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December 7, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Smile Guv! You're in public office!

I just came across the perfect Christmas gift for Gov. Paul LePage.

What say we all pitch in and buy him the deluxe, 10-DVD set from "Candid Camera."

It includes a "Smile, You're on Candid Camera!" hat and T-shirt, which LePage could wear every time he appears in public so the "tracker" hired by the Maine Democratic Party will have no trouble finding him in a crowd.

But more important, those DVDs are chock full of people caught on camera when they least expect it – and laughing about it!

Unlike the Guv, whose sudden distaste for being videotaped in public mushroomed Wednesday into an anything-but-appropriate tantrum just before he swore in the 126th Maine State Senate. (Here's the tape).

"I think it's vulgar, I think it's vicious and I think it's vile to me and my family," LePage snarled to a packed (and generally shocked) audience. What's more, he continued, it's the latest example of "the lack of respect that the office of the governor of Maine is receiving."

(Not to be confused with the lack of respect the "office of the governor" showed the Maine Senate.)

So here we are, more than a month after the election, and LePage has yet to even exchange pleasantries through gritted teeth with Senate President Justin Alfond, House Speaker Mark Eves or any other leaders of the Legislature's duly elected Democratic majority.

LePage's latest ultimatum: He will not meet with the Dems until their party calls off Brian Jordan, the young "private paparazzi" whom the governor called out twice by name during Wednesday's swearing-in ceremony. (Jordan, alas, was nowhere in sight.)

Interesting phenomenon, this video-tracking business. Go to YouTube and you'll find countless cases where trackers have pestered, pursued and provoked politicians to the point where, as Sen.-elect Angus King put it this fall when describing his Republican-paid tracker, "it's pretty lousy."

Now let's be clear here. If LePage's tracker was in fact getting in the governor's face (or, worse yet, video-stalking LePage's family) at every opportunity, public or private, the governor's complaint would at least have some validity.

But according to Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant, that is not what's happening.

"We're not lying in the bushes outside his house," Grant said Thursday. "We're not following his family to the supermarket."

Rather, he said, Jordan shows up at public events where LePage is scheduled to speak, secures permission to set up his tripod and camera and simply records what the governor says from the podium -- and only what he says from the podium.

"Our tracker has been instructed not to record private conversations -- and to my knowledge, he hasn't. This is about public comments and nothing more," Grant said, adding that the Democrats do it only to hold LePage "accountable for what he says in a public setting."

But what about LePage's claim that the tracker attended a Veterans Day event last month and recorded the governor having a private chat with an elderly veteran?

"What he's saying is untrue," Grant said.

Also setting off the "false" alarm is LePage's claim earlier this week that "I have not made an issue of this nor did it bother me until Veterans Day."

Really? Why, then, do the Democrats have a list of 11 public appearances by LePage, 10 of which occurred before Veterans Day, at which Jordan was shown the door by LePage Communications Director Adrienne Bennett or various other political operatives?

More importantly, why did LePage wait until this week -- the very week the Legislature's Democratic leadership was being sworn in -- to start complaining about a tracker he's known about for months?

One logical answer: The sight of Democrats wielding the gavels in both the House and Senate makes the Guv's skin crawl. And he needed an excuse, any excuse, to avoid having to sit down with them and go about the business of ... what's the word ... governing.

It's not as if LePage doesn't know how to be a regular guy. Heck, moments after administering the oath of office to Senate President Alfond, he actually shook Alfond's hand and then playfully tugged on the finger of Alfond's 1-year-old son, Jacoby. (We can only imagine the governor's disappointment when the little tyke didn't break wind.)

But to truly appreciate the depths of LePage's dysfunction, consider what's going on around him as he fumes about trackers and shuns an entire branch of state government.

Rather than huddle with legislative leaders and deal with an unexpected $35.5 million drop in tax revenues, LePage announced Thursday that he'll do it unilaterally with a yet-to-be-specified "curtailment order."

Rather than get out in front of a projected $100 million budget shortfall in the never-a-dull-moment Department of Health and Human Services, he alienated even members of his own party in the Legislature by ruining the one day their families come to the State House to shower them with pride. (Remember that the first time the Legislature musters enough votes for a veto override.)

And rather than accept that whenever a governor speaks in public these days it's guaranteed that someone just hit the "record" button, he's hiding from "the loyal opposition" until they call off the guy with the camera.

We can only hope, as the political reality of the next two years sets in, we'll have a January thaw in the Blaine House.

Maybe LePage will even accept Alfond's handwritten invitation, delivered Thursday, for LePage and his wife, Ann, to have dinner "at a place of your choice" with Alfond and his wife, Rachael. (Hmmm ... tap water or Perrier?)

But before Augusta grinds completely to a halt, LePage would do well to check out those "Candid Camera" DVDs. The ones in which all kinds of people get recorded saying and doing all kinds of nutty things -- and nobody seems to care a whit.

So enough scowling, Gov. LePage. The next time you see that camera pointed your way . . .

Smile! You're in public office!

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com





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