Last week, members of the Maine legislature’s Government Oversight Committee unanimously called for an investigation into Tea Party Governor Paul LePage. At question is whether or not he inappropriately—and potentially illegally—abused his control over the state’s budget to force a charter school to fire a political opponent.
The “combative” governor, as The New York Times called him—which is New England shorthand for “asshole”—hasn’t so much protested his innocence as he has thumbed his nose at the bipartisan committee’s authority.
In a letter to Beth Ashcroft, the director of the oversight group, his counsel cited the legally-binding “You’re Not the Boss of Me” doctrine.
“The Governor and the exercise of his discretionary executive power are simply not subject to OPEGA’s jurisdiction and/or oversight,” the letter explained. “If members of the Legislature wish to ‘investigate’ the Governor, they should look to the Constitution for the authority to do so.”
They might do just that. Six state lawmakers recently said they would begin looking into the process of impeachment over the imbroglio, in which LePage has been accused of withholding more than $500,000 in state money from Good Will-Hinckley—which, sadly, isn’t a straight-to-DVD sequel, but rather a charter school for disadvantaged children.
LePage admits to demanding that the school sever ties with recently hired president Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves. Fearing the substantial and immediate loss of funds, the school promptly did just that. Eves, a longtime political foe, has said he’s considering a lawsuit against the governor.
He might have to wait in line.
Joining the chorus calling for LePage’s sizable head on a buttery roll is the Portland Press Herald, who outlined other instances in which LePage has toed the line of propriety. This time, at long last, the paper’s editorial board argues, he’s gone too far.
“If this is allowed to stand, the governor could intervene in the legislative process at will by using the full power of the state to threaten the livelihood of anyone who doesn’t vote his way,” the state's largest paper wrote.
For those unaccustomed to the darkened corners of the Maine political process, the larger question might not be what LePage is up to now, but how he ever got elected in the first place—let alone re-elected four years later in 2014. His rap sheet of bizarre, brazenly unilateral proclamations would be funny—if there weren’t, say, the futures of disadvantaged children at risk.
Actually, even if you ask state representatives, it's still funny. Even Democratic Representative Pinny Beebe-Center—one of the lawmakers considering an impeachment investigation—admitted as much, telling the Bangor Daily News that LePage has given the state a bad name.
“We’re the laughingstock of the country,” she said of the man Politico called “America’s craziest governor.” “This is lower than low.”
As any lobsterman can tell you, the lowest depths are even deeper than you’d ever imagine, and if you trawl them long enough, you’re bound to dredge up something unsavory. For LePage that sort of thinking doesn’t seem to be just a metaphor, but an actual governing policy.
Back in 2011, LePage garnered headlines when he memorably told the NAACP that they could “kiss his butt” after saying he would not attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day events around the state.
“They are a special interest,” he said of the NAACP. “End of story. And I’m not going to be held hostage by special interests.”
LePage accused the group of playing the race card, then materialized an entire deck of his own, and kicked over the card table for good measure.
“And if they want, they can look at my family picture. My son happens to be black, so they can do whatever they’d like about it,” he said. The LePages took a Jamaican teen, who they did not formally adopt, into their home about 10 years earlier.
Speaking of his children, critics of LePage called his hiring of his 22-year-old daughter to a $41,000 staff position shortly after he was elected “brazen nepotism” that would be “illegal in most states.” Then again, considering how he attempted to unsuccessfully make the legal working age 12 instead of 16, 22 is nearing retirement age.
Perhaps, you might be thinking, LePage is simply in favor of the concept of hard work? Only as long as it’s not organized labor. One of his earliest appearances on the national stage came when he demanded the removal of a mural dedicated to the history of the labor movement in the state, saying that it was disrespectful toward corporations.
And then there are the governor's efforts to weaken environmental laws. LePage controversially overturned on a ban on bisphenol A in baby bottles, something that, at worst, the porcine governor cracked, might mean “some women may have little beards.”
