Friday, March 7, 2014
My time as Gov. Paul LePage’s communication director was a crash course in crisis management that could prompt one to conclude the governor actually enjoyed watching me squirm. In fact, as is often the case with our free-spoken governor, there is actually video evidence.
Dan Demerritt, Gov. Paul LePage's former communications director, still gets calls from the media when the governor says something controversial.
Watch the long version of the “kiss my butt,” video and the governor literally pauses his exchange with reporters, looks at me, and jokes that I am visibly annoyed.
Based on experiences like those, I get calls whenever the governor’s straight talk and undisciplined approach to communications takes the message off the rail. I never endorse the governor’s remarks, but I can usually point out that Mainers have come to expect the unconventional of LePage while also observing supportively that many embrace LePage’s tough talk and abrasive style.
That was my approach when The New York Times called last week asking about comments attributed to LePage suggesting that President Obama hates white people. I would have played it much differently, however, had I known that LePage had denied making the statement.
I believe LePage made the comments attributed to him or offered up words very similar to what has been reported. People I have known and respected for a long time have assured me the news reports are on target. The reporters chasing the story are professionals and are seeking the truth regardless of who signs their paychecks.
I am also convinced that, had the reports been patently untrue, the governor’s office would have immediately rolled out a group of validators to issue and stand by a statement of denial. Even with LePage’s reputation to shoot from the hip, a carefully worded statement of denial could have easily been drafted and instantly issued.
Thus far all we have heard from attendees are refusals to comment or strained suggestions about being out of earshot when the governor was speaking. We have also heard tortured questions about the motivation and ownership interest of the Press Herald for first reporting the story. That tells me pretty much all I need to know.
But I also know there is more to come.
Maine Republicans have a reputation of standing up to powerful interests. Margaret Chase Smith offered a declaration of conscience against McCarthyism and changed the national debate. Bill Cohen was an early Republican vote to impeach President Richard Nixon and help the country move past scandal and corruption. And Sens. Collins and Snowe broke ranks with their party in the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
The participants at the GOP reception in Belgrade may not reach the national prominence of Smith, Cohen, Collins and Snowe, but many have similar commitments to civility, public service and a very strong interest in preserving their personal reputations. The truth is going to come out and we would already know more were it not for the desire to keep a scandal from impacting Tuesday’s special election in Sagadahoc County.
If the governor continues to stand by the weak denial he offered last week, many of Maine’s top Republicans are going to look bad. And none worse than a self-proclaimed straight talker caught up in a coverup gone bad.
After the filing deadline for the column that appears in the print version of the Sunday Telegram, Gov. LePage issued an open letter to Republicans. In the letter he apologizes “for any difficulty that remarks recently reported in the press may have caused you.” The governor also makes it clear he does not think President Obama dislikes any racial group.
Had the letter made just those two points, it would have been a much stronger acknowledgment of a mistake and expression of regret – not enough to fix the problem, but probably enough to suffice.
But there is a lot more to the letter than just that. It includes admonishments of President Obama and the media and takes a swipe at those who would not let the governor’s remark fade into yesterday’s news. There were also some references to LePage’s upbringing that attempt to explain the governor’s blunt speech.
All that extra stuff makes LePage sound like a politician intent on spreading the blame to others rather than just owning his own mistake. I am not sure if the letter is enough to keep other Republicans from speaking on the record later this week.
My professional observation is that we are watching a slow-moving public relations train wreck. I do not know if it is being driven by the governor’s legendary contempt for the press or the suggestion from advisers that political spin is the right solution. It is likely a combination of both. Either way, it is a disaster.
Politically there will be a high price to pay because the governor has put Republican lawmakers and party officials in a position where they have to take heat for his statement and poorly executed denial. The base of support that would give LePage a leg up toward re-election will be lower and weaker.
The governor’s been inaccurate and just plain wrong many times in his public statements. I could always live with mistakes, believing that, as long as the sentiment was in the right place, the details would get worked out in the end.
This is different.
My personal view is that Paul LePage is a good but hard man bringing an entirely new approach to a very tough job. I desperately want him to succeed and want to be proud of both my association with him and his accomplishments as governor.
I want LePage to own his comments without equivocation, explain what he meant and get back to work pushing for the reforms we need in Maine. The letter issued late last week, with its blame shifting and admonishments, is not enough.
Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at: