December 29, 2013

Commentary: The sound and the silly of Maine politics

In 2013 there was no beginning, and no end, to the trivial and wacky antics in Augusta.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Paul Nickerson, dressed as Uncle Sam, disrupts a September media event where Gov. Paul LePage, background, presented a check to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston for backlogged Medicaid payments.

2013 Press Herald file/John Patriquin

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Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was the target of the governor’s ire – and an infamous crude comment – in June.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Additional Photos Below

As the TV spat transitioned to the final vote on a bill combining Medicaid expansion with LePage’s plan to pay back the hospitals, Democrats forced through the bill over unified Republican opposition and LePage’s promise of a veto. Democrats knew the victory would be symbolic and short-lived, but they booked the Hall of Flags for a celebratory news conference anyway.

As the Senate finished its final vote, it was easy to envision the governor waiting outside the chamber to grab the bill, put it against a wall and veto it with a Sharpie.

LePage did one better. His staff members arrived in the Hall of Flags before the Democrats. They rolled out a table and chair for LePage and corralled about a dozen Republican lawmakers to applaud the governor’s kill-stroke in front of all the assembled media. LePage stole the show and the next day’s headlines. In Twitter political parlance, this is called “#winning.”

One Democrat described the experience as winning the academic decathlon and showing up at “school to take a victory lap, only to walk in to see that the football team had destroyed our trophy and drawn mustaches on our team photo.”

The decathletes would have their revenge Sept. 19 when their allies at the Maine People’s Alliance sent in an operative dressed as Uncle Sam to crash the governor’s hospital payback tour featuring oversized checks. Republicans and the governor’s staff were livid that this publicity stunt shared a headline with the governor’s publicity stunt.

The battle over messaging and headlines was relentless, endless. So were the dueling news conferences. These competing events sometimes took place in close proximity to one another, evoking the exclusive “conversational bouquets” that Tom Wolfe described in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Occasionally, however, partisan operatives infiltrated their opponent’s conversational bouquet to morph into ventriloquists. Their unwilling (mostly) puppets? Reporters. Operatives texted reporters – or, in some instances, whispered in their ears – questions that were designed to trip up the recitation of talking points. Some reporters played along. Most resented it.

It was all part of the daily, incremental combat at the State House, where reporters could be forgiven for the temptation to shout one of the best lines in Jim Morrison’s otherwise unremarkable canon of poetry: “You’re plastic soldiers in a miniature dirt war!”

Sadly, that never happened.

The war over and against the media raged throughout 2013. In August the battle went virtual – and then viral – when the governor climbed into an F-35 Lightning II demonstrator in North Berwick. When asked by a Lockheed Martin Corp. technician what he wanted to do, LePage said, “I want to find the Press Herald building and blow it up.” The governor took some heat for the joke, but everyone seemed to overlook the extremely eager technician.

“I tell you what, we’re gonna do it!” he said enthusiastically. After LePage’s missile found its target, he added, “Great job!”

Speaking of jobs, here’s a suggested New Year’s resolution for elected officials: Don’t ridicule working stiffs.

The governor stepped into the trap during his attack against Jackson. People like Jackson, a professional logger, “ought to go back into the woods and cut trees and let someone with a brain come down here and do some good work,” said the governor, identifying for the WMTW reporter the right man for the job by pointing two thumbs at himself.

LePage later said he didn’t mean to equate loggers with Jackson. There was no such equivocation in the error-ridden email rant penned by Democratic Rep. Brian Bolduc of Auburn. Bolduc was upset that truckers were using noisy compression brakes, or jake brakes, near his home.

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Additional Photos

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A television located outside the governor’s State House office was the source of much media attention in May.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

  


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