Several actions by Gov. Paul LePage last week left people scratching their heads, not because they involved outrageous comments, but because they seemed politically inconsistent.
In a dispute involving Democrats in Kennebec County, the governor refused to follow their recommendation for a new county sheriff, instead nominating his own pick. The situation was largely portrayed as another fight between LePage and Democrats.
So, it seemed surprising when, on the same day, LePage said President Barack Obama should nominate a replacement for conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Many were confused about why the governor would side with the president, a Democrat loathed by the far right. LePage explained his comments by saying he believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
That’s the short answer. Playing it out a bit more, it is not surprising that LePage would agree with Obama on nominations but not the Kennebec County Democratic Committee. LePage strongly believes that a chief executive has broad power to appoint the people he wants to fill positions that require nominations or approval from his office.
Take, for example, the odd machinations earlier this month when it became clear that members of the Education Committee had concerns about Bill Beardsley, the former Husson University president LePage had nominated to serve as education commissioner. Outraged that Beardsley would face opposition, LePage angrily withdrew Beardsley’s nomination. Instead, LePage said he would speak for the department.
By leaving the top education department job open, LePage essentially keeps Beardsley in charge without having him face an unfriendly audience in the Legislature, whose members were also likely to ask him tough questions regarding his knowledge of one-time Husson chaplain Bob Carlson’s reported sexual abuse of young people and his past comments regarding transgender students.
Because he believes he has the power to choose department heads without intervention from lawmakers, LePage essentially circumvented the nomination process to get what he wanted. Of course, there are many problems with not having an education commissioner, but LePage isn’t worried about them as much as he is about getting his way.
To be consistent, LePage had to back Obama’s authority to nominate someone to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court, even as Republicans in the Senate said the decision should be left to the next president.
The fight in Kennebec County follows a similar line of reasoning. Again, LePage asserts his power, this time on a technicality that is likely to have to be resolved by a court. The governor argues that state law requires that the Kennebec County Democratic Committee send him a list of nominees from which to “choose” and make “recommendations.” Because the committee sent only one name, that of Interim Sheriff Ryan Reardon, this deprives him of a choice and is not legal, LePage argued.
While the sheriff fight was raging, LePage quietly named former Democratic lawmaker Patsy Crockett to fill a vacant Kennebec County commissioner post. In this instance, the committee had sent him two names, although the governor asked for more.
In the sheriff dispute, LePage nominated Lincoln County Chief Deputy Ken Mason to the post. Mason said he didn’t know about his nomination until he received a call from the governor’s office on Thursday. The absurdity of nominating someone you haven’t even talked to highlights the extremes LePage will go to to preserve his executive privilege — and act on it.