A lack of civility threatens Maine’s democratic traditions

Photo by Ishikawa Ken via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Photo by Ishikawa Ken via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Maine has, historically, been known for civility in its political process. This is likely partially because we are a small, rural state with active local governance and a history of access to our politicians, from our local state rep all the way to our U.S. senators. Our congressional delegation is, for the most part, frequently home, and they’re often out and about visiting constituents and making themselves available to answer questions and address concerns. This closeness has probably helped drive the state to frequently have one of the highest voter turnout rates in election after election.

Gov. Paul LePage has, not unfairly, drawn frequent criticism — from both Democrats and some within his own party — for statements that many consider out of bounds and inappropriate. As part of the re-election campaign, he was judged by the electorate on these statements, and Maine voters decided his record of reform and accomplishment outweighed his impolitic remarks. Still, criticizing him, or anyone else, for what they say is perfectly fair, whether it’s because you find it offensive or just because you disagree with it. That’s part of the normal democratic process.

What wasn’t fair and appropriate was what happened at a town hall forum in Saco last week. LePage was attempting to address the audience regarding his tax proposals when a certain former lawmaker and Biddeford mayor threw a jar of vaseline toward LePage. The Maine State Police, acting professionally and competently as they were trained to do, immediately escorted her from the room and ended the event.

To its credit, the Maine Democratic Party immediately denounced her actions as inappropriate, and liberal blogger Amy Fried called for her to apologize for the incident. Other progressives were not so restrained, with some praising her actions and others saying she should get a second chance on her throw. Regardless of what LePage might have said in the past, it should be obvious to all civil human beings that hurling objects at people in public forums is completely and totally unacceptable.

You may not like LePage or his policies, and as an American you have more than a right to say so in a variety of ways. However, nobody has a right to express herself in a way that puts a public official or innocent bystanders at risk, as happened here. Not only is it all too easy to imagine a more disastrous consequence if LePage’s security detail weren’t so professional, it’s even easier to imagine someone else in the crowd overreacting in a way that caused a fracas where people actually got hurt.

Public safety concerns aside — and there are totally legitimate ones with this incident — this kind of behavior isn’t fair to the governor or to the public. It not only shows a complete and utter lack of respect for LePage himself, but for the Office of the Governor. Moreover, anyone planning this kind of incident should have known the security response it would provoke, and that it would cause the shutdown of the forum. That prevented local residents from finding out more about a major public policy issue — which, indeed, may have been the plan all along.

What’s a shame is that, if these kinds of incidents continue, they might threaten Maine’s history of easy access to our government at the local, state, and federal levels. If our elected officials don’t feel safe with their constituents, they’ll be less inclined to hold these kinds of events and make themselves available for open forums. We all owe it to each other to encourage a free and open exchange of ideas in Maine, not to stifle dissent because we’re afraid of disagreement. That would undermine our democracy in this state, and that’s a threat to all of us, not just to LePage and his budget.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.