Capitol Notebook: LePage takes a page from Trump’s playbook

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The face of a young Lewiston activist was plastered on a “Wanted” poster that greeted people arriving for Gov. Paul LePage’s Town Hall meeting last Thursday in Bath.

The picture of Ben Chin, who works for the Maine People’s Alliance and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Lewiston, loomed over the auditorium entrance. You couldn’t miss it. It was produced by the governor’s press team, who also created “Wanted” posters for a labor union official and a scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. They have threatened to create more.

The images conjured the Old West, where such posters could include the words, “dead or alive.” It signaled a new phase in the pugilistic posture of a governor whose key political strategy seems to be attacking his enemies.

LePage’s latest salvo comes as the national presidential campaign descends into sporadic violence, spurred by the campaign of LePage’s preferred presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Trump stokes the anger at his rallies, delights when protesters are thrown out and is mulling paying legal fees for a white man who attacked a black protester being escorted out of a Trump rally. The threat of violence at Trump rallies further stokes the excitement and media attention.

Trump needs to stir up enemies, whether it’s the Muslims he wants to ban, or the protesters at his rallies. LePage follows the same strategy.

LePage recently introduced Trump in Portland, where clashes were reported between Trump followers and protesters, and pickup trucks flying Confederate flags circled Congress Square.

At LePage’s town hall meetings, the questions are limited and filtered by his press secretary. Soon, people are shouting their replies and questions to the Governor. Ironically, LePage, whose posters seemed to invite attacks, demanded that the Bath town hall crowd be civil after hecklers disrupted the event. He threatened to leave, but then decided to remain.

Before the meeting descended into a sparring match between LePage and his hecklers, he repeated his call for the tax policy changes he believes will improve Maine’s economy. These include ending the estate tax, and reducing the income tax in favor of widening and increasing the sales tax, and a change in energy policy to promote business development.

When he first announced this plan, more than a year ago, it was well received by many, and it was similar to proposals that have been advanced before (and have failed, mostly due to Republican objections).

But after failing to pass that plan, the governor has resorted to a strategy of fighting his enemies. It has made any accomplishments difficult in this year’s session of the Legislature, although there have been some compromises.

LePage can be candid and reflective in the town halls, and at one point lamented that “you can’t govern from the middle anymore.”

“Then why did you endorse Donald Trump?” someone yelled. Perhaps a fleeting moment of doubt came over the governor’s face, but he replied that Trump is a businessman who knows that America’s ballooning debt is not sustainable.

While LePage hardly matches the dangers of Donald Trump, and fierce battles in Maine politics are not new, this level of dysfunction makes it harder to fix the state’s continuing problems, including the central problem of poverty that LePage came into Augusta hoping he could solve. He can be candid and effective on this subject, and his words come from a politician whose life story and ascent from poverty and abuse still resonate, even with those who oppose his policies.

“I have been trying to transition a state that has spent 50 years in poverty, and I didn’t think it would be this hard,” he said, adding that if he had it to do over, he would not run for governor.

It’s too bad for the state that his own personality has jinxed his best intentions. And putting his enemies on “Wanted” posters won’t help.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.