AUGUSTA — Spokespeople for Gov. Paul LePage have said that the timing of the administration's decision to remove a 36-foot mural from the Maine Department of Labor was unfortunate.
This week, after absorbing criticism from his own party, the governor finally said so himself.
Although LePage told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that he stood by his decision to remove the labor mural, he said he should have waited until the summer when the Legislature had completed its work.
"We and the people of the state of Maine need to get away from 'us and them'—we have to be 'we,' a people, we have to do it together," he told MPBN. "The Department of Labor is a department that works with business, with the employer as well as the employee, and it's got to be 'we'— it can't be 'us and them.'"
The governor's comments followed a meeting with Senate Republicans, many of whom have said that LePage’s penchant for verbally shooting from the hip was subverting the GOP’s agenda.
Last week Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, told the Sun Journal that the mural flap was a “distraction we don’t need.”
“I'm worried about changing the state," Webster said. "I'm not worried about what pictures are hanging on the wall."
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said Friday that the unusual decision by the governor to attend Thursday's caucus was a welcome one.
Raye said Senate Republicans "had some very grave concerns" about the controversy that followed the governor's public conduct.
"We had a very good discussion," Raye said. "We obviously have been very concerned with some of the sort of sideshow aspects to the media coverage, the 'little beards,' the mural. People think that this is all (Republicans) are talking about and doing. It's not."
Raye said members of the Republican caucus were spending a lot of time answering constituent questions about the governor's public remarks. Raye said he and House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, had both expressed "very honest concerns" to LePage prior to the governor's visit Thursday.
Raye said the discussion could be a turning point in a session that's been marked by turmoil and speculated rifts between LePage and the Republican Legislature.
"I think (his visit) was very welcome," Raye said. "It spoke volumes and it showed our members that he cared. I think it was an excellent first step."
Privately, members of the GOP have been complaining about the governor's conduct for several weeks. Many have said they were worried that the governor's gravitation toward controversy would hurt their efforts this session. They’re also concerned they’ll lose their grip on the Legislature in 2012 if the governor becomes a political liability.
The governor appears to be receptive to their concerns. He described his meeting with Senate Republicans to MPBN as “about zipping my mouth up and not offending them.”
That contrasted sharply with comments he made last week amid the mural furor.
Despite national criticism and a deliberate distancing by the GOP, the governor had been defiant about the mural. 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."
LePage told MPBN on Thursday that it was time to get “back on topic.”
"I told them that it's time that both the House and the Senate and the administration focus on the task at hand, and that's pension reform, health care reform, regulatory reform, energy reform and lowering the tax on Maine people."
Raye said his caucus was anxious to see whether the governor's meeting signaled a turning point in a thus-far tumultuous session.
"Much of what the governor wants to do has support in the Legislature," Raye said. "The issues, frankly, cut his way."