GOP comment to Strimling shows why Legislature must at least censure LePage

Just this morning, a tweet from the Executive Director of the Maine Republican Party suggested that LearningWorks, a Portland-based service agency recently headed by the city’s new mayor, Ethan Strimling, should watch who it hires.

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This sort of comment, in light of recent events, raises the possibility that Gov. LePage may try to exert some sort of control over that decision.

The critical background to the tweet, of course, involves the governor’s view of Speaker Mark Eves and his successful efforts to deny him a job heading Good Will-Hinckley (GWH). Those efforts have led to a lawsuit against the governor and a legislative probe.

In the last few months, the Maine Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has been investigating how Gov. LePage’s statements and actions affected the decision of a private non-profit to not hire Speaker Mark Eves after offering him the job.

Given the governor’s statements and what has been found by OPEGA, a body of the Legislature that investigates and assesses government programs, it’s clear that LePage didn’t want Eves to have the position. Pulling public funds led to a large matching grant being in danger, and so the offer was withdrawn.

All that came after the GWH Board determined, per OPEGA, “that the Speaker was seen as very articulate and his answers to questions in interviews were clear and relevant. They noted he had a very good presence and they liked his approach more than the other candidates. He also was seen as having broader, general experience and more of what they were looking for in leadership and fundraising.”

Sen. Roger Katz has voiced concerns that LePage could do the same to others.

Last week Katz said:

First of all, Good Will-Hinckley is a private non-profit institution. It may receive some government funding, but it is still a private organization. As such, I believe they have a right to make their own hiring decisions without fear of interference by anyone on the outside – especially something from the government.

There are literally hundreds of similar private entities that receive state funding of one kind or another. I worry about the precedent this case sets if this kind of executive action becomes the new normal.

Are we entering an era when private institutions will feel a need to give politicians a veto power over their internal hiring decisions? I certainly hope that is not the road we are going down.

Most striking when considering today’s statement, Katz noted:

This is hardly speculative thinking.

I have already heard in the last few months about one private organization that had exactly this concern as it went through a hiring process of its own.

There’s one more consideration here: the governor’s approach also threatens the independence of the Maine Legislature.

As Sen. Katz said last week:

We are a Citizen Legislature—most of us have other jobs. I hope we will not get to the point where legislators start weighing their votes–worrying that if they push the wrong button their own present or future employment might be in jeopardy. We can’t do our job if every vote, every floor speech, is viewed through the lens of “what if”.

The Legislature should keep all this in mind when deciding what to do.

One option is pursuing impeachment, which would almost certainly not lead to removal by the Senate, unless something new emerges that would be serious enough to push sufficient Republicans to act.

Another is to rebuke or censure the governor in some sort of statement with language that could gain agreement from a majority of both houses.

Doing nothing would empower the governor to act against others as he did against Eves. It would appear that is a very real possibility.

It’s possible that Savage will say his tweet was a joke, but the key context here is that, unlike some other Maine Republicans, he has strongly defended LePage’s decision to withdraw the funds and similarly characterized Eves as unqualified. Since he thought that was the correct action, similar actions with respect to others would be ok, too.

LearningWorks, like GWH, has received money from the state.

Ultimately legislators must take a position on whether they think the governor should have such powers. As this will stand as a precedent, those powers would apply to future governors whatever his or her political affiliations.

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.