Douglas Rooks

Douglas Rooks

During a campaign stop in Auburn Aug. 27, Gov. Paul LePage made a remarkable statement. He told the crowd that, “The best part of my life is I’ve been hired to work for the people of the state of Maine.” He then added, “The worst part of my life is newspapers are still alive.”

After three and a half years of outrageous statements from Maine’s governor, the tendency is to just treat his words as laugh or applause lines. But there’s a serious point behind repeated references to “the worst” aspect of LePage’s life.

It’s not Democrats, not Republicans who don’t follow his line, or even appointees who don’t rule as he would like, even as LePage’s preferences frequently shift.

It’s newspapers. True, he’s been consistent. Even before the 2010 election, he said he’d like to punch an MPBN reporter. At the Pratt & Whitney plant in South Berwick, he emerged from a flight simulator saying he’d like to bomb the Portland Press Herald office.

So why does the press bug him so much? Clearly, it’s that journalists try to hold those in power accountable for their words and actions, and LePage hates being accountable.

This, too, has been a consistent theme. No politician, in my experience, likes to be told about variances between their words and actions, or between their words and reality. But no one else has been quite as resistant to the idea that you can’t just make it as you go.

Mike Tipping’s book, As Maine Went, provides numerous examples of what we once called the credibility gap. Tipping got oversized coverage of the book’s amazing first chapter, detailing LePage’s numerous meetings with the Aroostook Watchmen, a small reality-challenged, anti-government group.

That may have detracted from appreciation of the book overall, which provides solid analysis of the administration’s policies. Yes, Tipping has a viewpoint — so do we all — but it’s the facts in the account, not the opinions, that are disturbing.

It’s good to reminded of “the buffalo,” one of LePage’s favorite campaign stories, which owes a debt to Ronald Reagan’s “man from the government” tales. Supposedly, LePage was contracted to do a $50,000 study as a consultant to find out how many buffalo were roaming the forests of Maine.

The laugh line was, “We found one, at the Acadia Zoo in Trenton.” It was effective because a lot of people had seen the buffalo at the now-defunct zoo.

The trouble is that, when reporters checked, they could find no evidence any such study had ever been commissioned, nor did LePage ever explain what he was talking about.

He’s been no more accountable since taking office. One telling incident Tipping doesn’t mention was LePage’s ironclad pledge to fund the Department of Inland and Fisheries budget. IF&W does work not involving hunting and fishing, but is guaranteed only the money coming in from license fees.

Under Gov. John Baldacci, IF&W’s general fund money had gradually trickled away, but LePage said that he’d support 20 percent of the budget through the general fund, and would veto any budget not containing the full amount.

Though he’s now submitted two biennial budgets, LePage never proposed a penny of general fund money for IF&W, and has never offered any explanation. In Maine, where your word is your bond, this is puzzling behavior.

Again, politicians often fail to keep their promises in full. But rarely do they fail so spectacularly without even acknowledging a course change.

Has the press overdone it in demanding accountability from LePage? In fact, it’s just the opposite.

On numerous occasions, LePage has changed course sharply without any reporter pointing it out. Early in his administration, he impounded bond issues already approved by voters, claiming, without evidence, that we couldn’t afford them. As reelection approached, LePage suddenly couldn’t borrow enough money for highways and bridges. The U-turn was noted, but it didn’t make the headlines.

Last month, the Department of Environmental Protection criticized a permit application for a passenger train maintenance facility in Brunswick, terming it inadequate and incomplete. Yet DEP approved an identical application earlier, which was set aside when a judge ruled abutters hadn’t been properly notified.

No reporter pointed out the inconsistency, or asked what had changed, other than LePage’s decision to oppose the maintenance building, which in turn had a dramatic effect on DEP’s legal interpretation.

Accountability comes with the job of governor. No one is exempt. That may be a question panelists should ask once we finally get to see the candidates debate.

Author’s Note: (Last week’s column incorrectly stated that Susan Collins had conducted campaign walks. According to her campaign, her current bus tour continues for three weeks.)

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Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at [email protected]


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