LePage endorses conservative challengers in Maine Senate primaries

Good morning from Augusta, where today’s Daily Brief will function as a digest of Gov. Paul LePage’s greatest hits over the past two days.

The Republican governor made a first-time move on Thursday, when he endorsed two conservatives challenging Republican legislators in Tuesday’s Maine Senate primaries — Guy Lebida of Bowdoin and Calais City Councilor Billy Howard.

Lebida is taking on freshman Sen. Linda Baker of Topsham in the June 14 Republican primary in Senate District 23, while Howard is facing Rep. Joyce Maker of Calais in the primary to succeed Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, who isn’t running for re-election in District 6.

The winner in Sagadahoc County will face Democrat Eloise Vitelli in November. Maine Lobstering Union President Rock Alley of Jonesport is the Democratic candidate in Washington County.

LePage’s endorsement looked to be his delivery on remarks at the Maine Republican Party’s convention in April. He seemed to call for conservative purity, when he railed against legislators who tell him, “I’ll rub your back if you rub mine.”

“Let me tell you, some are in our party and we need to weed them out,” LePage said. “Some of them are not good people.”

Baker and Maker are somewhat moderate Republicans. Baker voted to allow asylum seekers to get General Assistance and proposed allowing cities and towns to ban guns on municipal property, while Maker took on LePage to pass a bill directing his administration to comply with federal fingerprinting law for childcare workers.

Lebida has tied himself to LePage and the party platform, hammering Baker’s voting record and telling the Lincoln County News that “some people run under the wrong party.” Baker is backed by Republican leaders in the Senate and the last three Republicans to hold her seat.

Howard has said he’s “more conservative” than Maker, even though he refused to point to specific votes. Maker’s home phone was busy for much of Thursday, but she has been endorsed by Burns.

In an interview on Thursday, Baker called LePage’s move “unfortunate for the party.” She beat Vitelli, who was an incumbent, by five points in 2014, but only after a Green candidate got 10 percent of votes in a district that leans Democratic. The Washington County district leans Republican.

Vitelli’s running again, and Baker said a Lebida win would make it difficult for Republicans to hold the seat because it’s “not a radical Republican district.”

“In a district that’s 27 percent Republican, voting the Republican platform is not necessarily in the best interest of this district,” she said.

Lebida said he asked LePage for his backing, while Howard said the governor approached him and said he’d “help any way he could” with his race.

Both said LePage’s backing will help them, but Lebida said regardless of whether it helps him, he’d take the governor’s endorsement because he admires him and rejected Baker’s assertion that he’d be less electable against Vitelli.

“There needs to be a difference between the Democrat and Republican candidates,” he said.

But LePage’s backing elevates the importance of these primaries on Tuesday and we’ll be watching to see if the governor can play kingmaker. Paradoxically, Senate Republicans’ November path to defending their majority — which will already be hard in a presidential year — may get harder if he does. — Michael Shepherd

A special session for what?

LePage has also been saying recently that he’d call the Legislature back for a special session this summer, something which we’ve been openly skeptical of for a few reasons.

He said it again at a town hall-style meeting in Augusta on Wednesday, when he listed four reasons why. We’ll handle them in order.

  • The Legislature wants the administration to give raises to state psychiatric workers, but “they didn’t give me the money.”

They may not have given it to LePage, but they told him where to take it from.

Over LePage’s veto, the Legislature passed a bill giving raises to workers at state-run psychiatric hospitals in Augusta and Bangor as a recruitment tool at a cost of $944,000 in the next fiscal year, beginning in July.

If the state can’t do that with existing money, the bill says the money can come from a salary account within the Department of Administrative and Financial Services that has nearly $28 million in it, according to a document provided by the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review.

This is the same way that LePage-backed raises to state police officials were funded. So, if there’s a problem with psychiatric raises, there’s also a problem with those. But we don’t see a problem.

  • “They want me to do a drug exchange program. They took the money out.”

This is pretty much true, since the Legislature removed a $75,000 appropriation for a needle exchange program and asked the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to fund it internally.

  • “They want me to do a study on wages. They took the money out.”

We tried to find a wage study passed in either 2015 or 2016 and couldn’t. Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said a search by the House clerk’s office didn’t turn up anything.

UPDATE: Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, on Friday offered this clarification of the governor’s wage study reference during Wednesday’s event: “Apparently, it was a bill concerning ambulatory service rates, LD 1465.  DHHS says it would cost about $75,000 to $100,000.” The bill, which passed despite a LePage veto, does not provide a clearly stated funding mechanism, according to Bennett.

  • “The worst thing they did” was use Medicaid money to increase jail funding when “people in nursing homes aren’t getting the proper resources.”

A bill passed over LePage’s veto will give jails $2.5 million gained by Maine because of an increase in federal matching funds for health and social services.

One could argue, as LePage has, that this money could go to services. But Crete argued that there’s “no decrease in Medicaid funding” and the funding “does not necessitate a choice between programs or reduce spending on senior programs.”

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett gave no details on when the governor would call back the Legislature, which would come in a proclamation. In an email, she said he was emphasizing “the fact that legislators have a pattern of passing laws, yet there is no funding allocated to ensure implementation can occur.”

“The Governor is simply concerned about where the funding is going to come from so he is looking for guidance from the Legislature,” she said.

But Bennett didn’t respond to questions about the funding identified in the bills or the wage study that LePage referred to. While LePage is quibbling with the way the Legislature funded three bills, it’s unclear what lawmakers would resolve in a special session.

Furthermore, staffers for Eves and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said LePage hasn’t discussed a special session with them, with Eves saying in a statement that the governor is “up to his worn out political games” and “all of these bills passed with identified funding sources and strong bipartisan support.”

So, just file all of this away for when LePage does or doesn’t call the Legislature back. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

Reading list

Best of Maine’s Craigslist

  • A woman was in a 7-Eleven store when another woman “entered the 7/11 circled in fire and innumerable eyes covered the wheels-within-wheels around your heart.” The second woman “bought a Soap Opera Digest and a pack of Lucky Strikes” and when she left, “light emanated from your body and transformed shoppers into pillars of salt.” Poetic.
  • In Portland, a man saw someone who has “got to be the most beautiful women I have ever laid eyes on” with “dark hair, tattoos, heels and a body that should be illegal.” Unfortunately, the Legislature doesn’t come back into session until January, so a law change will have to wait. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd
Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.