When the history of the Paul LePage administration is written, its authors will no doubt carefully examine the remarkable letter the governor wrote Nov. 12, to 24 committee chairs who had asked him to reconsider his policy of providing only written testimony in most instances. Last August, LePage decreed he would review all requests by committees, and abruptly shut off the give-and-take between executive and legislative officials that is such a vital part of governing.
LePage’s motives were fairly transparent. He had showed up at the end of a long Appropriations Committee hearing late in the last session, unannounced, and asked to speak to the committee, which had been at work most of the two previous days. The committee co-chair, Sen. Dawn Hill, declined the request. She said she wanted to end the day on a “positive note,” figuring – undoubtedly correctly – that LePage was ready to launch a diatribe similar to those he’d been issuing regularly through the press.
Reporters played up LePage’s version by referring to him as being “silenced” – as if that description could fit someone who’s created more attention and controversy as governor than anyone since Jim Longley a generation ago.
LePage didn’t forgive the snub, however, and explicitly said that, if lawmakers didn’t want to hear from him, they could do without his commissioners as well. His written testimony policy is the result of that incident.
The committee chairs’ recent letter to LePage was respectful and to the point. His response accused lawmakers, without any examples, of mistreating his staff, saying they had been “chastised, scolded and badgered.” He said lawmakers “pontificate and preen for the cameras,” which, if you’ve attended any legislative hearings recently, seems unlikely in the extreme.
He returned to the theme later, claiming his appointees have been “verbally assaulted or subjected to political showboating.”
What’s going on here? LePage’s description of the legislative process bears no relation to reality, but it does invite comparison to his own conduct. As I’ve noted before, LePage has a penchant projecting his own demons onto others.
If you round up all those verbs and adjectives and recall some of LePage’s utterances about “corrupt” state employees, “hate” by President Obama and the “47 percent” who allegedly don’t pay taxes, they fit him rather well.
LePage is clearly not going to back down on withholding staff time from legislative committees – which apparently includes even executive branch employees whose job title is “legislative liaison” – and it could lead to serious difficulties when the Legislature returns in January. As Anne Haskell, the Senate assistant majority leader, pointed out, there’s been a three-week gap in some instances between legislative inquiry and executive response.
A stronger possibility is that LePage will simply forget about the policy at some point. He’s banned administration staffers from speaking to Press Herald and Kennebec Journal reporters, for instance, without noticeably impeding day-to-day coverage.
There’s plenty more material in LePage’s letter indicating a lack of understanding of how state government works, with repeated claims that the executive branch is “separate” from the legislative. Yes it is, but the constitutional system can’t possibly work if there isn’t regular collaboration and communication between the two branches.
No bills could become law, for instance – though, with a record number of vetoes, LePage often seems happy enough with that outcome.
What it comes down to is that Paul LePage seems unwilling to share power with anyone, whether the Republican leaders who began resisting his whims in 2012 or the Democrats who took over the following year.
A revealing insight is provided by John Christie’s recent “book” on LePage, one of the few news accounts based on interviews with the governor, rather than his brief and often spectacular appearances before the assembled media. Christie had six hours of conversation, time well-spent by the governor, since the account is unusually sympathetic and often interprets the available evidence roundly in LePage’s favor, even while acknowledging dissent.
Christie said LePage became angry only once, when he asked about working with legislative leaders. “I hate politics,” LePage exploded, emphasizing the word “hate.” He added, “I just hate having to compromise my principles.”
This is LePage’s basic misunderstanding of government. Everyone comes to Augusta with principles they hope to deploy and have an impact. And pretty much everyone else can ultimately come to agreement on contentious issues without abandoning their principles.
Only Paul LePage claims to be “chastised, scolded and badgered” every time someone disagrees with him. It’s making for a long four years.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.