LePage’s meetings with extremists make Buckley and Smith spin in their graves

Margaret Chase Smith

Margaret Chase Smith

Decades ago William F. Buckley and Margaret Chase Smith drew a bright line between legitimate conservatism and the extremist right.

Speaking out against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, in 1950 Smith proclaimed, “As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge that it faced back in Lincoln’s day.” She called on members of her party to rebuke fellow Republicans promoting “fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”

In 1962, Buckley published an editorial that pushed the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement. He had been friends with its leader, Robert Welch, but its conspiracy theories just became too much. Buckley wrote, “There are bounds to the dictum, ‘Anyone on the right is my ally.’”

While Buckley and Smith separated themselves from the far right, Mike Tipping’s new book on Gov. Paul LePage and the tea party movement revealed that LePage held eight private meetings lasting 16 hours with Maine members of the Sovereign Citizens and acted on their behalf.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Adherents [of the Sovereign Citizen movement] believe that virtually all existing government in the United States is illegitimate and they seek to ‘restore’ an idealized, minimalist government that never actually existed.”

The Maine group calls itself the Constitutional Coalition and, according to their view of the Constitution, citizens’ petitions can force government officials to resign. They view Maine Democratic leaders Sen. Justin Alfond and Rep. Mark Eves as traitors who should be punished as such.

For this group, the governor facilitated a meeting with members of this group and Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty.

This sheriff knew the Sovereign Citizens’ views were filled with unfounded conspiracy theories but he came to the meeting at the governor’s request. Then, as Tipping notes, after the meeting, the sheriff “complied with the governor’s request and visited the offices of the attorney general and the county district attorney to ask them to hear the Constitutionalists’ case.”

These meetings started after a member of LePage’s staff brushed the group’s materials aside but the governor reached out to them directly. After they began, LePage’s staff tried to dissuade him from holding more meetings. His legal staff prepared a five-page memo contesting the Sovereign Citizens’ claims.

One meeting included conspiracy-monger Michael Coffman who, two months later at an event the governor introduced, said, “Barack Obama’s presidency is part of a plan by the Islamic Brotherhood to turn America into an Islamic controlled nation.”

Whatever happened in these meetings, it’s clear LePage wanted this connection and was willing to use taxpayer-provided resources to develop it.

It takes time to prepare legal opinions. Staffers doing so surely had other work they could have been doing. The same goes for Sheriff Liberty and the attorneys general’s office staff he consulted.

Like every governor, LePage set limits and parameters for his time.

Early in his governorship, LePage said that the NAACP was a special interest group and that he couldn’t do everything asked because there’s only so much time. In response to the group’s suggestion that there was a pattern in his actions, LePage said they could “kiss his butt.”

LePage refused to meet with legislative leaders on many occasions and often chose vetoes over negotiations, even on issues he says he cares about, like funding nursing homes.

While there’s no reason to believe the governor agrees with everything this group expounds, LePage has echoed some of their language, like when he compared the implementation of the Affordable Care Act to actions of the Gestapo.

And when the governor visited a boat launch during the federal government shutdown last fall, he emulated the extremist group’s ideas in saying, “The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the state of Maine and I will authorize him to keep this place open.”

Decades ago, Buckley’s break with extremists led to “torrents of angry letters and cancelled subscriptions, and the defection of some of its deep-pocketed donors” but Buckley successfully sidelined them.

In contrast to Buckley’s and Sen. Smith’s willingness to stand up to the fringes of their party’s coalition, LePage cultivated a relationship. Now the question remains who in today’s Republican party will speak out.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.