Lesson One from GOP debate: It’s still all about LePage

Good morning from Augusta, where we’re unpacking Monday night’s Republican gubernatorial debate in Waterville, which event organizers said was a chance to learn about the candidates rather than a debate in which they could challenge each other. For people who pay any attention to Maine politics, there was little to learn and few surprises, with only shades of differences between the candidates on most issues.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage is still the dominant Republican figure in Maine and will be for some time to come. One thing we are looking for in the Republican field is to what degree the candidates embrace or eschew the governor’s legacy as they vie for the Blaine House. Answer: they’ll fully embrace him. There was a lot of talk about how LePage has put Maine on a more responsible and sustainable fiscal course, though Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport and businessman Shawn Moody of Gorham sought to distance themselves from LePage’s gruff verbal tone. That’s despite the fact that with the exception of Moody, who LePage hasn’t officially endorsed but is clearly supporting, LePage has publicly spurned at least three of the other candidates.

Primary elections drive candidates to the extremes of their party ideologies and that was on display in Monday’s debate. There was lots of discussion about building upon LePage’s legacy of cutting taxes and reducing the role of government in business and individuals’ lives, which you fully expect given the panel but it became a bit of a contest about who is more fiscally conservative. At one point as the candidates were making promises on those points, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls said his priority as governor would be to “give you back as much money as possible.” Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China will talk a lot about her tenure at the department, which she characterized as “hemorrhaging red ink” before she and LePage arrived, though she’ll have to go from offense to defense on that point when she faces Democrats and their claims about cutting social services for Maine’s most vulnerable people.

“We’re not done” will be a recurring theme. Concurrent with trying to distinguish themselves in the primary field, the Republicans obviously have the Democrats and the general election to think about and there is no message other than continuity that fits for the Republicans. However, they will have to grapple with some of the LePage administration’s failures, such as oversight of the embattled Riverview Psychiatric Center and the fact that drug overdose deaths are continuing to increase despite an ongoing debate in Augusta for the past several years about how to address Maine’s opiates crisis. Remarkably, the subject of drug addiction didn’t come up until about midway through the one-hour debate when Fredette identified it as the most serious issue facing Maine.

Three of the five Republican legislative leaders are in this race, putting microscopes on everything they do at the State House. Thibodeau, Mason and Fredette are already at the forefront of just about anything that happens in the Legislature, but their actions as legislative leaders will face increasingly intense political scrutiny as the campaign deepens. For example, they’ll likely be forced to cast votes this afternoon on the Legislative Council about whether to allow the full Legislature to consider a number of after-deadline bills, including one to denounce neo-Nazi groups in a joint resolution that has been kicking around since December, a ban on bump stocks, and a $20 million bond proposal to support school safety measures. Also coming up is a new LePage bill that appears on today’s House calendar, which seeks to require voters to show identification at the polls — even though that concept has failed multiple times in recent years.

This is shaping up to be an insider vs. outsider race. While none of the candidates can fully claim to come from outside the political bubble — even Moody, with his 2010 gubernatorial bid under his belt — Mayhew and Moody will aggressively distance themselves from the Legislature and by extension, the other GOP candidates. That “outsider” persona worked well for LePage and President Donald Trump, but hints of backlash are appearing, with some insiders taking to social media to portray the duo as disconnected, unprepared and unfit for office.

LePage to Trump: ‘Loosen up’ privacy laws to fight gun violence

The governor was at the White House on Monday arguing for loosening privacy protections on medical records. LePage went to Washington, D.C., this weekend for a meeting with Trump and other governors where gun violence was the main topic after the Florida school shooting earlier this month that killed 17. During an open session, he asked the Republican president to work with Congress to “loosen up” medical privacy laws around mental health so “truly good” background checks can be done on people buying guns.

It’s unclear exactly what LePage wants, but this issue has been explored before. Former President Barack Obama enshrined a rule in 2016 that limited medical information to be disclosed during the background check process, but it prohibited the disclosure of diagnostic or clinical information. However, experts say that the link between mental illness and violence is overblown in the minds of the general public and the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union backed Trump last year in overturning an Obama-era rule blocking gun sales to certain people with mental illnesses.

Green Party candidate quits Blaine House race

Maine is heading toward a third straight gubernatorial election without a third-party candidate on the ballot. The Maine Green Independent Party’s Betsy Marsano dropped out of the governor’s race on Friday. After two Libertarians and another Green exited, she was the last third-party candidate in the 2018 race. Party candidates have until March 15 to qualify for ballot placement. Greens have one sitting legislator now, but they haven’t had a gubernatorial candidate on the ballot since Pat LaMarche in 2006 — the last of four straight races in which the party was represented. Here’s your soundtrack.

Today in A-town

Bills aimed at gun violence will be considered by a panel of legislative leaders on Tuesday. The Legislative Council, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, meets at 1 p.m. to consider late bill requests and they’re expected to consider some gun measures championed by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, that would ban so-called “bump stocks” and a “red flag” proposal that would allow police to take guns temporarily from people deemed dangerous by a judge. Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, is floating a $20 million bond to enhance school safety that is backed by the pro-gun rights Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

The chief justice of Maine’s high court will address the Legislature. Chief Justice Leigh Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has her State of the Judiciary speech at 11 p.m. in the House chamber. It’s her first public appearance since LePage publicly accused Justice Joseph M. Jabar Sr. of reneging on an alleged deal with the governor to retire.

And it will be a busy day in committees. Two legislative committees will be briefed at 1 p.m. by the Maine Department of Corrections on a January plan to consolidate Maine’s jail system. Committees will work on several high-profile bills, including LePage’s push to shield elderly homeowners from foreclosure, proposals aimed at Maine’s opioid crisis and others.

Reading list

  • Amtrak rail service could extend from Brunswick to Rockland this summer — for three weekends only. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority voted Monday in favor of the pilot program, which would add stops in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland. The program was originally slated for 10 weeks but was reduced to a three-weekend pilot, in part because the Maine Department of Transportation said it would not provide any funding.
  • Two Maine schools are dealing with fallout from shooting threats. Ellsworth schools increased security after a 19-year-old student who police say had access to weapons was arrested because of threats attributed to him in an online gaming forum. Schools in Cape Elizabeth were closed on Monday before a SWAT team arrested a 17-year-old student in South Portland after police said he made “general” threats of violence on social media.
  • A Belfast woman is in jail for posting a video of herself target shooting while naming city officials. Laurie Allen is charged with terrorizing with a dangerous weapon for the video and a series of public confrontations. Allen has long complained that the city should maintain a stream behind her house, which she argues is a man-made drainage ditch. Allen has long claimed that local officials, police, courts and the attorney general’s office are corrupt and abusive.

Cardinals rule

The ornithology world has been atwitter about the sighting of a “one in a million” yellow cardinal in Alabama. Not since Curt Flood revolutionized baseball has a Cardinal received so much national attention.

Researchers attribute the rare coloration to either a genetic mutation that “impaired the metabolic processes that normally make red feathers out of the carotenoid-rich yellow and orange foods in a male cardinal’s diet” or dietary deficiency.

The next time I see Rep. Bob Duchesne — the BDN’s birdwatching guru — in the State House hallways, I will solicit his opinion. My theory is that the bird just ate too many Cheez-Its or spent too much time listening to this soundtrack on repeat. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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.