AUGUSTA — Western Maine lawmakers offered mixed reactions Wednesday to Gov. Paul LePage's complaint that hiring a Democratic operative to track his public appearances was "vulgar," "vile" and "vicious."
LePage criticized Maine Democrats for hiring a so-called "tracker" to videotape the governor at public events. His complaint came just before he administered the oath of office to newly elected members of the Maine Senate and House.
“I’m very distinguished," LePage said from the Senate rostrum. "I’ve been honored to have a private paparazzi paid for by the Democratic Party.”
He said the Democrats could have at least hired a person from Maine, instead of somebody from Massachusetts.
“I think it’s vulgar, I think it’s vicious, and I think it’s vile to me and my family,” LePage said. “I say that to you, for the lack of respect that the office of the governor of the state of Maine is receiving. Having said that, we have to go to work. I want to work with each and every one of you.”
LePage on Tuesday canceled a meeting with the incoming Democratic speaker of the House and Senate president after the governor confronted the tracker at a chamber of commerce event in Bangor. LePage has said he was most angered when the tracker tried to film him on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, when LePage was trying to talk to an elderly veteran about health concerns.
LePage issued a news release saying he wouldn't meet with the new Democratic leaders until they pressured party officials to call off the tracker.
Several lawmakers said Wednesday they could understand the governor's frustration, but some said they didn't approve of his choice of venue for raising the issue again.
Even some members of LePage's Republican Party had some tough words for the governor's choice of words and especially his choice of venue. Rep. Lance Harvell, R- Farmington, said LePage's issue over the political party campaign tactics took the spotlight away from newly elected lawmakers who had worked hard to win election.
"They are here with their families, their mom, their kids," Harvell said. "It's a day of transfer of power that takes place in all democracies. We lost the majority, the other side has the majority. If you say you have respect for the institution and the Constitution then you ought to show some . . . and then the attitude in there is he comes in and he fulfills his constitutional obligation to swear us all in — and he thanks us and he walks away — that's dignified. This fight he's having with his tracker, it doesn't belong here this day."
Harvell said LePage could be risking the Republican votes he would need to resist any veto overrides that could come.
"I mean, I really don't see how we hold this caucus together with that approach," Harvell said. "It certainly doesn't help at all to set a tone about the way you are going to govern. It just doesn't."
LePage is right on many policy issues, Harvell said.
"But the politics of it is just abysmal," he said. "When it comes to vetoes, we are talking about we lose seven, eight people, we're done. You start taking people in this caucus and they are saying we are not following that train wreck."
Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, said he understood the governor's frustration and agreed it was inappropriate for a tracker to be harassing the governor when he was trying to meet with a veteran, but LePage's comments Wednesday were "inappropriate."
LePage voiced his concern to the media, and his discomfort and disgust with the practice of tracking was made clear in most of the state's newspapers Wednesday, Black said. That should have been the end of it.
"I don't think it's right what they are doing," Black said. "But I don't understand it today. It just doesn't make sense and it's just not appropriate."
Other Republicans were quick to defend LePage. Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner said the practice of tracking was used heavily by Republican opponents in 2012 campaigns.
"If you want respect, you've got to show respect," Timberlake said. He said he had seen trackers using "gotcha" tactics on campaigning candidates, including fellow Republican Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls.
"I've seen it a couple of times," Timberlake said. "They are right there with you, following you all the time. You get sick of it after a while."
Mason said LePage's comments and complaints were not nearly as distasteful as somebody trying to record a private conversation between the governor and a U.S. military veteran.
"If you asked me, that is certainly far worse than anything the governor could have said about it," Mason said.
Lizzy Reinholt, the communications director for the Maine Democratic Party, said the operative hired to film LePage has strict rules he is required to abide by.
"It's not papparazzi in any way shape or form," Reinholt said. She shared a link with the tracker's video from the Veterans Day with the press which doesn't include any up close footage of LePage.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Thursday, Dec. 6 to reflect the comments from the Maine Democratic Party.