“Did you hear that people staying in Portland homeless shelters have thousands of dollars in the bank? That’s crazy! What is going on in Portland?!”

Behold the power of the simple, easily repeated political anecdote. It’s the type of messaging that powers our political outrage and resentment industries, feeding the likes of Fox News, the Maine Wire and legions of social media trolls.

Gov. LePage is a Zen master of the indignant anecdote, deploying it to great effect to fashion our political discourse, particularly on “welfare” and immigrant issues.

Remember when he announced 3,701 “eye-opening” instances of potentially fraudulent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families transactions? It was media and right-wing catnip. Suddenly Maine’s welfare programs were ripe with endemic fraud and abuse.

Yet few remember that the governor’s “questionable” TANF transactions were a meager .0002 percent of Maine’s budget; that he intentionally conflated TANF and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program spending to overstate “suspect” expenditures by millions; or that his administration never referred a single “questionable” TANF transaction to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution.

That was never the point. The episode was designed to frame a debate for political, policy and electoral advantage. The situation with Portland’s homeless shelters is no different.

The reason to publicly demagogue Portland is to gain leverage in the broader debate over the governor’s two-year budget, which proposes to cut $250 million from revenue sharing to local cities and towns.

The idea generates bipartisan opposition, since the loss of that revenue will hit many municipalities hard, forcing a cut in local services or an increase in property taxes or both. What state politician of any stripe wants that political noose around their neck?

To make the idea politically palatable, LePage needed a scapegoat. And among right-wingers and LePage supporters in rural, conservative communities, there’s none more enticing than liberal Portland with its liberal mayor and liberal State House delegation.

Portland is meant to be a proof point that municipalities cannot be trusted to spend state dollars efficiently and, therefore, should forfeit them. Nevermind that Portland repeatedly passed all prior state General Assistance audits, including two (nothing to see here!) from the LePage administration.

GA spending as a whole represents less than 1 percent of the Department of Health and Human Services budget. And while Portland accounts for 67 percent of total state GA spending, it’s also Maine’s largest regional social service center, its biggest city and host to a rapidly growing community of legal, asylum-seeking immigrants ineligible for federal aid and statutorily prohibited from working.

In fact, this paper recently reported: “The number of General Assistance recipients living in Portland on legal immigration visas increased by 297 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2014 while immigrants categorized as ‘asylum pending’ increased by 228 percent. At the same time, the number of other General Assistance clients in the city fell by 27 percent.”

So while there are legitimate reasons for Portland’s “outlier” GA spending, the city is taking fire because it’s an unsympathetic political target and because the well-banked shelter stayer anecdote is politically compelling. What’s more, the city did itself no favors in its response. It went into bunker mode, remaining silent for four days and then myopically focusing only on its compliance with state policies.

Missing was any empathy with taxpayers who might feel justifiably indignant that their tax dollars are funding a small handful of long-term shelter “stayers” with an average of $48,225 in bank accounts and almost four years’ worth of shelter occupancy.

Would it have been so hard to say, “We’re outraged that taxpayers were billed for these 13 individuals and acknowledge a need to improve our intake processes to ensure this doesn’t happen again. We’re working closely with state auditors and are prepared to implement necessary reforms. However, we mustn’t let these few instances distract us from collaboratively addressing the serious, persistent and growing plight of homelessness that affects hundreds of individuals and families in this region”?

That out-of-the-gate acknowledgment of a problem could’ve gone a long way to show some fidelity with taxpayers and stem the tide of criticism. Instead, the mayor and legislative delegation played to form and moved only to protect and defend the status quo. In the specific instance of the 13 long-term stayers, that defense revealed a clear political tin ear.

Regardless, the entire episode shows everything that’s wrong with playing politics with Maine’s most vulnerable residents, many of whom suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues or simply have nowhere else to turn.

For all the debate and controversy this issue will generate, none is likely to improve their lives or circumstances. Blanket General Assistance cuts clearly won’t, and neither will the status quo.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide for President Obama. He manages the Boston and Portland offices of VOX Global. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @CuzziMJ.