Friday, March 7, 2014
Gov. Paul LePage ticked off quite a few educators with his comments Wednesday about the Maine school system, the teachers union, superintendents and the Maine School Charter Commission. However, to Democrats, the timing of his comments was as annoying as what he said.
Several Democratic lawmakers were quick to note that LePage's impromptu press conference was called immediately after Democratic leadership held a well-attended media event in the State House Hall of Flags.
The Hall of Flags, an area reserved for large press conferences and protests, is located right outside of the governor's office. Often during these events the governor's staff close their office doors to keep out the noise, but on Wednesday, several staffers lingered on the fringes of the crowd. That they were there isn't completely unusual, since press flacks will sometimes listen to an opponents' presser so that they're ready to offer rebuttals.
However, as the Democratic event broke up, Adrienne Bennett, LePage's spokeswoman waded into the crowd to let a couple reporters know that the governor would be holding a presser at the Department of Education. Only the notified few reporters knew about it (I wasn't among them, but heard about it quickly enough to get there in time). That's why there were only three reporters at the morning event and why the rest of the media pushed the administration to hold a second presser in the afternoon.
By the time LePage finished the first presser, Democrats were already questioning the timing of the governor's decision to meet with the State House press corps for the first time in six months.
He had stolen the news cycle and they knew it.
Some noted that Wednesday was the second time in about a month that the governor had upstaged one of their events. He grabbed the media spotlight on Dec. 5 when he delivered fiery remarks during swearing in ceremonies for the new Democratic-led Legislature.
Additionally, LePage had previously made remarks similar to the ones he did Wednesday. He hit double-dipping school superintendents at a Bangor Chamber of Commerce event held in December. His dispute with the Maine Education Association, other education groups and his belief that Maine schools are failing has been aired several times before.
Wednesday was also the second time LePage has called for the resignation of charter commission members. The first time? June 12.
Should LePage hold more pressers?
This a tricky issue for the governor’s staff. On one hand, the governor has been known to distract from his own message with impolitic comments. On the other -- and even many of his opponents agree -- he can be a captivating and engaging speaker.
His staff has attempted to deliver the governor’s message with scripted video addresses and interviews, but there seems to be general agreement that those methods don’t quite capture the true LePage. He looks uncomfortable, stiff.
It will be interesting to see if his staff makes him more available to the press going forward. After all, as political consultant Dennis Bailey recently noted on WGAN 560, the governor can’t do public relations “by hologram.”
LePage probably can’t run for reelection via “hologram” either.
LePage believes that some members of the Maine Charter School Commission are too cowed by special interest groups to green-light new school proposals. But one wonders if he still believes that’s true of commission chairwoman Jana Lapoint.
Lapoint had some tough comments for the governor in the Portland Press Herald, arguing that while the governor thinks the commission is moving too slowly, the people of Maine would be concerned if the overworked, underpaid panel moved any faster approving schools.
Lapoint reiterated those points during an interview on WGAN Thursday. Not only was the commission not intimidated by anti-charter groups, she said, but it wasn’t afraid of LePage, either.
LePage will release his two-year budget on Friday. No specifics about the proposal have been released but there are early indications that the Department of Health and Human Services is going to take a big hit.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew briefed the Legislature’s budget-writing committee on the $13.4 million her agency must shed to meet the governor’s across the board spending cuts for the current fiscal year.
Mayhew didn’t bring up the two-year budget, but she used her opening remarks to emphasize that DHHS has a $3.4 billion budget and 3,400 employees. She also noted that if there was one common complaint about DHHS, it’s about the difficulty navigating the monolithic bureaucracy.
Was Mayhew telegraphing a big DHHS downsize?
After all, the Maine House Republicans, which may actually have a clue of what’s in the budget, have been pushing out opinion pieces to the media that say DHHS budget issues has come at the expense of education funding.
Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.