On Paul LePage And Press Conferences

I always feel the need to remind our readers that I am a Republican, I am so far removed from being a moderate that it is laughable to suggest it (ask me about government entitlements some day), and I am on record (repeatedly) as supporting Paul LePage‘s candidacy for Governor.

I feel the need to do this mostly because I have this rather nasty habit of criticizing LePage, and every time I do the kitchen sink is hurled at me.  I’ve been called a RINO, Benedict Arnold, an “elite” (ha ha ha ha), a member of the “media slime machine” (ask the media how much they like me), and much worse.

I have always believed – from experience – that unless you hold your own side more accountable than you hold the opposition, you end up with flawed leaders who have cover to act in ways that would make us scream bloody murder were it to have come from the other side.  Anyone who doesn’t believe this needs to look no further than what happened to the Republicans in Congress in the mid-2000s.  So, I “call it like I see it”, even if it might not be the most flattering thing to the candidate I like and support.

In any event, that all brings me to Paul LePage’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Monday.  If I have anything unflattering to say, just keep the above in mind.

People have been clamoring for me to write about this (you should see my inbox) all week.  The lack of an article, just so you are aware, is nothing more than me being increasingly busy and not having time until now.

So, let’s start at the beginning.

I got a lot of heat for writing this article back in early June before the primary.  So much heat that to this day I still haven’t been forgiven by certain folks (you know who you are).  In it, I described my uneasiness about LePage’s propensity to do certain politically unwise things, and the (at the time) unruliness of his supporters.  Thankfully, my concerns about his supporters have been mostly satisfied, as the campaign has gotten a very good handle on them and I have not heard any more negative stories about them since the primary.  Jolly good work with that.

My worries about LePage the candidate, however, have proven somewhat prophetic.  In late July he had a dust up with reporters on his train tour of Maine, leading him to (foolishly) swear off even talking to the press unless it was in writing – something I objected to and something he wisely changed his mind about later.  His reaction caused extensive media backlash and negative press for himself, and gave the Democrats a major weapon to attack him with.

The first lesson of politics is you don’t hand your opponent a knife he or she can stab you with, and that is what he did.  He can complain that the media spun it, but they can’t spin things you don’t hand to them.

Despite my concerns with the incident, I still regarded it at the time as just a blip in the road and nothing to be overly concerned about.  I said my piece about what I considered a mistake on his part and how he should handle it in the future, and moved on.  I didn’t like it, but if I’ve learned anything from working in politics, it is that no candidate is perfect, so dwelling on a mistake like that was a waste of time.

Flash forward to Monday of this week, and Paul LePage has a confrontation with A.J. Higgins – one of the few reporters in the state that I have some respect for.  At a press conference called to launch LePage’s economic reform agenda, Higgins first asked LePage if, after mentioning “the responsibility of the taxpayers”, he paid property taxes in Maine (which, incidentally, he does not).  A follow up question then came in asking LePage to clarify “the residency status of your wife”, to which LePage became visibly irritated, declaring that he had answered that and was done talking about it.

The answer LePage was referring to that he had already given was his assertion that the homestead exemption issue he has been taking heat over was the result of a “paperwork error” – a very vague answer that I think most of us can agree deserves some follow up.  LePage will forgive us, I hope, if we don’t trust politicians – even anti-politician politicians such as himself – and want to get a little more information and detail.

As reported by another reporter I have a lot of respect for, Kevin Miller of the BDN, LePage attributed his heated reaction to being “overly protective” of his family:

In an interview Monday, LePage attributed his anger to the questions to the fact that he is “overly protective” of his family, due, in large part, to his own experiences growing up. He also accused Democrats of going after his family after failing to dig up political dirt on himself.

“I believe the press has a responsibility to honor … my family’s privacy,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with them attacking me. … I am fair game.”

