AUGUSTA, Maine — With Democrats campaigning to replace Gov. Paul LePage with another Republican who doesn’t want the job, legislative leaders left a Thursday meeting fragmented three ways about returning to Augusta to address the governor’s latest controversy.
Democrats want a special session to consider LePage’s removal. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, would return to consider a more symbolic censure. Minority House Republicans and their leader, Ken Fredette of Newport, don’t want to come back.
But even the tenuous alliance only goes so far.
Term-limited House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, campaigned for Thibodeau in a surreal exchange with reporters, saying Maine would be “better off” if lawmakers removed LePage and installed the Senate president, who is first in the line of succession.
“Arguably, he’s more conservative than the governor. Arguably, he’s more effective than the governor,” Eves said. “So if you are a conservative and you care about conservative principles and an agenda, I think that you would want an effective leader to take over as governor.”
It prompted an angry response from Thibodeau, who said there’s no will for impeachment in his caucus.
“The fact of the matter is this is not about impeachment and there will be no Gov. Thibodeau,” he said.
Thursday was the eighth day that Maine politics was dominated by the news around LePage, who made national headlines after saying more than 90 percent of drug traffickers in Maine are black and Hispanic and then left an obscenity-laced voicemail for Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who had criticized him for the comments.
Since then, Democrats have called for his resignation, which LePage mulled in a radio appearance on Tuesday but ruled out by Wednesday when he said he’s seeking “spiritual guidance” and never would speak to the media again. He was quiet on Thursday.
A special session to consider a governor’s actions is unprecedented in Maine and to come back, a majority of lawmakers in both parties must agree to it.
Democrats have been saying LePage is mentally unfit to hold office, with Eves and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, doubling down Thursday on the message that LePage rejected on Wednesday saying he didn’t have problems, but rather, a “backbone.”
Alfond called him “unhinged.” He and Eves said legislators should consider impeachment, which was tried unsuccessfully by progressives in January.
“Mainers are demanding action. They’re angry,” Alfond said. “They are frustrated that we are on the front page of the news for a wrong reason.”
Impeachment requires a majority vote in the House, which would send it to the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is needed to remove a governor. If the Legislature returned for a special session, it also could pass a symbolic resolution.
But it’s the question of whether to return that has prompted a public split between Thibodeau, whose relationship with LePage has been tenuous since a tense 2015 budget battle, and Fredette, who has emerged as one of the governor’s chief lieutenants in the Legislature.
Both met with LePage on Monday. But after the House Republican caucus met on Tuesday, Fredette said his members wouldn’t support returning to Augusta to consider a resolution condemning LePage’s comments, citing the estimated per-day cost of $43,000.
On Wednesday, Thibodeau disagreed, saying he asked LePage to consider getting “some kind of professional counseling” and he was “struggling” with what should come next.
Division between the two Republicans was palpable on Thursday. After the meeting with Eves and Alfond, Thibodeau and Fredette walked across the State House with staff to the Senate president’s office, where raised voices could be heard outside the door.
When Fredette emerged, he said the Legislature could consider reprimanding LePage during its regular session, saying “a solid majority” of his caucus doesn’t want to come back.
“We’ll take a vote if they have to, but we’re not going to vote to come back in, in my opinion,” he said.
Thibodeau said after the meeting that leaders aren’t in agreement on a question to ask members, and he said Republican senators want to know what they will be considering if they return. He said that some would support censuring LePage, but none would support impeachment.
The conversation between leaders may stretch into next week.
Republicans are more moderate in the Senate than in the House, and their 20-15 Senate majority is vulnerable in 2016, which may help explain why some want to vote on LePage.
Thibodeau — in a rematch of a 2014 race with Democrat Jonathan Fulford that went to a recount — acknowledged that LePage may be hurting the Republicans’ campaign for a majority.
“Look, let’s just be honest,” Thibodeau said. “The governor’s put Republicans in a tough spot.”