First he came under fire for vetoing a unanimously passed bill to expand access to a heroin overdose antidote. Next he endured withering criticism for poking fun at foreign accents. Then he faced scrutiny for holding a closed-door meeting deemed illegal by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

Finally, on Tuesday, the governor walked out of a public event just as he started delivering a speech because two students were silently holding protest signs in the back of the crowd.

All in all, it was a tough week for Gov. Paul LePage, who appears to have reached a new level of frustration with the news media, the Legislature and a lack of progress on his key policy initiatives.

“This has been a very difficult legislative session,” Ray Richardson, a conservative radio talk show host in Portland and a personal friend of LePage, said of the governor’s reaction to the student protesters. “Let’s be honest. The political environment we all find ourselves in is a very fractious environment from all sides. It can get old. We have to remember that Gov. Paul LePage is a person first. A husband and a father second. And a governor third.”

A day after leaving the dedication ceremony at the University of Maine at Farmington, LePage issued a written statement saying he would scale back his ceremonial appearances to avoid becoming a distraction. After apologizing to university officials “for the sequence of events on Tuesday,” he slammed the “smug and self-serving protesters,” as well as the news media, which have “flocked” to his events to “disparage me over issues totally unrelated to the events.”

“The governor has had a lot of frustration and unfortunately it just bubbled over there,” said Richardson, who has a talk show on WLOB radio. “I don’t think it was anything more than that.”

Richardson said he discussed the Farmington event with the governor and LePage seemed to acknowledge that he probably should have acted differently when confronted by the student protesters, perhaps disarming them with humor. He believes the governor’s response had more to do with a frustrating legislative session and the looming votes to override his vetoes.

‘NOT RETIRING FROM PUBLIC LIFE’

LePage often talks about the need to lower energy costs, reform welfare and reduce or eliminate income taxes, but he had little to show for those efforts at the end of the latest legislative session. The Republican Party was unable to get enough signatures to put welfare policy changes – including one that would make asylum seekers ineligible for benefits – and income tax cuts on the November ballot as LePage had hoped. And there has been a growing rift between the governor and fellow Republicans, many of whom joined Democrats to overturn his vetoes.

Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said the governor’s frustration is rooted in the lack of progress on his agenda to reform state government.

“His frustrations stem from people who don’t have the same sense of urgency for his reform agenda as he does,” Bennett said.

“As human beings, we all have our moments,” he said of LePage’s exit in Farmington.

LePage’s staff did not grant a request to interview the governor for this article, saying he didn’t believe he would be treated fairly.

Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director, said in a lengthy email that the news media do not give the governor credit for his accomplishments, which he detailed in a list that included a bipartisan effort to reduce student loan debt and successfully forcing Democrats to support welfare reform legislation. He was referring to a compromise reached by lawmakers that prohibits the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds for the purchase of things such as tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets.

Steele accused the media of breathlessly fact-checking LePage’s statements, while giving Democrats a free pass, and of heaping endless criticism on the governor.

He said LePage remains relevant in Maine politics, noting his recent success in blocking the expansion of MaineCare for the sixth time and a solar power bill that he argued would only increase electricity rates. He also added 10 drug agents, as well as 200 drug treatment beds for addicts in the planned expansion of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, and secured raises for law enforcement officials, Steele argued.

“The governor is not retiring from public life,” Steele said. “As his press release stated, he will stop appearing at public events hosted by other organizations for now. The media is not there to cover the event; they are there to get a story about something he said or report on something negative. It is very distracting, unfair and disrespectful to the organizers, so he will hold off for now.”

Tuesday’s event at the University of Maine at Farmington was held to honor Theodora J. Kalikow, who retired in 2012 after 18 years as UMF’s president and was having an education center named after her.

As LePage began speaking, two students quietly held up signs in protest, including one that read, “LePage: Maine’s shame.” The governor was immediately distracted, struggling to collect his thoughts and stumbling over his words.

After less than a minute, he said: “I’m sorry. I’m done.” As he walked through the crowd, he pointed to the students, saying, “Thank you, you idiots with the signs,” before throwing up his hands, adding, “Not in the mood.”

A DIFFICULT STRETCH

LePage’s reaction could stem from the fact that he was embroiled in a number of controversies in the days leading up to the UMF event.

On April 23, the governor made international news when he made jokes at the Republican State Convention in Bangor about being unable to understand hospitality workers with foreign accents. LePage, whose first language was French, specifically joked about people from Bulgaria, but he concluded that people from India were “the worst ones.” The remark was condemned by immigration advocates. People in the hospitality industry found it puzzling.

On Monday, LePage held a closed-door meeting with a newly minted “blue ribbon” commission on education reform. Other lawmakers and the media were barred from entering the meeting, a move the Attorney General’s Office said violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act, which ensures open public meetings and transparency in government.

By Tuesday, the governor had apparently reached a boiling point when confronted with the quiet protest of two students holding signs.

James Melcher, a political science professor at UMF, was at Tuesday’s event in Farmington. Melcher speculated that LePage’s “not in the mood” comment stemmed in part from the AG’s opinion that he had violated state law by holding a closed-door meeting with the education commission.

“Part of it was more his mental state and part of it was that it was a stressful week,” Melcher opined. “I would have really thought he would have been able to move on and get through that. Maybe this was a worse week than usual for him.”

LePage did keep his cool Thursday night at a Damariscotta town hall event, which was disrupted three times by protesters. Freeport resident James Roux, who regularly attends and disrupts the governor’s forums, began shouting about heroin addiction, solar energy and “racist comments,” before being escorted out by police.

“Every single week, sir, you ask the same questions and I try to be reasonable and you are unreasonable. Good night, sir,” LePage said, before explaining his positions on solar energy and naloxone, the heroin overdose antidote.

On Thursday, he abruptly canceled an appearance at Husson University in Bangor, his alma mater. The cancellation drew media attention and public speculation because it came the day after an exasperated LePage said he would limit public appearances. His staff said the cancellation was unrelated, however, and was needed so he could meet with lawmakers.

FRIEND: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE HIM

Not everyone thinks LePage’s week was exceptional, given his combative style and ability to generate controversy.

“He wasn’t showing very much humor this week. Sometimes he does,” said Kenneth Palmer, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Maine. “But I don’t think his activities or comments were very much out of the ordinary of his general pattern of behavior.”

LePage’s obvious level of frustration after nearly six years in office could have something to do with what lies ahead.

With a little more than two years left in his second and final term, LePage is approaching the point where most chief executives and governors become less relevant and less able to get things done, Palmer said.

That makes the upcoming legislative races all the more important for LePage, who is looking to replace some current lawmakers with people who support his reform agenda.

Palmer doesn’t think LePage will have much influence in the upcoming elections, but Richardson, the conservative radio host, disagrees.

“If we get those kinds of the people in the Legislature, his last two years could be as productive as his first two years were, frankly,” Richardson said. “People who underestimate him underestimate him at their political peril.”


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