Gov. Paul LePage is expressing support for embattled Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, saying in a letter sent to the president of Skowhegan Savings Bank that it was a mistake to dismiss him over a controversial tweet in which he criticized a school shooting survivor.

“Your decision to discharge Nick Isgro is a mistake you will likely come to regret,” LePage, a former two-term Republican mayor of Waterville, said in a letter to John Witherspoon, president and CEO of Skowhegan Savings Bank. “You have fallen prey to the leftist hate ideology that refuses to recognize free speech.”

Witherspoon, who is not aware of any business between the state and the bank, said Wednesday afternoon that it had been Isgro’s decision to leave his position at the bank.

Isgro could not be immediately reached by phone Wednesday to confirm that it was indeed his decision to leave the bank.

LePage confirmed in a phone interview late Tuesday evening that he did email the letter to Witherspoon, a copy of which was posted on the Facebook page Waterville Republican Party.

Isgro ignited controversy after tweeting “Eat it, Hogg,” in reference to Parkland, Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg. The Republican Waterville mayor, using his personal Twitter account, was responding to a story that Fox News would continue to back its host Laura Ingraham after she also made disparaging remarks about Hogg.

Isgro later deleted the tweet, but screenshots of it traveled far on social media, with the Maine Democratic Party releasing statements condemning the remark. A group of Waterville residents, including former mayor Karen Heck, on Monday filed a recall petition effort with the city seeking to gather enough signatures to force a recall vote of Isgro.

LePage said in a phone interview that what Isgro said in the tweet does not rise to the level of firing him from the bank, where Isgro worked as a controller and assistant vice president.

“My point is, this issue, to me, is not a political issue,” LePage said. “This is a First Amendment issue. This comment doesn’t, in my mind, reach the level of a business panicking and (Isgro) getting fired.”

On Monday, Witherspoon confirmed in a phone interview that Isgro no longer worked at the bank, but he declined to discuss additional details. In a statement Friday, Witherspoon had condemned Isgro’s tweet, saying the bank was “disappointed and dismayed.”

“On behalf of the bank, we apologize to those in the community who have been offended, including our own employees and the students in Florida, for what I would say was thoughtless and inappropriate behavior,” Witherspoon said in the statement.

Isgro would not answer questions about his social media postings before or after a city budget meeting Tuesday night, evading reporters’ questions and calling them “fake news.” He has given no indication he plans to resign.

“This is about the people of Waterville,” he said Tuesday after the budget meeting as he walked away from reporters out of a building and into his car.

“We have a non-respondent, elitist majority on the City Council and well-monied groups like the Maine People’s Alliance who aren’t in Waterville and their friends like Karen Heck (behind this),” Isgro said. “If you look at the reality of it, the majority of people in Waterville support me and I’ve always had their back. I’m going to continue to have their back.”

In a statement posted Wednesday afternoon on his mayoral Facebook page, Isgro said he’s been responding to thousands of messages of support from people “in the face of attacks from a dark and well-funded leftwing media and their allies.”

“I am incredibly humbled and at a loss for words,” Isgro wrote. “It is you the people along with my wife Amanda and our children that give me the strength to keep fighting this fight, and my promise to you is to never back down on your behalf. God bless you all, and thank you!”

LePage — who has embroiled himself in controversy through his statements as governor, including telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt” — said he has done considerably worse than what Isgro did and he did not get fired. The governor said a similar effort was tried on him when he was Waterville mayor, and his employer at the time, Marden’s Surplus & Salvage, “hung tight” and supported him.

“Actions speak louder than words,” LePage said, referring to what Isgro has done while mayor, including efforts to help revitalize the city through a partnership with Colby College that has seen millions of dollars in new investment downtown.

“Under his watch, things are looking good,” LePage said in the interview.

The Waterville Republican Party also posted what it says is a letter written to Witherspoon from former Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett.

Bennett did not return messages by Wednesday evening to verify the letter, but the Waterville Republican page tagged Bennett’s Facebook account in the post and said he had given permission to share it.

In the letter, Bennett says he is a customer of Skowhegan Savings Bank and is “appalled by your apparent dismissal of Nick Isgro after years of service because of an intemperate comment on social media.”

“This is a difficult age in which to run a business,” Bennett writes. “I think you have rendered it more difficult by assuming the role to police and pass judgment on all the comments your employees make on social media and other forums. This comment by Mr. Isgro by anyone’s fair estimation should not be a cause for dismissal. This punishment vastly overwhelms the infraction.”

Isgro himself also tweeted on April 3, apparently also in reference to the Laura Ingraham controversy, that if “you believe in attacking people’s livelihood because you don’t like their words, you don’t believe in a free society.”

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, has not responded to multiple calls and an email, while chairwoman Demi Kouzounas and Vice Chairman Ryan Lorrain also did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Staff writer Emily Higginbotham contributed to this report.

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