More strangeness from the top

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It’s been a long, strange summer for Gov. Paul LePage. At a point when governors normally take time off, he’s been almost continuously in the news, rarely in a flattering light.

From his insistence on cutting Medicaid in ways never before approved by the federal government to his attacks on “Obamacare” (the now notorious “Gestapo” remark), LePage has been even more over the top than usual. Then there was his assertion that Maine students “are looked down on” by the nation, which in a few words – much like Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin – managed to trump the rest of LePage’s education agenda.

But it was his Aug. 15 performance at the Seadog Restaurant in Bangor that truly astonished. To recap: LePage appeared before an invited audience of Republican donors and the party’s heavy hitters. He boasted he was going to call the Legislature into special session before the November election to do … something. He kept it a secret that night, and has ever since, even refusing to say whether he really would call a session (all the signs say no.)

There are several curious things here. One is that someone – presumably a prominent Republican – recorded LePage’s after-dinner remarks and gave them to liberal blogger Mike Tipping, who aired them the following morning.

Another is the sheer oddity of LePage’s idea about what might be a good reason to call a special session, something that almost never happens this close to an election, because candidates naturally would prefer to campaign. He said he’d follow the lead of other Republican governors, which led to frantic speculation – ballot restrictions? Anti-union legislation? But all have failed to attract significant Republican support.

What finally emerged as a solid piece of information was Maine Hospital Association President Steve Michaud’s statement that the session was to pay bills to hospitals; Michaud used to employ LePage’s Human Services commissioner, Mary Mayhew.

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But to do that would take money. Where would it come from? Apparently, from a 10-year extension of Maine’s wholesale liquor lease, a gimmick first installed by the Baldacci administration in 2003.

Trouble is, the lease hasn’t been negotiated yet, and even if it could be rushed through, it’s doubtful lawmakers of either party would see paying hospitals as their top priority. Only the governor’s obsession with debt of all kinds would seem to explain it.

Perhaps LePage was making things up again and got caught. As ever, though, he dug in deeper, telling House Democratic leader Emily Cain that there would be no special session, then denying he’d said it. It was a “private conversation,” his spokeswoman said, as if convening the Legislature was actually a topic for a personal chat.

The final word, of course, came from the governor. “I lie a lot,” he told reporters after a speech in Scarborough, when asked why he wouldn’t offer a straight story about the special session.

The whole episode has now collapsed into irrelevance, with the crucial difficulty for Republicans that LePage has consumed precious media space, leaving little for those fighting uphill battles for the U.S. House and Senate.

Yet the most significant development of all might be the announcement that Dan Billings, chief legal counsel, is leaving the administration to become a District Court judge.

Billings is one of the Smart Guys of this administration. He’s as partisan as anyone, but he also understands issues and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Maine politics. (He’s made a few corrections to this column over the years.)

Billings will be a big loss, and again the question is why. Observers noted that both Gov. King and Gov. Baldacci also appointed their chief counsels to the bench, but that was during the last year of their administrations. Having your top advisor jump ship 17 months into a four-year term isn’t reassuring.

When reporters had a tough question, Billings was the go-to guy, even more so after LePage’s first communications director, Dan Demeritt, who got on well with reporters, resigned amid personal financial difficulties after just three months.

Demeritt was never really replaced. Pete Rogers, former Maine National Guard spokesman, got the job, but was mysteriously never quoted, then left, saying it wasn’t what he expected. It’s been Demeritt’s deputy, Adrienne Bennett, who’s soldiered on alone, trying to square the circle of her boss’s unconventional sayings and behavior.

It’s awfully close to the election to acquire message discipline and leave the distractions behind. Only Paul LePage can say whether he’s willing to take a back seat to this year’s Republican candidates – and even he may not know for sure.

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