AUGUSTA — It's not clear if Gov. Paul LePage's decision to suddenly remove a disputed worker mural from the Department of Labor was designed to pre-empt additional protests and force the Portland City Council to accept the piece.
But if that was indeed the governor's plan, the effort appears to be failing on both fronts.
An artist who helped organize a protest of about 200 people last week at the department said he would still fight the governor's removal order. Meanwhile, backlash from the governor's decision to temporarily relocate the mural at Portland City Hall has prompted some Portland councilors to reconsider accepting the mural.
The City Council had originally planned to hold a public hearing on the matter on April 4.
On Monday, hours after news broke that the governor had unexpectedly ordered the mural's removal, a city spokeswoman said the hearing had not been added to the council's agenda.
Councilor David Marshall, who originally floated the relocation idea, said he could no longer support the proposal. Marshall cited hundreds of emails urging the council not to assist LePage's decision.
Marshall said he hadn't discussed the matter with other councilors, however, and added, "My guess is they're receiving the same overwhelming message that I am."
Last week, Portland Mayor Nick Mavodones said he was wary that the council would be seen as "enabling" the governor's decision to remove the display. He also acknowledged that the fight unfolding in Augusta could suddenly shift to Portland.
Rob Shetterly, a Brooksville artist who helped organize last week's protest, blasted the governor's decision.
"The response will be overwhelming," Shetterly said. "Whether it's the NAACP, women, workers or artists, the governor has systematically disrespected all of these people. He seems to be working through each group, one at a time."
He added, "This is a crucial moment for the citizens of this state. I, frankly, can't allow this to happen."
Shetterly was livid at the governor's decision to remove the mural "under the cover of darkness."
Last week, a spokesman for LePage said the mural would remain at the Labor Department until the administration found a new home. But over the weekend the administration ordered workers to remove the piece and put it in storage.
The administration declined to reveal the mural's location. Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for LePage, said the removal did not cost the state any money because workers were already present at the facility.
Judy Taylor, the artist who made the mural, said she has no idea where the mural is being kept. Taylor said the governor's office has not contacted her since the controversy began.
Taylor said she was stunned by the governor's decision.
"To put something in the dark like that is just unAmerican," she said. "I don't know how he (LePage) would feel about his work being taken away from him."
Shetterly called the governor's decision to remove the mural a "sneaky and cowardly" move.
"If he's so right about why these images should be taken down ... why not do it in the light of day?" Shetterly said.
The administration has said the mural's depiction of key moments in Maine's labor history is too one-sided and omitted contributions of corporations. It has also cited its receipt of an anonymous letter comparing the artwork to murals in "communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses."
Originally the administration said the missive was a fax, but last week said it was a letter, spurring speculation that the administration changed its story to hide the transmission phone number from Freedom of Access requests.
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said the speculation was false. She attributed her initial statement to "a miscommunication" with another staffer.
The governor's decision to remove the mural depicting local and national labor icons like "Rosie the Riveter," Cesar Chavez and Frances Perkins has made national news.
On Monday, the issue made the editorial page of the New York Times. The editorial board said the governor "has stooped to behavior worthy of the pharaohs’ chiseling historic truth from Egyptian monuments."
LePage has remained defiant. During an interview with WCSH6 last week, he was asked how he would respond if protesters formed a human chain to protect the mural.
"I'd laugh at them," LePage responded. "I'd laugh at them, the idiots."
Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster described the furor as a distraction. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce is also wary of the fracas. Representatives have said the organization hasn't received any complaints about the mural's depiction of Maine's work history.
On Monday, Labor Department employees seemed surprised to see the mural replaced by bare walls and spackling. Several popped into the waiting area to snap photos with their cellphones as news about the sudden removal spread.
If Portland rejects the mural, it could very well end up in the Lewiston-Auburn area. The Museum of Art at Bates College and Museum L-A in Lewiston have expressed an interest in exhibiting the work, Darrell Bulmer, spokesman for the Maine Arts Commission, said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.