After I asked Paul LePage about his history of inflammatory comments at a town hall, a few poor decisions on his part turned a minor controversy into a full-blown political crisis—but the whole thing was supposed to be a joke.
Paul Lepage in April, before the whole "socialist cocksucker" thing. AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Not to brag, but last week, while I was on vacation, I may have set in motion a series of events that could end the career of Maine governor Paul LePage.
I wasn't trying to create a political firestorm, at least not at first. I was in Maine looking to relax, get away from New York and spend some time on the beach drinking beer. But while I was there, I got the chance to attend a town hall meeting presided over by LePage, and I couldn't resist giving him the chance to put his foot in his mouth.
LePage, as you may know, is a Tea Party–loving, race-baiting lunatic who has embarrassed Maine repeatedly with the sort of behavior that would get anyone who worked a regular job fired. Normally I wouldn't involve him in a vacation, but I was staying with my friend Jamie Roux, who like me is a standup comedian and happens to be something of a political performance artist. His last masterpiece was a feud with a trio of Trump-supporting old women who call themselves the Freeport Flag Ladies. Jamie took issue with their appropriation of September 11 as a military holiday and ended up beating them in a court case. Jamie now attends almost all of Paul LePage's town hall meetings, and having the chance to work with Jamie to needle a racist governor is like an actor getting cast as the lead in the next Iñárritu project.
One of LePage's recent self-inflicted controversies came when he said there are black drug dealers named "D-Money, Smoothie, and Shifty" coming into Maine from out of state to impregnate white women (which is ridiculous, in Brooklyn we know Smoothie isn't a drug dealer, it's a kale drink that costs $14). I looked forward to being able to confront a man who repeatedly accuses people of color of being the problem in his 94 percent white state. Jamie suggested attacking LePage on his inability to grow the economy or stop a brain drain of educated Maine residents leaving the state. In my day job as a software developer, I own a business, so I figured "how could I bring business to this state?" would be a great angle, since Republicans love that shit.
The town hall was scheduled for a small town high school auditorium in North Berwick, an hour's drive from Portland. I couldn't enter with Jamie or sit near him because he is known to be critical of LePage. The Q&A portion of the town hall is run by LePage's press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, who choses among questions submitted before the start of the event. To ask a critical question, I would have to write down a softball and go off script once I was presented with the microphone. The question form also asked for a hometown and phone number, so I lied and wrote I was from Lebanon, Maine, and swapped out my area code for the state's 207.
Even as someone who regularly performs in front of audiences, I was extremely nervous. With comedy, if you can get a laugh in the first 30 seconds, the audience will be on your side. But in this case, I was agitating—success would turn the governor and most of the audience against me. I was also the only black man in an entirely white crowd in rural Maine, looking to enrage a racist with the police at his side.
I was the third person there to ask a question, and after I raised my hand, Bennett stuck the mic in front of me. It's important to note that she doesn't just hand you the mic, she places it in front of you, still gripping it tightly with both hands. I leaned over to speak and stumbled over my words, but I got out: "Given the rhetoric you put out there about people of color in Maine, calling them drug dealers, etc., how can I bring a company here given the toxic environment you create?"
The governor snapped back at me with the answer that would draw attacks from the ACLU, LePage's fellow Maine lawmakers, and a good portion of the country: "Let me tell you this, explain to you, I made the comment that black people are trafficking in our state, now ever since I said that comment I've been collecting every single drug dealer who has been arrested in our state... I don't ask them to come to Maine and sell their poison, but they come, 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, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn."
Bennett had withdrawn the mic by then, but I yelled back that LePage's numbers sounded like racial profiling, and I never called him a racist. Bennett sternly let me know I had to quiet down or be escorted out, and I sat down for a couple banal questions about bear-trap policy (it is Maine, after all). LePage began his closing comments, but Jamie, who had been ignored thus far, spoke up, insisting he should be allowed to address the governor.
Jamie has a history of confronting LePage on tough issues, so Bennett refused to offer Jamie the mic, instead reluctantly reading the text of Jamie's question as it was written. He asked why LePage had not protested to Donald Trump's racially charged comments about immigrant Mainers at a recent rally. Of course, LePage dodged again, but Jamie insisted on a real answer, aggressively challenging the governor until staff demanded Jamie leave the auditorium immediately, and he was ushered out by the cops. As LePage once again tried to deliver closing remarks, I spoke up to note his non-answer to the Trump question is exactly what creates the toxic environment I originally took issue with—and this time, I was the one being led out by cops. A small group of LePage critics applauded my comments and gifted me with high-fives on my way out.
Hours later, local news was covering our town hall kefluffle. By the next day, Maine's ACLU was using a Freedom of Information Act request to ask to see that binder of drug dealers, and other Maine politicians were criticizing him for his answer to my question. LePage then phoned one of those politicians, Drew Gattine, called him a "little son of a bitch socialist cocksucker," and asked him to make the voicemail recording public. Gattine did so, and the resulting public humiliation has LePage openly considering resigning. On Wednesday, even some Republican state lawmakers were thinking about taking some "corrective action" against the governor.
According to a local news station, LePage is meeting with Republican leaders to figure out what to do. He also canceled a town hall event scheduled for Wednesday—given the circumstances, I can't say I blame him.
Andrew Ritchie is a writer and comedian working in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.