Gov. Paul LePage split from his Republican peers in New England, a host of corporate leaders and top lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in Maine on Thursday when he backed President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Gov. Paul LePage, in a radio interview Thursday, likened the removal of Confederate Civil War memorials to tearing down NYC memorials to victims of 9/11. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

During a radio interview, LePage said the president was right for blaming “both sides” after violence erupted Saturday at a white nationalist rally and a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19 others.

The governor even took it a step further and likened the removal of Confederate Civil War memorials to removing memorials to victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and suggested he would order police in Maine to use lethal force to break up large protests.

LePage condemned the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters, but he also said that those countering the protests of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, who were demonstrating against the removal of a statue of Confederate Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, were “equally as bad.”

“I think what they are standing for is equally as bad, they are trying to erase history,” LePage said in comments on a WGAN radio talk show. “How can future generations learn if we are going to erase history, that’s disgusting.”

‘PYRAMID OF HATE’

However, other political leaders and human rights and civil rights activists said the effort to make a moral equivalence between the groups involved in the violence at Charlottesville was false and counterproductive.

“Obviously, that’s a very divisive statement to make,” Liz Helitzer, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, said of LePage’s comments. “But what we need to move forward, if the goal is really to try and figure out how to be more united, is to figure out unifying language instead.”

Helitzer said the violence in Virginia shows the nation is in a very dangerous place, and made reference to the “pyramid of hate” the center uses as a teaching tool. Hate starts with prejudicial attitudes, she said, then moves to discrimination, then violence and then genocide. “There’s always this same step-by-step pattern,” she said.

Helitzer said the LePage and Trump comments were harmful because they focused on laying blame.

“The focus should be on how do we eliminate prejudicial attitudes and acts of discrimination,” she said. “That’s what I think we want if we want to become more united. I don’t know, but my hope is the leaders of our state and the leaders of our country want the same thing.”

The Portland chapter of the NAACP did not respond to a message seeking comment Thursday.

Maine Senate Minority Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said Trump and LePage were undermining the sacrifices of soldiers, including thousand of Mainers, who died in the Civil War to protect the principles of equality.

“The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville represent the same radical ideology that threatened the future and safety of our nation during the Civil War,” Jackson said. “Their hateful vision of oppression and subjugation of their fellow man is the same one that so many Mainers fought, and died, to defeat. They deserve our unequivocal condemnation, and nothing less. No ifs, ands or buts.”

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, also took aim at LePage in a statement Thursday.

“Governor LePage’s words were unbefitting of a political leader and of any American,” Gideon said. “Those who espouse hatred, bigotry and racism represent the absolute worst of our society and should be soundly rejected, not given false equivalency with any other group. As Americans, we must stand up against hate. We have done it before, we must do it today, and we will be required to do it over and over again.”

THIBODEAU DISAGREES

Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he disagreed strongly with LePage’s views on the Charlottesville protest.

“One side was there to perpetrate hate, spread racism, and the other side was there to stand against it. So I just don’t understand how folks come to a place where they think there is a moral equivalency,” Thibodeau said. “We are the party of Lincoln and Reagan. We are not the party of David Duke, and it’s time to put this issue to bed. There is no moral equivalency.”

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett called LePage’s remarks “astounding and disturbing.” He also called on Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Mayhew, who served as Health and Human Services Commissioner under LePage, to renounce his comments.

Mayhew issued a statement saying she was “disgusted and appalled by the racism and the bigotry surrounding the tragic events in Charlottesville. There is no place in this country for hate.”

But she would not say whether she agreed with LePage’s position that both sides are equally to blame.

The Maine Republican Party’s spokeswoman, Nina McLaughlin, sent a statement to reporters Thursday afternoon with a link to an online video of LePage’s 2011 inauguration ceremony. Standing with the governor and his family in the video is Devon Raymond, a black man from Jamaica whom LePage has described as his “adopted son.”

LePage has said that Raymond came to Maine in 2002 at the age of 17 and graduated from high school and college with the LePage family’s support, including payment of his college tuition.

McLaughlin asked how Bartlett or Maine Democrats could suggest LePage is a racist.

“Any reporter giving Chairman Bartlett’s claims credibility while ignoring Paul LePage’s life story deserves any #FakeNews label Republicans stick on them,” McLaughlin wrote.

In his radio comments, LePage also said that if such protests took place in Maine, he would handle the situation differently than it was handled in Virginia, where police were criticized for not doing more to intervene.

“I would tell you right away how I would react,” LePage said. “All guns ahead, boys. Take them out. I have no use for any of it. If they’re going to go into violence, my first advice to the Maine people is don’t gather in these large crowds. It’s not safe.”

The governor also said that those who support the removal of the Lee statue, “don’t even know the history of this country and they are trying to take monuments down.”

“Whether we like it or not, this is what our history is and to me it’s just like going to New York City right now and taking down the monument of those who perished in 9/11,” LePage said. “It will come to that.”

HISTORY OF STATEMENTS

LePage has a history of making inflammatory statements about race dating to 2011, his first year in office, when he told a television news reporter that the NAACP in Maine can “kiss my butt.” In 2013, the governor faced criticism when two Republican lawmakers reported that during an appearance at a fundraiser in Belgrade LePage said President Obama hated white people.

In 2016, LePage drew national media attention for comments about the race of drug dealers from out of state who come to Maine and “impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” He later said he kept a notebook of jail photos of arrested dealers and that 90 percent were Hispanic and black.

In January of this year, LePage criticized civil rights icon and Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who had questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election, prompting Trump to lash back on Twitter.

In an exchange with a Press Herald reporter, LePage backed Trump and again took aim at the NAACP, saying, “The blacks, the NAACP (paint) all white people with one brush,” LePage said. “To say that every white American is a racist is an insult. The NAACP should apologize to the white people, to the people from the North for fighting their battle.”

LePage’s position on Trump’s statements contrasts markedly with the reactions of other New England governors.

“His refusal to denounce bigotry and hateful ideals I think is unacceptable,” Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said of Trump. “I think you have to confront that, and I believe that we have an obligation to stand up to white supremacy, bigotry, and neo-Nazism, and it has no place in our nation. If we don’t denounce that as leaders, then it’s setting an example for acceptance.”

Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker also has criticized Trump for his reaction to Charlottesville.

“I think he should have come out and said what everybody else was thinking and believing shortly after the incident that occurred in Charlottesville, which is: white supremacists have no business and no place in American political dialogue. Period. End of discussion. Case closed,” Baker said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters at an appearance Thursday in Lewiston that LePage “has to make his own decisions.” She said Trump “should have condemned in very clear, unequivocal terms the racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry that spawned the violence in Charlottesville.”

Collins also referenced Ku Klux Klan recruitment fliers that were found around Boothbay Harbor.

“As a Catholic I am aware of the painful history we had in the state of Maine where the Ku Klux Klan attacked Catholics,” she said. “And this hateful ideology has been around for a long time and when it rears its ugly head we have to speak out forcefully.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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