Short Relief: Paul LePage, the great controversialist

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Gov. Paul LePage is conducting town hall meetings around the state in order to deliver his message without having to rely on a news media he believes is biased and doesn’t cover him fairly.

It hasn’t been an unqualified success.

That’s apparent from the reaction to remarks he made at a meeting in Bridgton on Jan. 6. There, LePage said that guys named “D-Money, Smoothie and Shifty” have been coming to Maine to sell drugs and get white girls pregnant, which contributes to two problems for Maine: its drug problem and its welfare dependency problem.

Everyone understood him to be referring to black men, and the governor’s poor choice of words overshadowed what truth there was in what he said, without any intercession by the media.

Maine is relatively homogeneous and has few people of color. To the extent that it has racial diversity, that diversity is in its urban centers, particularly Portland and Lewiston.

According to the 2014 census, the United States has 319 million people, of whom 77 percent were white and 13 percent were black or African-American. Maine has about 1.3 million people, of whom 95 percent are white and 1.4 percent are black or African-American. Seven percent of Portland’s 66,000 people are black or African American, as are 8.7 percent of Lewiston’s 36,000 residents.

Maine, meanwhile, is in the midst of an opiate crisis and sex trafficking has become increasingly common here.

The number of Mainers who died from drugs increased from 167 in 2010 to 208 in 2014. During that time, the greatest increases in drug deaths were from opiates and cocaine. In 2014, 5,800 people were arrested in Maine for drug offenses. Of those, 21.6 percent were arrested for selling or manufacturing offenses, and 368 of those were arrests for the sale or manufacturing of opium, cocaine or their derivatives. Neither opium nor cocaine originates in Maine.

According to the Maine Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Network, as of 2015, Maine has been experiencing 200 to 300 cases of sex trafficking annually. Most of the victims of sex trafficking in Maine are white women between the ages of 14 and 30, who are probably also using drugs.

As of 2013, drug and sex crimes were the top two types of crime for which people in Maine were convicted. People convicted of those types of crime constituted 62.5 percent of the prison population in Maine.

There are no readily available statistics with respect to who is getting whom pregnant. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, of nearly 12,800 births in Maine in 2013, just under 12,000 were to white mothers, 455 to black mothers, 118 to American Indian mothers, and 253 were to Asian mothers.

Like the rest of the country, only a little more so, blacks and minorities are arrested, convicted and incarcerated in Maine disproportionately to their share of the population.

Nationally, while blacks are 13.2 percent of the population, they are 37.8 percent of the inmates in federal prison; whites are 58.7 percent. In Maine, where blacks are about 1 percent of the population, they are 7 percent of the incarcerated population. In Portland, in 2013, 18 percent of those arrested were minorities, while minorities represented only 7 percent of the city’s population; 42 percent of those lived outside the city, and many of them outside of Maine.

The country is in the midst of a debate about whether these rates reflect a greater incidence of crime in the black community, or racial discrimination by the criminal justice system. To the extent that they may reflect greater incidence, no one seriously argues that is because of some inherent disposition on the part of black people to commit crimes.

And I don’t think that is what LePage meant by his remarks. Nor do I think he meant that interracial relationships are taboo, or that all black men are deadbeat dads.

I think he was expressing disapproval of people who bring drugs to Maine, sexually exploit Mainers, and produce children whom they do not support. For whatever reason, whether he was trying to be amusing or controversial, he embellished and people understood him to be racist.

There is substantial evidence that Maine has a drug problem and a human trafficking problem. They need to be addressed with a combination of support from family and friends, education, assistance from government, treatment by providers, and deterrence by law enforcement, not careless language.

Thirty years ago, on the evening after the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff, killing all aboard, President Ronald Reagan quoted poetry to console a shaken nation. He urged us to be resolute, brave and good. It was a great speech by a great communicator – who had his own issues with the press –and a reminder of how valuable it is for the leader of a democracy to speak well.

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.