A.J. Higgins on the other hand feels LePage is being a hypocrite.  In his article on the exchange, he began by noting some early conversations about what was fair and not fair to ask him:

Only a few months ago, Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage told Maine reporters that they could ask him anything. “I’ve never shied away from the press, although the press is not always kind to me because I speak my mind,” he said back then.

LePage said he believed in “transparency, accountability and, most of all, honesty” from elected officials. But during a Bangor news conference where he rolled out his economic plan, the candidate dismissed a question about his family’s real estate dealings in Florida and Waterville after inviting questions from reporters. “That’s been asked and answered, and let’s move on,” he said.

Later, at a State House briefing with reporters, LePage became testy when pressed about his family’s real estate holdings and his wife’s decision to become a resident of Florida. He angrily left the news conference after refusing to answer the questions.

Here is the bottom line here.  The issue is basically about LePage’s wife, and her real estate holdings – so in that respect, it is understandable why LePage would feel like his family was being singled out and attacked.  I think virtually every one of us can relate to being defensive about our own loved ones.

The problem is that in this type of situation, it isn’t just about his wife.  Married people (like me) do not make decisions in a vacuum – certainly not enormous decisions like purchasing real estate – so the decision to purchase a home in both Maine and Florida is very unlikely to have been just her decision.  Thus, knowing the candidate’s part in the situation is fair, wouldn’t you agree?

Claiming the homestead exemption in both Maine and Florida – which is illegal – is a complicated problem.  This is not the first time I have seen this issue crop up for a candidate.  I have actually worked for a candidate who has had this very same issue happen to them, and in that instance it actually was a clerical problem from one of the municipalities involved.  Real Estate law is pretty complicated, but paperwork can screw people with multiple properties in some instances.  It is something they should have absolutely been aware of and fixed, but it certainly didn’t have to be some sinister plot to skirt taxes.

But then again, it could very easily have been a sinister plot to skirt taxes.  I’ve seen plenty of politicians do things like that, and completely intentionally.  Reporters aren’t supposed to assume good faith, they need to verify truth.

The point here really is that finding out the details on why there are multiple exemptions on properties in two states is important.  It may technically only involve LePage’s wife, but Paul LePage himself had to be involved in some way on those properties – it is kind of the nature of the beast when you are married.  If he was completely oblivious to his wife’s purchase, that would be a very odd situation that would require some explanation just to get him off the hook anyway.

If he was involved in an intentional decision to declare residency in Florida to – as I think the reporters involved in this incident believe – obtain in state tuition for their daughter’s education, that matters.  If that were the case, then a major candidate for statewide office in Maine is complicit in skirting thousands of dollars in taxes – which is an especially damning thing for a conservative candidate.

If, on the other hand, it really was just no big deal and was a clerical error on the part of say the municipality in Florida who filed an automatic exemption after the purchase or something to that effect, than his involvement and knowledge of things would be no big deal at all.  In fact, if that were the case it would only reinforce LePage’s position that our tax system is ludicrous and stupid paperwork errors can unfairly make criminals out of good, hard working people.

So, finding out what the heck was going on in this situation is entirely fair, very relevant to the race, and in any other state besides Maine it would have been the first question out of the mouth of any reporter at that press conference, rather than the last (which it was).  So Higgins’ questions were fair, and LePage should have simply answered them politely and moved on.  Yes, technically they were about his wife, but the point was they had implications on him.

Higgins take on the situation, and why he pressed so hard were as follows:

So what is this all about? According to a Maine Today Media report, Ann and Paul LePage purchased a home in Waterville in 1995. The following year, LePage took his name off the deed. The LePages received tax benefits under Maine’s Homestead Exemption program, since that home was their primary residence.

In 2008, Ann LePage became a resident of Florida and obtained a Florida driver’s license while her husband remained a Maine resident. She purchased a home in Ormond Beach, Fla. and then allegedly claimed homestead tax benefits in the two states by declaring both homes as her primary residence.

LePage originally said last week that his wife relocated to Florida to take care of her ailing mother. But that didn’t explain why she became a resident of that state, obtained a Florida driver’s license and filed for tax benefits under the Homestead Exemption Act.

