State lawmakers in both parties roundly denounced the governor’s voicemail and subsequent threat. Democratic leaders said he crossed a line — and that he’s unfit for office. Both LePage and Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump have demonstrated a willingness to test the boundaries of acceptable conduct for public officials — and they’ve been repeatedly rewarded for it.
At a press conference in Portland, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, told reporters that he was truly taken aback by the tone of LePage’s voicemail.
“You know, when I got that message yesterday, my first thought was that I was really glad I wasn’t in the room with him when he left it. He really sounded like someone who, you know, who was about to commit physical violence. It was really a stunning message,” Gattine said.
Assistant House leader Sara Gideon then called for what she described as a political intervention. Republican leaders were needed, she said, to convince the governor that he had finally gone too far.
“Because this kind of behavior is not normal behavior. It’s not just not what we expect of our chief executive, our governor, it’s also not what we expect of any normal human being who is functioning normally in society,” she said.
In a statement, Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau said “politics have become far too personal,” damaging public institutions. Members of his caucus were dismayed at the governor’s comments, he said.
House minority leader Kenneth Fredette echoed that sentiment.
“I have concerns of elected officials, whether they’re representatives or governors, calling people, you know, bigots, calling people racists or [saying] I’m going to shoot you between the eyes. Not acceptable in today’s society,” Fredette said.
LePage has had an established history of controversial comments and behavior. Six years ago he told the NAACP to kiss his butt. There also was an outcry when he described a Democratic legislator as having a “black heart,” and who “gave it to the people without providing Vaseline.” And LePage was widely denounced for announcing that he wanted to blowup up a newspaper after climbing into a flight simulator.
None of this harmed LePage politically as Democrats had hoped, as he easily won re-election two years ago.
Democrats, and some Republicans, have worried that the election result has enabled the governor to double-down on conduct that by conventional standards was considered politically damaging.
Gattine said LePage is stretching the boundaries.
“This is a pattern, this is repeated, this is happening all the time. Every time you think the governor has crossed the line, he sets another line and crosses it, again,” said Gattine.
“Well, I would say we’re in the sewer. This is another piece of garbage, floating by,” said Larry Sabato, the director for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Sabato has followed state and national politics for decades. He said LePage’s recent comments probably won’t cost him. One need only look to the Republican presidential nominee, he said, to see why.
“He was Trump before Trump,” Sabato said. “Now I’m sure he feels vindicated because the whole country, at least the Republican part of it, has embraced the guy who’s just like him.”
Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination has confounded political observers. He’s made a litany of disparaging comments about women, calling some pigs and dummies. He mocked the disability of a New York Times reporter. He criticized the family of a slain Gold Star Army captain — an act long considered political taboo. His supporters have rallied behind him. That includes LePage, who called the soldier’s father a “con artist” just this week.
Sabato said that it’s not that politicians before LePage and Trump didn’t curse or use coarse language. President Richard Nixon was known for it. So was Lyndon Johnson. Even Ed Muskie, the respected United State senator from Maine, had a “salty tongue,” he said. The difference, he said, “you had enough respect for the public and public decency that you did not do, and say, these kinds of things.”
But Sabato said elected officials such as LePage have been rewarded by voters for their behavior. And it will be up to voters to decide where the new lines are.
“The people of Maine are the only ones who could have done something about it, and they chose not to,” Sabato said. “And now, they are stuck with the consequences.”
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.