Naturally, all of his farcical exploits have been dutifully documented by the state’s press, which has rankled LePage so much that he tried to order state employees not to talk to the Press Herald, an institution which he joked at one point he’d like to blow up.
Another instance of LePage’s infamous sense of humor came when he referred to a Democratic state legislator’s proclivity toward symbolically anally penetrating citizens without the courtesy of any lubrication.
As for his newfound concern for the well-being of Maine’s schoolchildren, LePage had bracing advice for them a while back. “If you want a good education, go to an academy,” he said back in 2012. “If you want a good education, go to private schools. If you can’t afford it, tough luck—you can go to the public school.”
Unfortunately, if LePage gets his way, there might not be any money left to go toward those public schools, as seen in his most recent foray into the Austerity Bucket Challenge. LePage’s efforts to completely eliminate the state income tax, which generates around $1.7 billion in annual revenue, came to national attention this year when he found himself in a pissing match with Maine’s most famous resident, Stephen King. The plan was defeated last month, but LePage has remained steadfast, saying he’s considering initiating a public referendum on the matter.
So how does such a spittle-lipped, gaffe-prone, “business-first” governor get elected in the traditionally mild-mannered state of Maine? It’s complicated, but it essentially comes down to two factors: Maine’s peculiar electoral voting system, and its polarized identity.
LePage’s election in 2010, which he won with just over 1 percent more votes than the next runner-up in a three-way race—and only 39 percent of of the total vote—was emblematic of just how little of a statewide mandate the governor ever really had.
Alex Steed is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News who wrote last week about how frustrated he’s become explaining what the deal is with LePage to people outside of Maine. He tells The Daily Beast that it’s confounding that LePage managed to pull off another slight victory in 2014 “despite having become known for telling the NAACP to kiss his butt and warning school children against the dangers of reading newspapers.”
“Those things actually happened,” he says.
Chris Korzen, a political activist and former head of the group Maine’s Majority, an organization dedicated to “highlighting the disconnect between LePage and Maine voters,” says LePage got elected for two reasons.
“Many if not most voters hunger for leaders who are strong and decisive, who don't kowtow to outside interests, who aren't afraid to tell it like is is and be themselves. LePage is all of that,” he says.
“Secondly, the Democrats have utterly failed to communicate a coherent vision for Maine's future, and have instead focused much of their time attacking the governor and cutting back-room deals. The bottom line is that Democrats have not given the people what they want—and LePage has. Whatever misgivings they may have about LePage are outweighed by the lack of a suitable alternative.”
Despite all of that, Steed says, Lepage found his way back in office in 2014 when voter turnout was high because of a referendum on, of all things, trapping bears.
“This was widely known as the ballot question about whether or not it was cool to bait bears with donuts and then trap them,” he said. “This rallied the outdoorsmen to come out to the ballot in huge numbers, particularly in Northern Maine, and while out, they voted for LePage, the most conservative candidate. This speaks generally to a complex and layered scenario, of course, but in short, he owes his second term, which he clearly perceives as a mandate even against his own party, to the lack of a runoff voting system, and trapping bears with donuts.”
That’s about as good of an explanation for the duality of Maine’s voting bloc as any. In short, there are two Maines: the place people around the country think of when they imagine it—the Vacation State of craggy shores and seaside lobster shacks. And there’s the other Maine, basically the South of the North.
There’s the Maine you picture when you want to send someone a postcard from vacation, and the one that you picture when sending a ransom note from an abandoned hunting shed.
In other words, it’s a liberal’s worst nightmare. LePage’s frequent sparring partner, Stephen King— who addressed the latest controversy on Twitter recently—knows a thing or two about those.
“Paul LePage has become a terrible embarrassment to the state I live in and love,” he wrote. “If he won’t govern, he should resign.”
It’s not hard to imagine LePage inviting King and those who agree with him to direct their comments in the vicinity of the nearest toilet bowl. If only he weren’t dragging the rest of the state into it as well.