Gov. Paul LePage poses with Miss Maine USA Ashley Marble in 2011. He wanted to give her a job promoting education.
By Michael Shepherd
State House Bureau
AUGUSTA – After lunching with her in late 2011, Gov. Paul LePage wanted to give Miss Maine USA a job promoting career and technical education at high schools, an idea his education commissioner called "nuts" in the midst of mounting state budget woes.
Emails between LePage education adviser Jonathan Nass and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, obtained this week by the Kennebec Journal, show that Bowen was adamantly opposed to the idea of hiring Ashley Marble, who finished in the top eight in the 2011 Miss USA pageant.
In an unusually strongly worded email, Bowen said hiring Marble would risk his personal credibility and the credibility of the department, also hinting at discord over LePage's educational directives.
"You guys know I'm a team player and I'm working 80 hours a week to get (a) constantly shifting education agenda put together," Bowen wrote. "No way I'm doing this, though. Absolutely no way."
But Bowen backed off the email and apologized to Marble in a written statement Friday, calling his email discussing Marble – which described her as an unqualified "beauty queen" – "uninformed and inappropriate."
"This email from 2011 was written before I had a full understanding of the qualifications and character of this incredible young Maine leader," he said in the statement.
In early 2011, LePage proposed a two-year budget that increased kindergarten through grade 12 education funding by $63 million over the last budget. That passed.
But as a reason against hiring Marble in 2011, Bowen made an apparent reference to a $220 million projected budget gap that the Department of Health and Human Services was facing, saying the hire "seems nuts to me" under the fiscal circumstances.
'MORE THAN JUST A BIKINI'
On Friday, Marble, a Topsfield native and former University of Southern Maine basketball player, said after meeting on education with the governor at the Blaine House, LePage's office never offered her a job.
But Marble, now 29, said she agrees with LePage's long-stated goal of promoting two-year community colleges as a viable alternative to four-year universities. She said LePage sought her out to discuss education.
At the meeting, Marble said there was "casual discussion about a potential position that might help kids and students in Maine," but there was no follow-up from LePage's office.
The initial email from Nass to Bowen on Dec. 16, 2011, said LePage wanted to hire Marble to promote a cultural shift that would make career and technical education, or CTE, "cool," while educating students on "the many opportunities here in Maine for the trades."
"Of course, I have no idea if you have any openings. Maybe there is a frozen position we can 'thaw'?" Nass wrote. "Obviously, I'll do whatever you need with (LePage's budget department or human resources) to make this happen."
Two-year, career-focused education at Maine's community colleges has been one of Le- Page's key issues since he campaigned for governor in 2010.
He has often said that since not every student will go to or succeed at a four-year university, schools must drive certain students toward CTE, which can yield faster job placement at a lower cost than at a four-year university.
Marble echoed many of LePage's stances in an interview, citing school loans and trouble finding work in her field.
"I wish sometimes I went to a two-year technical school," she said. "I was not totally aware and educated of those options and a lot of kids feel pressure to go to a four-year university."
But in December 2011, Bowen didn't take kindly to Nass' email, calling Marble a "beauty queen with, from what I can tell, no CTE knowledge or background," saying a job for her in the department wouldn't happen on his watch.
He wrote that the ambassador position was one that the department had never had, adding that the department had been trying to hire a CTE director for six months.
"How can I say we are doing everything we can to support schools while paying Miss Maine to travel around the state talking about how great CTE is?" Bowen wrote to Nass.
"Not to work in CTE, by the way, or train people to teach in CTE, or actually teach CTE herself or work with kids, but just go around and do presentations in high school gyms while kids look at pictures of her in bikinis on their cell phones," he continued.
Marble disputed that characterization, saying she was "more than just a bikini and a pretty face," and that though she didn't attend a two-year college, she could speak about education options she wished she knew about in high school.
The Portland Press Herald profiled Marble in 2012, detailing her recovery from mental illness and a debilitating ankle injury sustained while playing recreational basketball.
She detailed a history of depression and anorexia, an eating disorder, the latter stemming from pressure to maintain her weight as a scholarship volleyball player at the University of Maine, where she went before transferring to USM, where she developed depression.
Still, she scored 1,981 points in her basketball career at USM. In 2007, she was named to the College Sports Information Directors of America academic all-America team. She graduated that year with a degree in sports medicine and exercise science.
In a written statement Friday, LePage spokesman Peter Steele praised Marble's athletic and academic accomplishments, saying "she would serve as an outstanding spokeswoman for any number of causes, including career and technical education."
"Her story overcoming challenges in order to succeed is an inspiration for all Mainers, speaking to the strength of her character," he added.
MEA WEIGHS IN
Steele said the administration wouldn't comment more because it was a personnel matter. Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said that other than Bowen's apology, the department wouldn't comment.
The Kennebec Journal was provided images of the emails discussing Marble by a source who requested anonymity Thursday night. Immediately afterward, the newspaper filed a Freedom of Access Act request with LePage's office seeking the emails.
On Friday morning -- before the administration confirmed receipt of the newspaper's request -- the Maine Education Association agreed to provide the emails to the Kennebec Journal at the newspaper's request. The teachers union had obtained the emails through its own public records request.
The liberal union and the Republican governor's office have often clashed over education policy since LePage became governor in 2011, when he was backed by a Republican-led Legislature. Democrats retook control in 2013.
MEA spokeswoman Giovanna Bechard said the document was part of a public-access request seeking emails between Nass and Bowen filed by the union in fall 2012 that yielded thousands of pages of documents.
Through House Republicans spokesman David Sorensen, Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, a member of the Legislature's Education Committee, declined to comment Friday.
Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, also on the committee, said Marble seems "phenomenally talented," and some of Bowen's language directed toward her was harsh.
But she said Bowen's criticism of the potential hire was "spot on" -- hiring a new person to an unproven position wouldn't have been a smart move.
"There's positions that have been frozen for a long time and they need qualified people," Daughtry said. "It's sort of a slap in the face."
Rob Walker, executive director of the MEA, said the department has many needs, and it should fill positions demanding highly qualified applicants.
"It struck me as cronyism, maybe, where the governor wants someone hired without thinking about whether she'd be best for the job," he said. "Nothing against Ashley Marble, but we want someone who can do the job."
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen