Maine's Governor Insists the Problem Isn't His Racism—It's Being Called a Racist

Paul LePage suggested he might resign amidst an uproar that began when he blamed blacks and Hispanics for his state’s heroin epidemic and endorsed racial profiling.

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

For years, it seemed like no outrageous remark was too far for Paul LePage. That is, there was practically nothing he would not say; and there was no indication that his ever more erratic remarks carried a political cost. But now the Maine governor may have pushed his luck too far.

During a radio interview Tuesday morning, LePage implied that he might resign. “I’m looking at all options,” he said. “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.”

It’s a remarkable moment for the Republican, who has made his reputation by offering up outlandish and often plainly offensive comments. The story began in January, when LePage complained that “guys by the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty … come from Connecticut and New York. They come up here, they sell their heroin, then they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave.”

At the time, LePage insisted—despite the explicit invocation of race—that he didn’t mean to focus on race. But when a citizen asked him about it at a town hall last week, he had changed his mind.

“Let me tell you this, explain to you, I made the comment that black people are trafficking in our state, now ever since I said that comment I’ve been collecting every single drug dealer who has been arrested in our state,” LePage said. “I don’t ask them to come to Maine and sell their poison, but they come and I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ringed binder, are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.”

Asked to share the supposed binders in which he had these images, LePage refused. (The ACLU has filed a public-records request for them.) Other than the alleged binders, there is, as I noted in January, no public evidence to support LePage’s claim that the heroic epidemic is being fed by men of color from Connecticut and New York. Victims of the heroin epidemic in Maine are, like the state’s overall population, overwhelmingly white. Historically, heroin in Maine has come not from minorities from those states, but via Caucasian dealers from Massachusetts. When asked to back up his statements, LePage has refused or (literally) stomped away in anger.

The next day, Drew Gattine, a Democratic state legislator, criticized LePage and said his comments did nothing to help fight heroin. LePage responded by leaving Gattine a voicemail saying he was not a racist, calling Gattine a “socialist cocksucker” and “son of a bitch,” and daring the Democrat to release the voicemail, which Gattine did. Elsewhere, he said he wished that dueling was legal so that he could challenge Gattine and “point it right between his eyes.”

It’s that message that has proved to be LePage’s big problem. On Friday, he initially offered a non-apology, saying, “Legislators like Gattine would rather be politically correct and protect ruthless drug dealers than work with me to stop this crisis that is killing five Mainers a week.” That evening, he backed up his opposition to “political correctness” with more inflammatory comments.

“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…. 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.”

The problem with LePage’s comments is not that they are politically incorrect. It is that based on the available evidence, they are factually incorrect. LePage is pointing his finger at blacks and Hispanics, but he refuses to offer any proof to back it up.

The irony is that LePage is horrified by the idea of being called a racist. Like many people confronted with their own racist comments, he views the idea of being called a racist as at least as bad as, and perhaps worse than, actually committing racism.

When questioned at the town hall on Wednesday, LePage said, “Nobody wants to give you the real story, but the fact of the matter is, sir, I am not a racist.” (As the man who had asked him the question noted, “I didn’t call you a racist.”) LePage also blamed his fury at being called a racist for his voicemail to Gattine. Gattine, too, said he had not called LePage a racist.

LePage floated the remarkable notion that calling out racism is equivalent to using racist and sexist slurs during his radio interview Tuesday, saying that being called racist is “like calling a black man the ‘N’ word or a woman the ‘C’ word. It just absolutely knocked me off my feet.”

The governor isn’t a stranger to accusations of racism by now, given that he’s been making racist comments for years. He previously said that Barack Obama “hates white people.” In 2010, he refused to attended a Martin Luther King Day celebration because it was sponsored by the NAACP, which he called a special interest. Questioned about that decision, LePage replied, “Tell ’em to kiss my butt,” and said he couldn’t be racist because he has a Jamaican adopted son.

LePage, who governs the nation’s whitest state, has made other offensive comments too, including likening the IRS to the Gestapo, saying a Democratic legislator likes “to give it to the people without providing Vaseline,” and hoping for the Portland Press Herald’s building to blow up. He also admitted to pressuring a non-profit into withdrawing a job for a Democratic legislator, by threatening to withhold state money. Democrats tried to impeach LePage over that, but they didn’t have the votes to move forward.

It’s the racist comments that have gotten LePage into the most trouble. Since his outburst last week, Democrats have continued to harshly attack LePage. The Press Herald wrote an editorial apologizing to the nation: “Dear America: Maine here. Please forgive us—we made a terrible mistake. We managed to elect and re-elect a governor who is unfit for high office.” LePage has never had overwhelming support inside the state. He won election in 2010 with less than 38 percent of the vote, thanks to a three-way race. He again failed to win a majority but upped his plurality to more than 48 percent four years later, in another three-way contest.

One important difference this time is that Republicans are turning on LePage. State Republican leaders said that the governor needed to take “corrective action” and met with him to press that reality, as he acknowledged:

LePage said he 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.”

Other Republicans have suggested they would support official censure and have mused on whether LePage is struggling with “substance abuse, mental illness or just ignorance.” The state’s moderate Republican senator, Susan Collins, harshly criticized Donald Trump earlier this month, announcing she would not vote for him. Collins wrote in a column, “Rejecting the conventions of political correctness is different from showing complete disregard for common decency.” Although she has not spoken on LePage, the comment would seem to be apply to him as well.

In fact, LePage—who endorsed Trump in February—might be something of a cautionary tale for the Republican presidential nominee. Like Trump, LePage has made his name in politics by railing against political correctness, and often by scapegoating minorities for a polity’s troubles (alleged black drug dealers in Maine; job-stealing immigrants and homophobic Muslims nationwide). Like LePage, Trump seemed to be immune to the rules of political gravity, floating along despite each new outrage. But both men are encountering what might be the limits of such an appeal. Trump has found that his support among Republicans is weaker than Clinton’s among Democrats, and his electoral coalition is at the moment too small to bring him to victory—but his past comments will make it tougher for him to expand it. LePage, meanwhile, is now forced to reckon with the reality that even members of his own party are close to fed up, a turn of events that could force him from office.