AUGUSTA — In a surprising rebuke of his own party, Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau is calling on Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives and officials with the Maine Republican Party to stop making personal attacks against Democrats, including House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Thibodeau said he has been discouraged and frustrated by the series of attacks, including a recent petition drive by the Maine Republican Party that likens the Legislature to a swamp and calls Gideon “Speaker of the Swamp,” mimicking the rhetoric used by conservative supporters of President Trump to describe Congress and Washington, D.C.

Thibodeau said likening Maine’s Legislature to Washington, D.C., was a step too far and simply not accurate. He also said the steady drumbeat of personal attacks against other Maine House Democrats and former Democratic lawmakers over alleged ethics violations does not help build the bipartisan goodwill that lawmakers will need to draft a balanced state budget, among other pressing issues.

“We’ve got problems to solve,” Thibodeau said. “We ought to focus on them, there are plenty of things to have disagreements about. Let’s have disagreements about things that are important to the people that sent us here. Making sure we deliver the best state government we can with the limited resources we have ought to be that focus – not demeaning one another, sending out black-and-white photos of one another, trying to convince the public that this place is full of corruption and people who aren’t honest brokers.”

In recent weeks some Republicans or conservative-backed PACs have engaged in election-style campaigning, including sending negative mailers to voters in districts held by Democratic leaders.

The Maine Republican Party also has launched a series of attacks against Democratic lawmakers, sending emails to party members and the media alleging ethics violations or highlighting their complaints on social media.

POLITICS AND THE PERSONAL

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said that although most of the lawmakers in Augusta may be honest brokers “working hard for the people of Maine, for several months and for very little money,” he disagrees with Thibodeau that the personal attacks are over the top. He said those lobbing complaints and attacks against Democrats have legitimate concerns and aren’t simply trying to distract from the work at hand.

“These are serious ethical issues and the integrity of the House of Representatives is being undermined and we want to see something done about it,” Savage said. “Our concern is about the actual issues and how things can be negatively affected if something isn’t done to make sure that PACs can’t pay committee chairs consulting fees. The entire Legislature could just have a ‘for sale’ sign hung on it.”

Thibodeau, a stalwart conservative who has previously been aligned with Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said he knows his criticism may not be well-received by some, but said he feels responsible to lead by example.

“I know how I want to conduct myself, I know I’ve got a job to do,” Thibodeau said. “And anytime we get off on tangents that are about personal attacks we are not focused on our job.”

Thibodeau is the second-highest-ranking Republican elected official in state government behind LePage.

“People are here because they love the state of Maine and they want to make it the best place in the world to live and raise a family in,” Thibodeau said of his colleagues, both Republican and Democrat. “That’s what 99 percent of the people in the building are focused on.”

He said the narrative being pushed by some “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Thibodeau’s relationship with LePage hit some bumps after the Legislature enacted its own budget over LePage’s veto in 2015 and then attempted to censure LePage last summer after he left an obscenity-laced voicemail for a Democratic lawmaker who the governor thought had called him a racist.

TIPPING A TARGET

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, Thibodeau’s Republican counterpart in the House, also has been critical of some Democrats for alleged ethics violations and declined to comment on Thibodeau’s criticism of their party.

Savage said some Republicans feel strongly that Gideon should have removed Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, from his chairmanship post on the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. Meanwhile, Gideon has rebuffed calls by House Republicans to convene the House Ethics Committee to review the complaints against Tipping, who performed paid work for a political action committee that worked to advance a ballot question last fall that tacked a 3 percent surcharge on Maine households earning more than $200,000 a year to generate new funding for public education in Maine.

A vote on the House floor to convene the ethics committee also was rejected on a party-line vote, with Democrats in the majority quashing the request.

“Senate President Thibodeau has a very high level of integrity,” Savage said. “We’re calling out what we see as ethical failures. If all of our government had the same high level of integrity as Senate President Thibodeau we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Savage and some House Republicans have said that Tipping has a conflict because he can’t be objective in his chairmanship of the committee after the PAC paid him $9,000 to do outreach work with city officials and school committees.

LePage also has criticized Tipping, calling for his resignation. Savage said the party’s references to Gideon and a swamp have to do with the fact she has not asked Tipping to step down and two other Democrats in the House are facing scrutiny over their campaign finance reports and may face fines.

DEADLINES MISSED

Democrats have defended Tipping, saying he didn’t break the state’s ethics or campaign finance laws by being paid by the PAC and he sought guidance from the executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission before he took the job.

Tipping also missed the filing deadline to report income from the PAC, but 57 other lawmakers also missed an income disclosure reporting deadline and legislative leaders say that missing the deadline on the disclosure form appears to be a common mistake because of a lack of knowledge about the rule, which they are now working to rectify.

Gideon said she appreciated Thibodeau’s candor and courage, and the difficulty of criticizing members of one’s own party. She said Thibodeau was right in saying political distractions need to be minimized as the Legislature gets nearer to its June 20 adjournment date. Gideon said lawmakers have 1,800 bills to work on, as well as the ballot questions on the minimum wage, marijuana and taxes that were enacted by voters last November.

“Our cooperation with each other, despite policy differences or ideological differences, is one of the most important things we need in order to get our work done,” she said.

“The continued inside-the-building and outside-the-building sort of dirty politics and tactics that have been going on are both disappointing for us as legislators, but also for the public who is watching or visiting here.”

She said those tactics “are based on the lowest common denominator of what we see happen in politics – ‘drain the swamp’ language, things like that,” and distract people from the important issues facing the state.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the Senate Minority Leader, also appreciated Thibodeau’s leadership in calling for an end to the vitriol and agreed the political campaigning during the session should stop.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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