Current Republican nominee for Maine governor, Paul LePage, speaks to the press in Westbrook on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Former Gov. Paul LePage called a 1980 settlement at the heart of negotiations over tribal rights “a done deal,” saying Tuesday that he would not have restricted mobile sports betting to tribes.

LePage, a Republican running against Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, criticized his successor’s April deal granting the Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy tribes exclusive control of mobile sports betting after a years-long push from the tribes for a more sweeping deal.

The legislation was the product of a vow from Mills to repair a long rift between the state and tribes that deteriorated further during LePage’s eight years in office. But the Democrat has resisted much of tribes’ wider effort to renegotiate the settlement, which has largely relegated tribes to the status of cities and towns in the state.

“I think it was settled in the 1980s,” LePage said after being questioned by a reporter at a Rotary Club event in Bangor. “It’s a done deal.”

LePage’s aversion to negotiating with the tribes showed stark differences with Mills, who has made progress with tribes but also frustrated them and broken with members of her own party with opposition to a tribe-backed plan that would give them control over natural resources, land acquisition, taxation and other policy areas.

The former governor’s remarks concerned Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation, who said the sports betting arrangement would create jobs for rural communities and guarantee that revenue stayed in Maine while ensuring that tribes were no longer shut out of gaming here. A smaller in-person betting market was reserved for casinos and off-track betting parlors.

“I would think any candidate for governor would be about local self-governance, self-sufficiency, more jobs and more [retention] of those resources in our state,” Francis said.

LePage cast doubt on the need of reopening negotiations around the settlement, which resolved a long-running tribal lawsuit that called into question the ownership of two-thirds of modern-day Maine. Tribes assented to more regulation at that time in exchange for $80 million, an arrangement that they have come to regret.

“You don’t reinvent the wheel every time you need more money,” LePage said. “They negotiated fairly, and it took a long time and now they want to reopen it because they want more.”

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Both Mills and LePage have been part of a long history of state officials who have tried to preserve Maine’s power in negotiations with the tribes dating back to the 1970s, when some state-level politicians did not want to settle because they thought Maine would win in court.

LePage had a more fraught relationship with tribes during his tenure, including in 2015, when he rescinded an executive order promising collaboration in a move that tribal members saw as retaliation for a dispute over water-quality standards. The Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes pulled their representatives from Augusta the same year.

Mills opened her tenure with several olive branches to the tribe, including replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day and tightening the long-disputed water standards. The last two years have been more of a slog. Last month, the governor lobbied key members of Congress against a tribal-rights bill sponsored by Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District and being considered now.

The governor is committed to improving the relationship with tribes through collaboration and not litigation, Mills campaign manager Alex Raposo said.

“She will continue to work hard to achieve that goal,” Raposo said.

Francis said LePage’s suggestion that the tribes simply want more money was “insulting” and betrayed a “shallow” understanding of why they had fought for more self-governance in the Legislature for the past two years, adding that sovereignty would allow the Wabanaki tribes to be self-sufficient and address disparities within their communities.

“This has nothing to do with money,” he said. “We’ve never asked the state of Maine for a dime. What we said is, ‘Get out of our way.’”

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.