Gov. LePage’s evasive staffers reflect his gangster politics

Gov. LePage’s evasive staffers reflect his gangster politics

“Don’t put anything in plain words,” the writer Dashiell Hammett wrote in a novel about a corrupt politician. “But you could hire him to commit murders if you put it like: ‘If there was a man named Smith who lived in such and such a place and he got sick or something and didn’t get well and you happened to drop in to see me some time and just by luck an envelope addressed to you had been sent there in care of me, how would I know it had $500 in it?’”

As nasty as Maine politics have become in the last few years, no one in state government has been accused of murder, so that’s nice. There was a hearing before the legislature’s Government Oversight Committee about abuse of power and blackmail, though, and it was about as transparent and edifying as Hammett’s advice on how to deal with your enemies.

On June 29th of this year, Governor Paul LePage was asked if he threatened a school for at-risk children. The school, Good Will-Hinckley, announced that it was going to hire House Speaker Mark Eves as its new president on June 8th. Soon after, representatives of the school claimed, LePage withdrew over $500,000 in state funding, which endangered a far-larger grant from the Harold Alfond foundation. As a result, Good Will-Hinckley’s board reversed their decision to hire someone that they had already unanimously determined was the most qualified candidate for the job.

But did the governor really threaten a school just to enforce his will, and to punish a political opponent?

“Yeah, I did,” the governor clarified back in June. “Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Tell me why I wouldn’t take taxpayer money to prevent somebody to go into a school and destroy it because his heart’s not in doing the right thing for Maine people?”

Leaving aside the question of how the governor has mastered the art of knowing the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, let’s turn now to the testimony of his advisors at that government oversight committee hearing on November 12th.

Aaron Chadbourne, senior policy advisor to Governor LePage, summarized his conversation with Jack Moore, the chairman of Good Will-Hinckley’s board, thusly: “The message I was intending to send, which I believe was heard by Chairman Moore, was that the governor disagreed with their selection and he did not have confidence that [Eves] would be a good manager.

“What conclusions,” the school officials drew from that conversation, “you’d have to ask them.”

The day went on like that.

Chadbourne, for example, told Good Will-Hinckley lobbyist Sara Vanderwood “that the governor had been very supportive of Good Will-Hinckley in the past, and he did not think that support would continue if Good Will-Hinckley hired Speaker Eves.” But was that a threat? “If they got the impression there was a threat,” testified former interim Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin, “it was communicated quite clearly from people other than those of us who were working on this from day-to-day.”

I suppose it’s heartening to know that the governor’s advisors are clever enough to avoid his mistake of bragging about threatening children to punish people for being in the wrong political party. But in the same week when Maine received a grade of “F” in the Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 State Integrity Survey, it makes for an awfully depressing performance.

In short, the governor’s behavior toward Good Will-Hinckley is a clear expression of his contempt for a politics of plurality and compromise, and the cynical evasiveness of his staff only provides more evidence for LePage’s self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maine deserves better than public servants who treat public service like a scam. We have a while to go before the next gubernatorial election, but there are some steps that can be taken now. The vote in favor of Clean Elections last month was a good place to start, but there are many loopholes in the ethical regulations for Maine elected officials.

We need to seize this moment, recognize it as a vivid example of how low we’ve sunk, and put an end to a politics that belongs more in the pages of a Dashiell Hammett novel than on the front pages of our newspapers.

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

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