LePage’s spokesman now says Ann LePage became a Florida resident to send a message to her husband that she wanted to retire in Florida and also to take care of her ailing mother.

And the candidate is now acknowledging that two of his children did qualify for in-state tuition, at a considerable savings, at Florida State University. FSU has a number of resident tuition requirements — including proof of receiving a Florida homestead exemption benefit.

LePage still stands by his assertion that an error was made when his wife applied for the Florida exemption. “In 2009, we did receive the homestead exemption. I have since called the City of Waterville, and we’re in the process of contacting Florida and tell them to take us off homestead exemption permanently from the rest of her natural life, since she owns both homes.”

Maine and Florida both include penalty provisions in their homestead exemption laws for those who intentionally violate the provisions of the program.

Obviously a complicated situation.  Complicated situations deserve direct, reasonable answers.  I think everyone takes LePage’s explanation of his wife purchasing the home to be with her ailing mother as truth.  Purchasing real estate to save money on college tuition makes little sense  given that would probably make the entire endeavor more expensive in total.  The questions are simply about who filed what and when and why.  They deserve to have straight answers.  That’s all there is to it.

Now, this would have been a bad enough day for LePage given the subsequent video making the rounds and the bad press hits he took, but then later on at another press conference, he got upset at a reporter’s question again and ended up hurling an expletive as he answered.

These two exchanges blew up, obviously, and went national.

We can all relate to being defensive about our family, and I am fully aware that a display of anger and frustration by a political candidate actually endears that candidate to a fed up base of voters in this year’s election.

But it shouldn’t.  We should really expect better.

Serving the public requires a certain level of composure, dignity and respect.  The bar is higher.  The standard is higher.  Just because so many politicians fail to meet the bar doesn’t mean we should stop expecting them to meet it.  I know I personally expect the people I vote for and support to treat even the most ridiculous and hostile reporters with mature and reasoned reactions, even if they punch back a little bit.  I can’t for the life of me imagine statesmen such as Bill Cohen reacting like that.

Being a flamethrowing, anti-establishment, non traditional politician often gives people cover to behave poorly.  After all, these people aren’t part of the establishment, they aren’t professionals, they aren’t part of the “ruling class” – so when they don’t act like those evil, hated elitists, it gets a great reaction from the crowd and it reinforces everything supporters love about a candidate.

I submit to you, however, that being an anti-establishment, non traditional, flamethrowing politician is mutually exclusive to reacting with stubborn anger and avoiding answering legitimate questions.  You can be the former without acting like the latter.  That is kind of what I expect.

The best example of doing this?  Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Governor Christie is a combative, take no prisoners politician that bluntly confronts people he feels are unfairly attacking him and aggressively pushes for what he believes in.  But take a look how he handles that confrontational style:

You will notice that while his tone is biting, he never raises his voice and the entire thesis of what he says to the reporter is “you will never wonder where I am, I will answer questions and I will tell you what I believe”.  He makes an argument, he answers a question, he essentially ridicules and minimizes the reporter, but in a way that doesn’t make him look undignified, flustered, small, or even upset.  He diffuses the entire situation and any tension in the room with some humor, and from start to finish never loses his cool.  Given the infuriating arrogance of the reporter and his question, he certainly would have been excused if he did.

But he ripped that reporter apart, made his point, and did something that 99.99% of politicians don’t do.  He said something. He appeared above the petty political ankle biting, and made everyone who watched that feel like they were seeing something fresh, honest, unvarnished and completely counter to their expectations.

LePage’s dust up with both reporters on Monday, and his confrontation on his train tour were both examples of him doing it the wrong way.  Rather than being combative in the way Christie was, LePage shut down, avoided the open-ness, avoided answering questions, and in the process got visibly angry.  As a result he lost control of the message, the stories became about his outburst and avoidance of the reporter’s questions rather than (as in Christie’s case) about his ideas and proposals.  Additionally, by declaring he would no longer speak to the media, and then later refusing to answer questions, it made him look closed and like he had something to hide, even if he didn’t.

