be removed from office.”

Eves denied that the move was politically motivated, offering as proof Democrats’ willingness to support Thibodeau, the Republican Senate president, to succeed LePage in the event of his resignation or impeachment, as outlined in the Maine Constitution. Thibodeau rejected the notion, saying, “There will be no Gov. Thibodeau.”

Fredette has consistently said there was no support in his caucus for a special session and agreed with Thibodeau that Eves’ move to launch a poll of members Friday didn’t help.

“I have spoken with Speaker Eves and Senate President Thibodeau regarding Speaker Eves’ unilateral decision to poll the House of Representatives on the issue of convening a special session of the Legislature,” Fredette said in a prepared statement Friday. “Unfortunately, the actions of the Speaker appear to show that he is more focused on scoring political points than following the due process as set out in the Maine Constitution and the rules of the Maine House of Representatives.”

In a radio address issued Friday, Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, took aim at Thibodeau, saying he “torpedoed any chance of returning to Augusta. He refused to call the Senate back into session, slamming the door on any possibility of action, and ensuring the governor would face no consequences.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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