Governor Paul LePage is nearing completion of his fifth year in office. His service has been tumultuous. He was first elected in 2010 with 39 percent of the vote, taking quite by surprise those who pooh-poohed his chances.
His detractors, feeling confident that his performance had made it impossible for him to win re-election, were further astonished that he not only won but added 10 percentage points to his margin of victory.
His style of governing is unorthodox. He is plainspoken to a fault, unleashing his unfiltered opinions of political opponents even when they are of his own party. Customary political courtesies were abandoned as he took on every one from the president of the United States to the president of the Maine Senate.
One of the most frequent questions to surface during his terms in office has been, “Can he do that?” The answer usually has been, “Yes, he can,” though the advisability of many of his actions is another matter.
Since the January start of the latest legislative session, the governor has kicked it up a notch. Whether he was emboldened by his re-election or he simply has succumbed to the frustrations of the office and is going for broke, the situation has come to a head.
No longer is it the State House press corps or the party publicity machines that are the primary interpreters of gubernatorial behavior. His actions are now in two different courts, and the judgments reached will be legal, not political. As such, if these bodies rule against the governor, there will be consequences.
The question before the Maine Supreme Court is whether or not to entertain three questions posed by the governor regarding the status of 65 bills he wished to veto but may not have returned to the Legislature in time. In order to opine on those questions, the court must find that they amount to a “solemn occasion.” Oral arguments were made last Friday before a lively bunch of justices who were eager to get to the heart of the matter.
Should the court find that any of the governor’s questions rise to the standard of a solemn occasion, they presumably will take them up. If they do not, where does that leave us? Where do those questions go, if not to the Supreme Court?
Will the disputed bills be enforced? What if the governor refuses to do so? Has the clock started ticking on the “people’s veto” privilege? And if so, when?
Then there is the matter of the lawsuit that House Speaker Mark Eves has brought against the governor for the gubernatorial intervention that caused the speaker to lose a job for which he had just been selected. A note, now missing, from LePage to the speaker’s prospective employer threatened to withhold funds for the Good Will-Hinckley School should the school go ahead with hiring Eves.
This is not the first time the governor has weighed in on a public figure’s job performance, actual or anticipated. John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, tendered his resignation after the governor threatened financial consequences for the system should Fitzsimmons remain at his post.
Rumors also are circulating about financial pressure the governor applied to the World Acadian Congress to persuade its director to resign in 2013. In this case, the governor’s ire was reportedly stirred because then-Congressman Mike Michaud received a special-issue license plate commemorating the Congress before the governor did. How thin, that skin.
The particulars of this incident are the subject of some debate. But even without it, the Eves’ and Fitzsimmons’ cases provide plenty to worry about. Legal questions notwithstanding, they point to a governor who engages in a style of bare-knuckle politics the likes of which have not been seen in Maine before.
The political debate will rage on through the remainder of the governor’s term in office and beyond. Way, way beyond. But in the case of Eves’ lawsuit, the wheels are now turning for a court of law to speak to whether the governor overstepped the bounds, not of what is decent, but of what is legal.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of the speaker is remarkable for the number of times the word “blackmail” is used and for the lengthy recitation of the Eves family’s “public service values,” seeming to suggest that gubernatorial mistreatment of someone with lousy family values might be more acceptable.
The governor charged that the speaker was unqualified for the Good Will-Hinckley position because of his opposition to charter schools. The speaker’s lawsuit calls out the governor’s “practice of hiring unqualified political allies.” Names are named.
What will the civil lawsuit look like? Will LePage have to appear in court personally? How will a judge and jury react to a blast from his famous six-guns? How much of the governor’s time will all this take up?
The big question? If the governor loses the lawsuit, how on earth will next year’s legislative session function? “The time has come,” said Eves. “Somebody has to stand up and say ‘enough.’”
Even if the courts agree, will the governor change his stripes?