Governor Paul LePage sent his State of the State address to the legislature last week by way of a letter. Not only was the mode of transmission a departure from the customary in-person address, the tone set a new low.
Laden with insults and dripping with sarcasm, the governor rehearsed his most common complaints against the legislature, accusing legislators of wasting time, playing “political games” and indulging in “silly public relations stunts.”
The governor added a new charge against his partners in government: socialism. “First it was liberal ideology. Now, it’s socialism,” he stated in his letter. He referred to “socialist politicians,” “socialists,” “socialism” and a “foreign socialist ideology” no fewer than 10 times.
Having vented his spleen about the legislature, he went on to list his priorities for 2016. No surprises there. If the governor’s weakness is public relations, his strength is singularity of purpose.
Welfare reform, lowering the income tax, energy costs, student debt and the drug crisis are his top priorities. They are the same issues he has been laying before the public at his many public meetings around the state. The debate is in the details of how and how much.
In a crowning bit of irony, he proclaimed: “We need to work together to get it done.” Seriously? His publicly expressed loathing of the legislature and all who dwell therein has pretty much killed any chance of working together.
Instead of rallying an army of the willing behind his proposals, his diatribes have made progress nearly impossible. This governor has never seemed to grasp the fact that without some level of legislative cooperation, his priorities are going nowhere.
He has become all about his latest outburst. Like standing on the village green when the noon whistle blows, we know it is going to go off every day, but we still jump out of our skin every time. The sad part is that to the extent Maine was ready for a course correction, this one has come in a package that cannot get beyond the governor’s conservative base. A less abrasive delivery might have led to greater success.
You have to wonder what the governor is thinking. He ends his missive with a plea to the people of Maine to “find out who their legislators are,” “hold them accountable” and “change the culture in Augusta. Vote for those candidates who will work for you.”
With three years left in his administration, a dramatic change in the composition of the legislature may be his only hope. But even now, with the state Senate under Republican control, his approach, if not his policies, has been too much for the Senate majority to stomach.
In fact, Senate Republicans have distinguished themselves by their calm and civil responses to their incendiary governor. Among them are individuals who may use their statesmanship as a springboard to advanced state roles. It is not the policies of this governor that are out of step with Maine people, it is his confrontational, argumentative and abrasive style.
The North Woods debate? Raising the specter of a “federal takeover,” LePage directed the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands within the Department of Agriculture to upgrade access points to state land surrounded by the property of Roxanne Quimby.
No one is arguing the right of the state to assert access across Quimby property, but the administration alleges in a press release that access is “threatened by efforts to create a National Park/National Monument,” and that “roads to the state’s lands have been blocked and bridges have been removed.”
And how about the governor’s announcement that he would play a direct role in the Department of Education? At first, he cast himself as the next commissioner, having pulled nominee Bill Beardsley’s name out of fear that Beardsley would not be confirmed by the legislature.
He then clarified his intentions, indicating that his role in the department would be limited to signing what must be signed, and that Beardsley would be the functional department head, at least for six months, the maximum term allowed for an “acting” commissioner. Then the governor would name Beardsley the deputy commissioner, enabling some semblance of ongoing department leadership without anyone having to go through the confirmation process.
The governor said his other responsibility would be to attend legislative hearings while there was no designated commissioner. Oh, baby. Imagine the governor sitting in your committee room, neither fish nor fowl, unlikely to assume the customary role of a commissioner, unfailingly polite through gritted teeth while legislators have their way with him. But instead, he would use it as a seat from which he could continue to lambaste the legislature, bringing all hope of committee decorum, let alone legislative progress, to a halt.
The recent Republican presidential debate showed what happens when the wheels come off. Politics become Shakespearean: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Even one of the candidates was amazed. “This is crazy!” was John Kasich’s observation. Crazy it was, and crazy it will be, throughout the land and right here in Maine. We have crossed a line in political discourse, and there will be no going back.