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LePage's Town Halls: Helping Or Hurting His Agenda?

Gov. Paul LePage
Gov. Paul LePage

Steve Mistler reports on Gov. Paul LePage's town hall meetings

Gov. Paul LePage has held more than 30 town hall meetings since winning reelection in 2014. The governor touts the forums as his chance to take his message to the Maine people.

LePageis also increasingly using the events to urge Maine voters to select legislators more willing to endorse his agenda, and potentially, define his two final years in office.

Gov. LePage discusses a range of issues at his forums: taxes, welfare, energy – but over the past year, the governor has focused on one of his favorite foils: the Legislature.

LePage wants a new one – preferably one with legislators who will acquiesce to an aggressive, and often controversial, policy agenda.

“The only way government gets better is at the ballot box. Believe me, it’s at the ballot box,” LePage says.

The governor has seen many of his policies stall since 2012. That was the year Democrats retook the House and Senate after two years of full Republican control. Republicans were able to regain control of the Senate two years later when LePage won a second term. But the governor has openly tangled with his GOP colleagues, too. Last year, they helped block the governor’s ambitious tax package over concerns that it would jack up the state’s sales tax.

LePage has been on a mission ever since, holding dozens of town hall meetings. And increasingly, he’s using them to talk about the upcoming legislative election. At the Maine Republican Party state convention in April, LePage wagged a finger at “self-serving” legislators.

“Let me tell you. Some of them are in our party. And we need to weed ‘em out,” LePage said. “Some of them are not good people. Some of them aren’t working for you, the people of the state of Maine. They’re working for themselves.”

Sometimes he mentions legislators by name. Sometimes he doesn’t. Either way, the governor’s message is clear: “You need to elect people that want to help Maine people. It’s not about them, it’s about you,” LePage told an audience in Oakland.

In other words, if you support me, then get out and vote for legislators who back my agenda.

LePage found a loyal legislative candidate at an event in Bath. His name is Guy Lebida. Lebida is challenging Sen. Linda Baker in the Republican primary.

“The reason why I’m running for state senator in Sagadahoc County, is to support you, governor,” Lebida says.

Kenneth Palmer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Maine, says LePage is at his best in front of a crowd, but, “I don’t necessarily think that it means he’s going to be able to elect more Republicans in the 2016 election.”

Fellow University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer also questions whether the forums will help LePage achieve his goal. But Brewer says the governor has a lot riding on the election, including, potentially, his legacy, and these public forums could help mobilize his core supporters.

“If the governor is inserting himself into this (election) cycle and you’re a LePage supporter, you might say, ‘Well, you know what, if this is important enough for the governor, then maybe it’s important enough for me to get involved, too,’” Brewer says. “So, I think it’s a smart move on his part.”

The forums have the added bonus of allowing LePage to make virtually unchecked assertions. Reporters are rarely allowed to ask him questions. Protesters are often escorted out of the crowd. And his supporters often discourage dissent. You can hear some of them yelling “Come on!” at student protesters who held up signs during a recent meeting in Lewiston.

LePage has encountered challenging, occasionally hostile, crowds – but it’s rare. Many of the attendees are on-board. Others just appreciate the governor’s conviction and authenticity. Jette Rasmussen attempted to hold her mobile phone steady while filming the governor’s forum in Lewiston. Her husband, Jason Vallone, was just happy to get a glimpse of an unscripted politician.

“He wasn’t scripted. This is the only way you’ll get it, is in these town halls,” Vallone says. “Even the presidentials, the only way you get them unscripted, is in the town hall meetings.”

But with the lack of script can come fuzzy facts and outrageous claims.

In January, LePage told a crowd in Bridgton that black drug dealers were infiltrating Maine and impregnating white girls. The story made national headlines. LePage later apologized, but not before blasting the media for covering his verbal miscues.

The unflattering coverage hasn’t discouraged the governor from making unsubstantiated claims. At a recent forum in Lewiston, he told attendees that a junior at Deering High School was revived from a heroin overdose three times in one week, “And after the third one, he got up and went to class. He didn’t go to the hospital,” LePage said. He didn’t get checked out. He was so used to it. He just came out of it and went to class.”

This never happened, according to Deering school officials.

In Freeport, he told attendees that asylum seekers posed a public health threat.

“What happens is you get Hepatitis C, AIDS, tuberculosis … the ziki fly,” LePage says. Such claims have been repeatedly discredited.

And the “ziki fly”? There is no such thing.

All of these sound bites have been picked up by local, and often national press. So while the forums could have provided LePage an unfiltered, unchecked way to reach the public, they may have instead contributed to an image problem.

Last Sunday, the HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” hosted by comedian John Oliver, devoted a four-minute segment to LePage’s greatest hits. In the clip, the narrator says, “You see, while most humans possess a thin barrier that immediately stops thoughts from immediately exiting their brains as words, Paul LePage does not.”

Is that kind of exposure going to hurt or help the governor’s cause? Brewer, with the University of Maine, isn’t sure, especially with the bombastic Donald Trump riding atop the Republican ticket.

“You know there’s going to be some Republican types where Paul LePage’s activities like this are going to help, without a doubt.” Brewer says. “There’s going to be other Republicans who are going to say, ‘I wish he’d just be quiet and go away.’“

Copyright 2016 Maine Public