By Eric Russell
Gov. Paul LePage took a step Tuesday toward atoning for his recent actions, but he also sent sharply conflicting signals about how he plans to respond to mounting pressure from Democrats and members of his own party.
In a morning radio interview, LePage said he was totally at fault for leaving a threatening voice mail last week for a Democratic lawmaker whom he believed had called him a racist. He later invited Rep. Drew Gattine to the State House to have a face-to-face meeting on Wednesday, and Gattine accepted.
LePage also raised the possibility more than once on the radio that he may not finish his second term because of the controversy, which has stretched on for a week.
"I'm looking at all options," the Republican governor said while appearing on WVOM, a Bangor talk radio station, Tuesday morning. "I think some things I've been asked to do are beyond my ability. I'm not going to say that I'm not going to finish it. I'm not saying that I am going to finish it."
He said later in the interview: "If I've lost my ability to help Maine people, maybe it's time to move on."
Some six hours later, in a tweet posted from his Twitter account, LePage backed away from any suggestion that he was considering resignation.
"Regarding rumors of resignation, to paraphrase Mark Twain: 'The reports of my political demise are greatly exaggerated,'" his office tweeted.
LePage's press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, would not provide clarification of the governor's intentions Tuesday afternoon, saying only, "The tweet speaks for itself."
The uncertainty comes after several days of sustained controversy that began last week when the governor told an audience in North Berwick that he's been keeping a three-ring binder of drug dealers and that 90 percent of those dealers are black or Hispanic. Statistics show that the overwhelming majority of drug dealers arrested in Maine are white, and critics have said that even if the governor's numbers were accurate, he is wrong to focus on race.
Over the past week, LePage has repeated his statements about the race of drug dealers in media interviews in several settings, ranging from his Blaine House residence to a meeting with New England governors in Boston -- where he was roundly criticized by regional officials for his focus on race.
The governor's actions, and the responses Maine of lawmakers, residents and others, have been fodder for national media attention, putting the state in an unflattering light.
One of LePage's critics was Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook representative. When the governor heard that Gattine had called him racist -- Gattine actually said the governor made racially charge comments -- LePage lashed out by leaving an obscenity-laced voice mail and then later saying he wished he could challenge Gattine to a duel.
Since last Friday, lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns about the governor's fitness to hold office. Republican State Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough encouraged the governor to seek treatment.
LePage was on his way to Baileyville, in Washington County, on Tuesday to take part in a ceremony at St. Croix Tissue and was not available for additional comment.
Rob Poindexter, spokesman for the House Republicans, said Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, and Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, would not comment on LePage's remarks Tuesday until after their members met that evening.
Senate Republican leaders also had no comment.
Tom Saviello, a Republican senator from Wilton, said the governor, in his radio remarks, started to answer some concerns.
"He has work to do," Saviello said. "I'm glad that he's going to have a conversation with Drew Gattine. That's important to me personally."
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, said LePage's apology did not go far enough and called on legislative leaders from both parties "to get in the same room and discuss these very serious issues."
"I believe the governor has taken away from meeting with Republicans sort of their concerns, but what I didn't hear was an admission that the governor is willing to admit that Representative Gattine did not call him a racist," said House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe. "Also, as part of that interview, the governor sort of tried to turn things around and make himself the victim, which that's not really what Democratic leadership is looking for at this time."
McCabe said Democrats still feel the best thing for LePage to do is resign. Outside of that, he said the governor needs to consider treatment.
"I'm not in the medical profession, but it's clear that the governor needs to seek professional help," McCabe said. "He's crossed a line and we are questioning his well-being at this time."
Senate Democrats had similar feelings.
"As abhorrent as that behavior was, we're even more concerned with what could happen next," Senate Democratic leaders Justin Alfond and Dawn Hill said in a joint statement. "What important decision might the governor be making the next time he experiences one of these out-of-control episodes -- when he is, as he puts it, 'so angry he literally cannot breathe?'"
McCabe said he doesn't know what legislative Republicans have discussed with the governor but said Democrats have been trying to meet with leaders on the other side. So far, that hasn't happened,
During his radio interview, LePage did apologize to the people of Maine and to Gattine's family for leaving a threatening voice mail last week, but didn't apologize to Gattine directly.
"When I was called a racist I just lost it, and there's no excuse," the governor said. "It's unacceptable. It's totally my fault." LePage said being called a racist for him was, "like calling a black man the 'N' word or a woman the 'C' word. It just absolutely knocked me off my feet."
LePage scheduled one of his recurring town hall events for Wednesday night in Westbrook. But the event was canceled by the governor Tuesday night, and the venue where the event was to have been held, My Space Teen Center, also backed out because it lacked the space to accommodate the expected crowd.
Several times since he made his initial comments about black and Hispanic drug dealers, LePage has returned to the issue of race -- even as lawmakers have challenged his assertions. The governor didn't soften that position Tuesday.
"The fact of the matter is this: I got all of my info in my book from the press. It's that simple," he said. "Every drug arrest, we get the story and the people, and when it comes to meth labs it's all white people from Maine. When it comes to heroin, it's just the opposite. Whether it's right or wrong and I'll leave you to make that judgment, but I spoke fact.
"Now they are saying, you can't do this because of the racially charged atmosphere in our country but the same token is all lives matter. That's the bottom line, all lives matter."
LePage continues to focus on the racial makeup of drug dealers. He first made the claims months ago when he accused black dealers of coming up to Maine and impregnating white women.
Last Friday, in an attempt to clarify his comments at the North Berwick town hall, the governor appeared to endorse racial profiling.
"Look, the bad guy is the bad guy, I don't care what color he is," LePage said. "When you go to war, if you know the enemy and the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, then you shoot at red."
LePage then turned to House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, an officer who serves as a military lawyer in the Maine Air National Guard and sat in on the press conference. "Don't you -- Ken (Fredette) you've been in uniform? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin."
McCabe said he's troubled that the governor keeps focusing on race when talking about the drug crisis. He did it again on Monday in Boston following a meeting of New England governors.
"This is a meeting of governors trying to solve issues that affect the states, trying to solve and move forward with addressing the drug epidemic that is beyond Maine, and what the governor does is, he goes down to Massachusetts and he doubles down on the same comments he made here in Maine that caused such an outcry," he said.
Asked about that, Sen. Saviello said, "It troubles me when he singles out any minority."
While LePage has repeatedly emphasized his concern about the impact of drug addiction in Maine, state spending on addiction treatment during his administration has actually declined.
LePage met with Republican House and Senate leaders Monday night at the Blaine House but said he plans to talk with his staff before deciding his next move. He said his impression from Monday's meeting was that House Republicans want to "salvage what we can and move forward." Senate Republicans, he said, are "making demands."
State Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, an ardent supporter of LePage, said he hadn't been paying close attention to everything that had transpired in the last few days as he was dealing with an emergency at his family's apple orchard involving a burglary."
"It's not my monkey," Timberlake said. "I going to come and see and listen tonight before I say anything. I don't know what was said to the governor (Monday night) So I need to wait and see how it all shook out."
LePage seemed to at least acknowledge in his radio interview that his ability to lead Maine may be in question now.
"It's not about me. It's about making sure that we can move the state forward," he said. "It's one thing to have one party behind (you), it's another thing to not have any party behind you."
(c)2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)