Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage blames his state's drug problem on New York dealers
Jay Parini is amazed LePage also said the dealers flee after they "impregnate a young white girl"
Parini says LePage has a history of saying things with offensive racial overtones
Maine is a state that seems remote, even to those of us who live in northern New England. Mainers have their own ways, a hardiness and independence of spirit that are admirable. Its thick and steep woods attracted, among others, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in “The Maine Woods” (1864): “Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.”
I live in Vermont, where we often say of Maine, when asked for directions to that supposedly nearby state: “You can’t get there from here.” If you’ve ever tried to drive to Maine from Vermont, you will understand the difficulty: a lot of mountains to cross, mostly on remote country roads. In winter, it can be treacherous.
Now Maine is in the spotlight, with attention drawn to Paul LePage, its plain-spoken, right-wing governor. At a news conference last week, LePage was asked about the heroin problem that has bedeviled the state, making it a haven for traffickers.
The governor shifted blame for the problem quickly to drug dealers from New York – dudes with names like D-Money, Smoothie and Shifty, he said – who have been rushing up to Maine from the Big Apple with their poison. Then they flee back to the city after they “impregnate a young white girl.”
Did he really say that?
Reporters in the audience gasped at the obvious racism here. And one has to feel sorry for Peter Steele, the governor’s spokesman, who went into mopping up mode as soon as the boss shut his big mouth.
“The governor is not making comments about race. Race is irrelevant. What is relevant is the cost to state taxpayers for welfare and the emotional costs for these kids who are born as a result of involvement with drug traffickers. His heart goes out to these kids because he had a difficult childhood, too. We need to stop the drug traffickers from coming into our state,” Steele said.
The governor was indeed making a comment about race. And it wasn’t coming from nowhere. He has a history of saying things with offensive racial overtones, even though he has an adopted son from Jamaica (a point he often brings up when being accused of racism).
One thinks back to 2011, after he had just been elected governor, and he refused to attend activities celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Soon after, he also refused to meet with members of the NAACP: “Tell them they can kiss my butt,” he said.
On the latter point, he defended himself by saying he didn’t want to meet with any special interest groups. Yet he met eight times with a group of radical extremists associated with the Sovereign Citizens movement, a gang of far-right conspiracy nuts who believe the federal government is plotting against Christians; one can’t even begin to describe the weirdness of the ideas floated by this group.
Anyone looking at the history of public statements by LePage on a wide range of matters – from environmental issues (he didn’t want to ban certain dangerous pollutants) to gay marriage to the Affordable Care Act to efforts to reform the educational system in his state – will find him making outrageous claims, offering strident views of the kind that make him a tea party darling.
His actions, too, have showed a lack of sound judgment, and many thought he had come to the end of the line as governor when he tried to get a charter school to withdraw a job offer from a Democratic opponent or lose state funding.
But LePage soldiered on, shooting his mouth off, seeming to enjoy it, as when he was first running for governor and declared: “As your governor, you’re going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page, saying ‘Gov. LePage tells Obama to go to hell.’ ”
There is something admirable about a person who speaks his mind bluntly, and I won’t criticize him for that. LePage is a working-class guy with a hardscrabble background, the son of a mill worker, and he’s not one to hold back. Although many will hate to admit it, politicians don’t always have to think and talk like ladies and gentlemen.
But racism is another matter, something that goes beyond a supposed bluntness.
The fact is, we’ve experienced way too much in the way of crude racism in recent months.
As LePage shows, it’s not only Donald Trump who is willing to blast minorities, although Trump has certainly upped the ante in a blizzard of ill-considered, false, prejudiced and destructive remarks that have marked this political season as one of the most disgusting on record.
LePage has revealed himself to the nation as – among other things – a man with a distinct racist edge, one who plays into the underlying sentiments of many constituents. What a sad day for Maine, and a sadder day for America.
A shocking number of those in high office, or running for high office, seem to feel no need to govern their own tongues. They appeal to the basest elements in our population when they should, in a phrase that Abraham Lincoln used in his first inaugural address, appeal “to the better angels of our nature.”
I hope LePage and his ilk begin to understand that political correctness isn’t the problem. Incivility is.