Ron Schmidt: LePage’s veto letter is more governance by blackmail

Ron Schmidt: LePage’s veto letter is more governance by blackmail

“Transparency” is something that everyone claims to want in government, and no wonder. At the best of times, governing can be quite opaque. But every now and then, something happens which makes the mysterious state of our politics seem quite clear.

The governor’s veto letter regarding the state budget is one of those illuminating events. The letter casts a light on the LePage administration’s ruinous style of leadership, and also clears up his blasé response to the general criticism of his attacks on Speaker Mark Eves, Good Will-Hinckley, and the at-risk children it serves.

We often try to describe the competitive relationship between branches by talking about the “separation of powers,” but the presidential scholar Richard Neustadt was nearer the mark when he said that we have a system of “separate branches sharing powers.” Despite the intense differences of opinion, the institutional competition, and the partisanship, executive officers and members of two separate legislative chambers need to work with other elected officials simply to carry out the responsibilities of their offices. Within that framework, of course, political leaders try to strike the best deal they can, and that often takes the form of bare-knuckle politicking, and of brinksmanship.

What the governor has done in the last month, however, is something quite different. I could talk about his threats to boycott all Democratic bills, or his threat to veto all bills of any origin, or his murder jokes (especially the ones he tell to the children of his intended victims). But the veto letter to the legislature is so much more illustrative than any of these.

The message begins with a rhetorical maneuver that is as common as it is annoying; elected officials who win re-election like to claim a broad public mandate for their policies.

“The Maine people made it quite clear in November they want tax relief and welfare reform,” writes LePage.

Now, the governor did campaign on his plan for tax relief — the elimination of the income tax, details to be filled in later — and he spent quite a bit of taxpayer money during his first term trying to find a welfare crisis and offering expensive “solutions” for the problem he hoped to find. And, in November, he was re-elected, and by more than a lot of people expected. But the fact of his re-election does not suggest a popular mandate for the governor or his policies.

Some voters, no doubt, did agree with him on those issues; some disliked his opponents; others voted according to party, or just for the most familiar name. I don’t know what the governor really thinks, but since his second inaugural, he has governed as though he really believes that he has a popular mandate to rewrite the state Constitution, drastically cut back on state funding, and battling the federal government in order to punish Mainers who are in need of public assistance.

That assumption is problematic in and of itself, but he also seems to assume that effective representation is really just a question of doing his bidding regarding these schemes. Now the governor is, of course, free to try to turn his ideas into policy. But the legislature’s refusal to take two big and costly leaps in the dark merely on his say-so is not, in fact, evidence of corruption, and we would all be better served by the governor if he would stop claiming that it is.

Page 2 of Governor LePage's budget veto letter

Page 2 of Governor LePage’s budget veto letter

It’s page 2 of the veto letter, however, that is so illuminating regarding the LePage style of governance. The font changes; big bold letters announce that we’ve moved from a bureaucratic letter to a campaign pamphlet. But what seizes the reader’s attention — and keep in mind, the intended readers are the members of the legislature — are the photos.

There are four pictures on page two, three of them mug shots of men of color. The first is placed over a sentence about welfare-happy “Augusta politicians” who are refusing to do anything about the drug “traffickers that are infiltrating our communities and killing our children.” The other two are positioned around a paragraph that repeats the threat posed by “drug traffickers” to Maine babies. Page three shows us the white Maine babies that are at risk. (Actually, it shows us the same picture three times.)

Now there is one white face on page two, and the man in that picture is glaring in a homicidal fashion at the legislators who are reading about how they have conspired to turn Maine children over to gangsters and welfare recipients. The other three men, the ones who aren’t white, don’t look particularly threatening, but then, they don’t really have to. Their skin color does that job for the governor; and if it doesn’t, his second paragraph on page two does. The text provides a new variation on one of the governor’s old complaints. He mischaracterizes needy legal refugees in Portland as “illegal aliens,” and suggests that they are being funded by some sort of complicated school budget slush fund.

Veto statements are rarely interesting reading; they generally range from bland bureaucratese to blunt posturing. But the governor’s letter regarding the new budget is an exception! It’s a window into what makes LePage something other than the highly competitive and tough-talking executive persona that has carried him onto so many snarky front page stories.

The governor isn’t a tough political competitor; he is refusing to compete at all. In his vision of the “separation of powers,” there is one branch alone that is legitimate or representative. The legislature can turn his campaign promises into law, or he will use that one branch to stop state governance altogether, and, further, he will use images of African American or Latino men, and white babies, and vague references to “illegal aliens,” to frighten Maine citizens.

“Give me what I want,” the veto message says, “or I send this scary story to your voters.”

It’s really no wonder that the governor seems confused about the reaction to the Good Will-Hinckley story.

After all, he sent a blackmail note to the entire legislature and no one talked about impeachment.

Photo courtesy of Andi Parkinson.

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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