You might think it would be tough to get people to publicly push back at a politician criticizing drug dealers. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has managed to do just that this year. Repeatedly.
Asked about the state's opioid epidemic, he has ended up saying something vulgar or controversial — or both — about the ethnic makeup or sexual intentions of drug dealers.
This week, LePage went for all of the above. The climax of his week-long 'I'm-not-a-racist' defense came Thursday, when the governor appeared to threaten a state lawmaker's life for making that charge (even though the lawmaker denied making the charge to begin with).
LePage left an expletive-laden voice mail on the lawmaker's phone — "I want you to prove I'm a racist" — and invited reporters to the governor's mansion where he bragged about the voice mail and challenged the lawmaker to a duel — "I would point it right between his eyes," he told the Portland Press Herald and TV reporters.
On Friday, LePage's office issued a statement apologizing "to the people of Maine" but making "no apology for trying to end the drug epidemic that is ravaging our state."
"When someone calls me a racist, I take it very seriously," he said in a statement.
But he also repeated other controversial comments he'd previously made on the topic. "You’ve been in uniform? You shoot at the enemy," he said at a statehouse press conference Friday, according to the Portland Press-Herald. "You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”
That's how this week ended for LePage. The story actually starts a lot earlier.
Back in January, LePage was responding to a question about how he has handled the state's opioid epidemic when he said "guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty" come from New York and Connecticut to sell their heroin in Maine, and "half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave."
LePage added that's "a real sad thing because then we have another 'issue' we have to deal with down the road." (My emphasis added on 'issue.')
LePage later said he meant to say "Maine women" instead of "white women." He apologized to "Maine women," but he didn't back down from his original comment about drug dealers and what they do when they're in Maine.
LePage, who came to office in 2011, has made a national name for himself by saying crude things, as the Portland Press Herald's Randy Billings notes:
He once told the Maine NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and vowed to tell President Obama to “go to hell.” He also accused a Democratic lawmaker of having “no brains” and being “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”
I've even compared LePage to Donald Trump in the way he has managed to raise hell and win elections. (Interestingly, LePage later urged Trump — whom he endorsed — to "be more disciplined.")
LePage's "impregnate white girls" comment seems to have haunted him more than the dozens of other controversial things he has said. And LePage did nothing this week to bury those remarks; in fact, his often-defensive, racially focused answers arguably exacerbated it.
Which brings us back to this week's drama.
On Wednesday, the Portland Press Herald reported that a businessman from New York who said he used to live in Maine asked LePage about his drug dealer comments: "Given the rhetoric you put out there about people of color in Maine … how can I bring a company here given the toxic environment you create?"
LePage responded by saying a majority of drug dealers busted in Maine are black and Hispanic. LePage said he keeps a binder full of photos of drug busts in the state, and "I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book — and it's a three-ringed binder — are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Conn., the Bronx and Brooklyn."
The media floodgates opened once again. "LePage: Over 90 percent of drug dealers busted in Maine are black and Hispanic," said the Portland Press Herald headline. "GOP Governor: Most drug dealers arrested are black and Hispanic," read ABC's.
"I have helped many, many families. In fact, I even brought a black person into my family,” LePage told the businessman. “Nobody wants to give you the real story, but the fact of the matter is, sir, I am not a racist.”
On Thursday, a local TV reporter caught up with LePage and appeared to suggest a Democratic state lawmaker was among those who thought LePage was, indeed, a racist. LePage called the lawmaker up, and for the second time this week, was forced to say "I'm" and "racist" in the same sentence:
"This is Gov. Paul Richard LePage,” a recording of the governor’s phone message says. “I would like to talk to you about your comments about my being a racist, you [expletive]."
The American Civil Liberties Union pushed back on LePage's classification of "90 percent" of drug dealers are minorities, especially given the state is 95 percent white. My colleague Mark Berman reports they filed a public-records request to get ahold of the three-ring binder he mentioned, claiming it raises questions of profiling by Maine police.
And now we're full circle on LePage's self-inflicted week of denying he's a "racist."
This story has been updated.