A mural depicting Gov. Paul LePage in Ku Klux Klan garb that had been a catalyst for debate on the limits of free speech underwent several transformations Tuesday night at the hands of a man opposing the mural and a group supporting it.

After city resident Mark Reilly painted over the graffiti along the Eastern Promenade with white paint, a group of young women scrubbed it off using whatever they could find nearby, WCSH-TV reported. As of 10 p.m., the Ku Klux Klan imagery was gone and the governor’s likeness was given Mickey Mouse ears and framed by the words “No Hate” and “Hate is Hate.”

Earlier in the day, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling had said the graffiti depicting LePage in a white hood and robe with a red Ku Klux Klan insignia verged on hate speech and should be removed.

“I do not want it up there. It is not reflective of our values,” Strimling said Tuesday. “The KKK has a long, problematic history in the state of Maine, and equating the governor and his rhetoric, as much as we disagree with it, is a step too far.”

An unknown artist or artists painted the mural on a wall between the Portland Water District’s wastewater treatment plant and a section of the Eastern Prom Trail sometime in the past week. Next to the image of LePage are the words “racist,” “homophobe” and “moron.” The final word, “governor,” has a red line painted through it.

The mural, which included the message “Dump LePage” in 6-foot-high, red-and-white block letters, covered the entire 100-foot-long wall along the Eastern Promenade. Reilly succeeded in covering that part of the mural.

LePage’s staff did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Much of the controversial East End mural had been defaced by competing interests late Tuesday, with the likeness of the governor trading in its KKK regalia for Mickey Mouse ears. Dennis Hoey/Staff Writer

Much of the controversial East End mural had been defaced by competing interests late Tuesday, with the likeness of the governor trading in its KKK regalia for Mickey Mouse ears. Photo by Dennis Hoey/Staff Writer Dennis Hoey/Staff Writer

The graffiti appeared in the wake of the political turmoil triggered by comments that LePage made linking race and Maine’s drug crisis. At a town hall meeting July 24 in North Berwick, the governor said that more than 90 percent of the heroin traffickers arrested in Maine since January were black or Hispanic. He has repeated the comments numerous times since then, despite FBI statistics that show only 14 percent of the 1,211 people charged with making or selling all types of drugs in 2014 – the last year for which FBI Criminal Justice Information Service data is available – were black.

At one point, LePage said his focus on the race of heroin dealers was intended to identify “the enemy” in the state’s fight against drug traffickers.

A state representative from Westbrook who said the governor’s remarks were racially charged received a threatening and profanity-filled voice mail from LePage, who believed the lawmaker had called him a racist.

AN OPEN CANVAS FOR GRAFFITI ARTISTS

The wall is owned by the Portland Water District and has been treated as an open canvas for graffiti artists for more than a decade. Although Strimling asked the water district to paint over the mural, a city spokeswoman had said earlier Tuesday that the painting was considered a free speech issue and the city would not take action.

At first, officials at the water district appeared to agree that the graffiti would remain. By Tuesday afternoon, however, water district spokeswoman Michelle Clements said the district’s general manager was talking with the city to see what, if anything, should be done about the mural. City and water district officials couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday on what they planned to do about the image of LePage with the Mickey Mouse ears.

Portland, Maine’s largest city and a liberal enclave, often has been at odds with LePage and is a frequent target of criticism by the Republican governor.

In the 2014 election, 78 percent of Portland voters cast their ballot for someone other than LePage. And city officials have repeatedly clashed with his administration over the city’s administration of welfare and social services, in particular the city’s use of public funds to support asylum seekers with expired visas and to fund homeless shelters. The use of funds for immigrants seeking asylum led to a lawsuit between several cities and the administration, and in 2015, then-Mayor Michael Brennan and others accused LePage of engaging in a coordinated political attack on the city.

Clashes with LePage’s office have eased since the 2015 election of Strimling, who had pledged to improve the city’s relationship with the governor.

Strimling said Tuesday that his request to take down the mural had nothing to do with wanting to improve relations with LePage.

“I am as frustrated as the next person with the governor’s rhetoric,” he said. “It is not appropriate to trivialize the KKK.”

Although the water district owns the wall, it’s not clear who would remove or cover the mural if officials agree it must go. More than a decade ago, the district and Portland police, tired of consistently painting over graffiti sprayed on the wall, turned it into a public canvas for street art, said Clements, the district spokeswoman.

“We do not monitor or police the outside of our wall. If spray cans and other trash make it over the fence into our tanks, we clean it up,” she said.

DISTRICT HAS NEVER REMOVED ART

In the 15 years since the wall became a designated art space, the district has never removed a painting, but the city did clean up the wall once when large chunks of paint were falling off it, Clements said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine hailed the city’s initial decision to allow the mural to stay up, then later said it would review the situation pending the water district’s decision.

“In a free society, individuals decide what opinions and beliefs they want to see – not the government,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “Provocative art can test our dedication to this belief, but that is exactly why we have the Constitution to guide us.”

Similar graffiti – it also featured the words “Dump LePage” – appeared under the Deering Avenue overpass on Interstate 295 last week. The Maine Department of Transportation planned to remove the graffiti, but said it already had been covered over when a crew arrived to do the work.

Early Tuesday, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said some people could be offended by the depiction of LePage, but the city would take down a painting only if it contained hate speech. “From the police point of view, it’s a matter of free speech and there’s nothing they can do about it,” Grondin said.

But just because the mural is considered free speech doesn’t mean it is condoned by City Hall, Grondin noted. The city received several complaints about the mural, she said.

In a letter to Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, said the piece clearly crossed the threshold for hate speech and was an offensive use of public property. Pedestrians, runners and bikers of all ages that use the path next to the mural should not have to “suffer the glaring, scary image of an enormous Ku Klux Klansman,” regardless of local opposition to the governor.

“I agree with the sentiment, it is the depiction I disagree with,” Norris said Tuesday.

Some residents approved of the mural. Kellie Smith and Tim Kennedy came to see the mural Tuesday, after hearing about it on social media.

“This city always seems to create great art over awful stuff, and he is awful stuff,” Smith said, smiling appreciatively at the image of LePage in a white hood. Considering LePage’s recent remarks about race, Smith didn’t think the depiction was too offensive.

“This is the trajectory he is on,” Smith said. “This is an honest portrayal, it is good work.”

Kennedy, who was taking photos of the mural with his smartphone, said the caricature of the governor was apt.

“He’s just a hateful person,” Kennedy said. “When he expresses hateful views, he gets what he gets.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.