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Can Fact-Checking Take Down Demagoguery?

Maine Governor Paul LePage has been making outlandish accusations against the black community. The American Civil Liberties Union is calling his bluff — by asking to see his files.
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Maine Governor Paul LePage greets the crowd before Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Portland, Maine, on August 4, 2016.

Maine Governor Paul LePage greets the crowd before Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Portland, Maine, on August 4, 2016.

Political strategists looking for chinks in Donald Trump’s armor might be wise to ask their colleagues in Maine for advice. There, Trump’s racially charged commentary, tirades against immigrants, and blunt, anti-politically correct style of politics are nothing new — Maine’s twice-elected Republican governor, Paul LePage (who came to power on the tide of the Tea Party) claims to be the Republican presidential nominee’s predecessor in terms of style: “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” LePage said this winter. But this week, after mounting pressure, the governor nearly cracked. On Tuesday, following his latest hot-headed remark, LePage hinted that he would heed to calls for his resignation from his Democratic colleagues, and from his fellow Republican operatives. He’s since flip-flopped, now promising to stay in office, but with a new policy: He will no longer talk to press, ever — a move that can be read as a nod to his fiercest foes.

The day-to-day work of holding LePage accountable for his sometimes-absurd public statements, while shining a light on his dubious political actions as governor, has kept local reporters and advocates busy. This is a governor who managed to win re-election even after telling the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to “kiss my butt” during his first month in office, and who has repeatedly compared the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo. Just this winter, LePage said that the state’s opioid crisis was attributable to drug dealers coming from out of state “with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty,” who impregnated innocent white girls whenever they weren’t slinging oxycontin.

After five years, Maine watchdogs are in fighting shape.

Smart maneuvering by one of these players, the Maine branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, was pivotal in heightening attention to LePage’s recent outrages, the aftermath of which catalyzed renewed calls from both sides of the aisle in Maine’s state house for LePage to step down. Following the governor’s controversial, racially charged statements at a town-hall meeting in southern Maine last Wednesday, the Maine American Civil Liberties Union issued an open records request to the governor’s office which read, in part:

On August 24, 2016, at an event in North Berwick, Maine, the Governor stated the following: “I’ve been collecting every single drug dealer who has been arrested in our state . . . and I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ring binder, are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.”

This request is limited to public records in the possession of Governor Paul LePage and his staff.

Specifically, I request an opportunity to inspect the following public record:

1) The Governor’s three-ring binder containing pictures of “every single drug dealer who has been arrested in our state.”

“We have been struggling with the governor making comments like this, racist comments that infuse hatred, often not connected to fact,” says Alison Beyea, ACLU’s executive director in Maine. Countering fear-mongering rhetoric with logic does not always result in effective messaging, but the very specific description of the alleged binder presented an opportunity to throw LePage’s words back at him, Beyea explains. As she saw it, there were three possible outcomes to the record request:

  1. The governor actually had a binder that contained evidence that 90 percent of people arrested on suspicion of drug dealing in Maine are black or Hispanic, which would suggest severe racial profiling in a state where 95 percent of the population is white.
  2. The binder existed, but its contents weren’t as described. So, the governor lied.
  3. Or, there is no binder. Again, the governor lied.

“We try to attack from a couple of angles,” Beyea says. The request caught national press, and circulated widely on social media.

The following day, LePage brought the binder in question to a press conference, where he casually flipped through its pages for the cameras, and stood by his claim about the demographics of his state’s criminals. LePage has yet to allow the ACLU, or other journalists who made similar requests, to inspect the binder’s contents. He has until Thursday to respond to the open records request. The local press, meanwhile, has pointed to Federal Bureau of Investigations data, which says only 14 percent of the drug arrests in 2014 were black.

The ACLU’s smart play during the binder situation isn’t the only factor putting LePage in a corner right now. Credit is also due to State Representative Drew Gattine, who gave local reporters a tape of a profanity-filled voicemail that LePage had left for him in response to rumors that Gattine had called the governor a racist. “It’s pretty amazing to listen to,” says Colin Woodard, a Maine-based investigative reporter. The message includes phrases such as, “you little son-of-a-bitch, socialist [expletive].” Woodard says that the intense vitriol of the governor’s tone in the recording is what sets it apart from previous outbursts by LePage.

“A pattern of repeated, blatant lying has been abundantly clear every time the media has conducted similar fact-checking of LePage’s public appearances.”

Mounting national attention toward LePage’s divisive politics is what emboldened lawmakers from his own party to demand his resignation, says Lance Dutson, a local Republican political consultant and vocal LePage critic. “I think we’ve kind of reached a point with national attention that Republicans are starting to speak up,” he says. “People aren’t afraid to speak up against things that we think are wrong.”

Before these latest developments, “It’s been like the emperor without clothes,” Dutson says of his state’s Republican legislature. “Very thoughtful people were suddenly willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.”

The key to unmasking LePage, Woodard says, was to be smart about which scandals to go after — finding a balance, in other words, “in terms of how aggressively you cover the latest potty mouth versus how much attention do you give to things that actually have an effect on people’s lives.” Woodard is a veteran investigative reporter who has covered LePage for the past five years as both staff writer at the Portland Press Herald and contributing editor at Politico. He has exposed LePage’s financial ties with corporate lobbyists that dictated the governor’s environmental policies, as well as a flow of money and corporate power behind LePage’s push for virtual public schools, among other shady political doings.

But even for a reporter in Woodard’s position — which grants him more time and opportunity to dig deeper than a daily beat reporter — staying focused on important issues has not always been easy. “There are moments with LePage where he creates some of these mini-scandals that draw all this attention,” he says. “It gave you the sense sometimes that you’re being manipulated by a scandal that doesn’t actually have greater ramifications,” he says.

Mike Tipping, author of As Maine Went: Governor Paul LePage and the Tea Party Takeover of Maine, agrees that LePage creates noise to distract. Indeed, Tipping has been disappointed by the governor’s success with this strategy. “Prominent instances, like when he said he was mandated by the state to do a buffalo study, those have been fact-checked,” he says, referring to one of LePage’s stranger campaign fibs — a claim that excessive government regulations had forced him to take a census of buffalo while working for a power company. But daily reporters have been unable to keep up with the steady stream of LePagisms, Tipping says, and, more often than not, the governor’s claims are published un-checked. Tipping wrote a column on the subject this July: “This week, the Bangor Daily News took a transcript of one of Gov. Paul LePage’s weekly town halls, analyzed it and annotated it, finding ‘scores of mistruths and misunderstandings of basic government functions.’ A similar pattern of repeated, blatant lying has been abundantlycleareverytime the media has conducted similar fact-checking of his public appearances.”

Tipping commends the ACLU for playing the binder issue well, and has been pleased to see the attention is has garnered, but his optimism is cautious: “We’ll see if this actually has an effect,” he says. “Is this worse than when he compared Obamacare to the Holocaust?”