Look, Chris Christie is a remarkable human being and as a lawyer has decades of experience publicly arguing and persuading people in exactly the way he did in the above video.  It would be silly to expect everyone to act exactly like Christie – especially someone with entirely different life experiences like Paul LePage.

I brought him up only to illustrate the difference between a composed, focused politician who is responding to a ridiculous question from a biased reporter while handling his anger and annoyance perfectly, and what I have seen out of Paul LePage on a few occasions during this campaign.

While I don’t expect everyone to be Christie, I do expect my public representatives to remain composed when dealing with both the public, and the media.  None of us are foolish enough to expect a politician to not have a temper – lord knows I sure have one and am standing in a glass house right now – but I do think that displaying it like that is both bad politics and bad form in general.

He and his campaign need to quickly get a handle on managing the media and preparing the candidate properly for exchanges like this (which, personally, I think is the real reason this got out of hand – I don’t think he was properly prepared for it), or these types of incidents will only continue to happen, and can seriously threaten his chances of winning in November.

And not only that, but if he is elected Governor, he will be dealing with a most likely hostile House of Representatives and a hostile media for (hopefully) eight years.  Press conferences will only get hotter when he tries to close the billion dollar shortfalls the state faces and reporters question his decisions and people are protesting on the steps of the Blaine House.

Paul LePage’s greatest strength is the perception of him as an honest broker.  A straight shooter who will tell you some bitter things that are true that you might not want to hear.  He has the perspective of a quintessentially unique Maine life, where he learned the value of work and the perils of poverty.  When I spoke with him in October of 2009, I was immediately struck by an unvarnished, truthful, honest and sober candidate who I liked very much.

This sense of a genuine “people’s candidate” is what fueled his rise in the primary and his early, seemingly unstoppable lead in the general election.  The only thing that I think can stop him now is if this type of incident repeatedly happens a couple more times before election day and voters turn from finding his behavior refreshing to finding it troubling.

In the grand scheme of things, despite it being another bad week of press I do not believe that these incidents will ultimately hurt LePage with the voters much at all.  I actually do believe LePage when he says that the negative reaction to Higgins’ question was because it was primarily about his wife, and he is protective of her.  Regardless of how fair and called for the question was, I am much more forgiving of a reaction like this in such a case.

And I am most certainly a lot more comfortable with what happened with LePage in these exchanges than the perpetually in hiding Libby Mitchell, who has such a sleepy, unengaged campaign that I barely remember the last time I saw her face anywhere.  It is a lot better to be defensive and say something in a way you shouldn’t have than to not say anything.  At all.

I wrote at this length about it only because it, when coupled with his previous reactions to the media and any future confrontations that could happen, has the potential to significantly hurt his campaign if it continues.  And more than that, it will hurt his ability to govern if it continues into his terms in office once elected.

I have a lot of hope and optimism about LePage’s candidacy and his administration if he were to get elected.  I believe his perspective and beliefs can result in some extremely positive things.  I want him to get elected.  These types of incidents bug the hell out of me, but don’t ultimately change my belief about him being the best candidate in the race this year.

In short:  I want him to become governor, and I want him to be an effective, productive, transformative executive for Maine.

I don’t think that future will come true unless he and his campaign can get a handle on these types of media confrontation issues.  Even if he manages to win the election, it can doom his administration and cause him and his agenda to fail.  I don’t want to see that happen.

So, I take the risk of infuriating everyone (again) by pointing out something I am uncomfortable about with the candidate I have chosen, and asking publicly that it be changed.  So be it.  Such a reaction would miss the real point, which is that I support LePage and want him to be better for his own good and the good of his agenda.

But by all means, please start throwing the tomatoes.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political operative. He serves as the Director of Digital Strategy for the Republican Governors Association, and has previously worked for Senator Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.