Let’s set aside for a moment the “kissin’ cousins,” “soul mates” and others we cherish in this love-buzzed month of February. To them go the flowers, the candy, the cards and the private words. Instead, let’s focus on this: Public words count, too, and seldom do they count more than when they flow between people and their elected leaders.
Already, Maine has encountered rough water this year. I don’t want to prolong the bumpy ride that found newly elected Republican Gov. Paul LePage at odds with the state’s NAACP. But it’s important to recognize that this encounter on the cusp of Martin Luther King Day was no local secret. Not local to Portland. Not local to Bangor. Not local to Maine.
“I see Maine’s new governor is making the news, unfortunately,” one of my daughters e-mailed me from New York City. She was reacting to public word that LePage had suggested NAACP officials who criticized his decision not to attend their group’s event celebrating King in Portland or Bangor could “kiss my butt” if they didn’t like what he was doing. She had read about it that morning in The New York Times.
So had a lot of people. Others caught the story in other newspapers, online and on television across the country. The “kiss my butt” phrase wrapped like sticky tape around the emerging image of Maine’s new governor.
News reports were driving the damaging first impression. For many, they implied that Maine’s 74th governor was crude, its voters insensitive and the state’s attitude toward diversity – essential to economic development – was pretty much what it had been in 1840. The governor’s comment was bad for tourism, worse for business and out of step with attitudes across much of the state.
But there it was. And an old lesson turned new again.
State leaders do not act in a vacuum. What they say matters. And people across a large and diverse nation will react. Any leader who doesn’t know that – or quickly come to recognize it – is not going to leave Maine better than he found it.
Travelers will not seek out rudeness. Tourism opportunities will not expand where people from diverse backgrounds do not feel welcome. New contracts for shopping malls and businesses will not appear where growth is stagnant. Communities in need of good-paying jobs will wait in vain for high technology expansion plants.
Not surprisingly, LePage’s office quickly tried to play down the put-down. “This is about a special interest group taking issue with the governor for not making time for them and the governor dismissing their complaints in the direct manner people have come to expect from Paul LePage,” an official statement declared.
I don’t know if that statement made things better or worse. LePage’s manner “direct?” You bet. The NAACP just another “special interest group?” If you remember the 1960s, you know that is not true. What the people “have come to expect” from LePage? Not yet. The episode fit better in the still-thin book of rough rhetoric that LePage pulled out during his campaign when he declared that, if elected, he would tell President Obama “to go to hell.”
None of it was praiseworthy. None of it did a thing for Maine.
On a positive note, LePage’s January rudeness to the NAACP was tempered a few days later by another report in the Times, this one looking at words he had to say about partisanship in his inaugural address. “Partisan affiliations, political leanings and the obsession with winning and losing have been getting in the way of solving Maine problems,” he declared. And he was right.
He was right, too, when he showed up at Waterville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast. It’s where the governor belonged. But the sticky tape lingered.
“I was ashamed,” a Waterville woman was quoted as saying about his “kiss-my-butt” remark. “I couldn’t believe that he would have such a narrow view of the world.”
That is a public concern. And Mainers, inside and outside the NAACP, are the public at issue.
On the campaign trail, LePage offered himself as a businessman with a businessman’s view of ways to achieve a strong economic future. Voters gave him the power to try.
He promised accountability across state government. Now there’s a promise worth keeping.
Accountability starts with him.