LePage echoes Trump in blaming ‘both sides’ for Virginia violence

After remaining largely silent on the past weekend’s violence in Virginia, Gov. Paul LePage erupted Thursday on the radio.

Maine’s Republican governor echoed President Donald Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville conflict, assigning equal blame to white supremacists and counter-protesters who showed up to oppose a rally against removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

LePage said he “condemns both sides” of the uprising, adding they are “disgusting” and that “there’s no place for either of those groups in this country.”

LePage, in a fiery interview on WGAN, said he has taken criticism from Mainers in recent days for his delayed response to the events — which he said he didn’t know happened until Tuesday because he doesn’t watch television or read newspapers.

He angrily rebuked the notion that his silence on Charlottesville and Trump’s refusal to single out neo-Nazis for harsher criticism were tacit signs of support for white supremacist groups.

“I have been against the KKK before you knew they existed,” said LePage. “I get letters every day saying I support them. … It’s insulting when you’ve got guys like [Maine Democratic Party Chairman] Phil Bartlett coming around spewing this poison.”

On Wednesday, in the wake of Ku Klux Klan fiers reportedly being found in Boothbay Harbor, Bartlett said in a written statement that “actions like these are the direct result of leaders like Donald Trump, Paul LePage and Mary Mayhew who only embolden white supremacists by refusing to stand up and condemn their hateful actions and rhetoric.”

Trump, who has been the target of withering criticism for his response to the Charlottesville events, said during a Tuesday news conference that both sides of the conflict were equally to blame. LePage’s interview Thursday morning was similar.

“There’s no room for either of these organizations in the United States of America,” said LePage. As for white supremacists: “They believe they’re the super race and I despise them. We fought two world wars because of some of that attitude. It just upsets me so much that here in the United States of America, where we’re a diverse society, that people can start coming out of the woodwork and criticize other people for not coming out and condemning.”

In a response about whether Virginia law enforcement agencies, who have been criticized for not dispersing the crowds, reacted properly, LePage said his reaction would be different if similar violent clashes happened in Maine.

“I would tell you right away how I would react,” said LePage. “All guns ahead, boys. Take them out. I have no use for any of it. If they’re going to go into violence, my first advice to the Maine people is don’t gather in these large crowds. It’s not safe. When police officers are called and the National Guard are called, they’re called for a reason and they want to keep peace so stay away. If you choose to go in and battle, I will not be timid.”

LePage has faced criticism for what some have called racially charged comments at several times during his tenure. In January 2016, he unleashed a firestorm when he used racial terms to describe Maine’s drug problem, saying that drug traffickers from Connecticut and New York come to Maine and impregnate girls who are “young” and “white” before leaving the state.

In August 2016, he used similar framing when he made comments about black and Hispanic people coming to Maine to sell drugs. When a television reporter suggested that Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, called LePage a racist (Gattine did not), LePage exploded. He left Gattine a profanity-packed and threatening voicemail.

LePage’s take on opposition to removing Confederate statues also mirrored Trump, who made a “slippery slope” argument that removing statues of Confederate leaders like Lee would result in a call for the removal of monuments to Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, because they owned slaves.

On Thursday, LePage said both sides of the Virginia clashes are “equally bad,” including those who want to take down Confederate statues and monuments. He compared the movement to remove Confederate statues to a hypothetical call to take down memorials to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“They’re trying to erase history,” said LePage. “How can future generations learn if they erase history?”

CBS poll results released on Thursday found that 55 percent of Americans do not support Trump’s blaming both sides in the conflict, compared with 35 percent who said he reacted accurately. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • The first Democrat announced a run against U.S. Sen. Angus King on Wednesday, even though Democrats may not want to challenge him. Democrat Zak Ringelstein of Portland cited King’s “benign” response to President Donald Trump’s Tuesday press conference, where the president doubled down in blaming “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, as a reason for the early run. King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, released a statement afterward saying he was “truly disappointed” in the press conference and called for “civil discourse.” Ringelstein said in a statement that Trump “needs to be taken to task immediately” for “emboldening white supremacists.” He’s a Portland public school teacher who was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for education in 2015 as co-founder of UClass, a company that helped schools in manage resources, but he has since sold it. King, a former Democrat who unenrolled to win two terms as governor in 1994 and 1998 before winning the 2012 U.S. Senate election, has made many Democrats happy in his responses to Trump so far. The prospect of a Democratic challenger will make some nervous, especially with LePage toying with a run against King even though he ruled it out in May. — Michael Shepherd
  • Legislators are preparing a response to the federal audit of DHHS. As you have read, the federal Office of the Inspector General released a report earlier this month that detailed the department’s failure to investigate deaths of 133 people and numerous other abuses of people with developmental disabilities between January 2013 and June 2015. Democratic Rep. Patricia Hymanson, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, vowed Wednesday to investigate the situation and take further actions if necessary. In a written statement, she called the situation “atrocious.” She said her committee will find out why investigations were not launched and “what will be done in the future to bring justice to these patients and their families, and significantly improve oversight of group homes.” — Christopher Cousins
  • Maine’s attorney general has asked Congress to amend a sex trafficking law. Janet Mills and 49 other attorneys general co-signed a letter to Congress asking for affirmation that all law enforcement agencies have authority to fight sex trafficking. Specifically, they are asking for amendments to the Communications Decency Act to clarify that state, local and territorial agencies all have authority to investigate and prosecute child sex trafficking offenses. The letter details how some defendants in those cases have used the Communications Decency Act as a shield against prosecution. — Christopher Cousins
  • LePage is losing his emergency management director, but he hired a new adviser. The governor’s office said in a Wednesday statement that Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Bruce Fitzgerald will leave the post in mid-September for a private-sector job. He’ll be replaced on an interim basis by Peter Rogers, a deputy director in the agency and a former LePage spokesman. LePage has also hired attorney Madeline Malisa as his deputy counsel and senior policy adviser on labor and regulatory issues. She worked for six years at the Portland firm of Douglas, Denham, Buccina & Ernst. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Live eels are for kissing

Wednesday was one of the beautiful days of the summer and a friend with a boat invited my boys and I to go out striper fishing. Luckily, my bosses understood, so I was off to the bait store to buy frozen mackerel and live eels.

I have just enough experience with live eels to know I don’t need any more experiences with them than absolutely necessary. When it came time to put the eels on our lines, the three grown men on the boat looked at each other with “not me” expressions. Luckily, my 12-year-old son stepped up.

“I’ll do it,” he said. “Especially if you guys won’t.”

He dove right in with what I considered reckless abandon. He seemed to enjoy it. So I upped the ante.

“We’re not going to catch any fish unless you kiss an eel,” I told him. In the past, he has also kissed fish that we’ve caught but I thought he’d draw the line at eels. I was wrong, not just about what to expect from my son but also that it would catch us a fish. Oh well, at least I’ll have a story for his future girlfriends. Here’s his soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Programming note

The Daily Brief will be off on Friday as we continue our summer schedule. We’ll be back on Monday.

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.