Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage Wednesday used his first major public appearance since leaving office to try to reframe his eight controversial years in office — and to continue teasing a possible run in 2022. LePage's engagement with student protesters at Colby College shows how the conservative firebrand is shifting responsibility for his record of divisive comments to his favorite foil.
Moments before LePage began his hour-long forum, protesters stood outside the entrance of Colby's Ostrove Auditorium quietly holding signs admonishing the former governor for his past conduct and highlighting — sometimes verbatim — some of his incendiary statements about immigrants and the racial makeup of drug dealers.
Then, an organizer gave some last-minute instructions.
“If you have questions to ask him (LePage) at the end, that's totally your prerogative. Again, we just ask that, in regards to this protest, and in regards to any opposition, that you do so respectfully, thoughtfully and in a way that does not impede the event's proceeding," the organizer says.
The protesters filed into the auditorium, most of them choosing to stand rather than sit.
LePage, wearing a blazer and no tie, began his remarks in a familiar place — a Dickensian life story beginning with his flight from an abusive father while living in Lewiston.
"And at 11-years old I decided enough is enough, so I was going to go out on my own, and I've been on my own since 11-years old. So I am a product of my environment. I make no apologies for it," he says.
In fact, there were few apologies from LePage on Wednesday.
There was, however, plenty of blame for the rash of statements that have come to define his legacy as governor. And nearly all of it was directed at the press.
LePage, long a fan of props to make his points, proceeded to brandish a copy of the local newspaper.
"For eight years they've made sure that I'm not perfect. Because this paper right here since 2010 — and I read the article today, and things haven't changed — since 2010 they have not printed who I am," he says.
LePage's railing against the press was a hallmark of his two terms in office, serving as a bulwark for conduct that often produced unflattering national headlines.
But on Wednesday, roughly 10 months after he left the governor's mansion in Augusta, he used the press, and the public's low opinion of it, in an attempt to recast a legacy that could hamper his future political ambitions.
When audience members confronted him about his comments about race and immigrants, he deflected by blaming the people who reported his words.
"This thing about bigotry and bigots and racists … I don't have a racist bone in my body," LePage says. "You read newspapers and the newspapers think I'm a racist. And you know, you can think whatever you want."
Similar remarks — denying responsibility for his past comments, while also asserting indifference — were common throughout LePage's speech, which came via invitation by the Colby College Republicans.
At one point Aaron Hanlon, an associate professor of English, attempted to ask LePage about his comments that immigrants can bring crime and disease into Maine. Again LePage responded by citing what he views as unfair news coverage. Afterward, Hanlon said he was simply trying to reconcile a disconnect between LePage's professed compassion for people in need and his policies and conduct toward immigrants.
"I think it got a little sidetracked because I was referring to a quote from the papers, and I think this is a whole defense mechanism of anything written in the papers he says is not trustworthy. So you can't really address ways that he's been quoted. That's really off the table for him," Hanlon says.
The event was mostly civil, at times drawing applause and laughter from the audience.
LePage was greeted warmly by supporters, some of whom wore red hats emblazoned with "LePage 2022," expressions of hope that the former Waterville mayor will take on his replacement, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, three years from now. On that front, LePage suggested he's strongly leaning toward another run, a suggestion he has made repeatedly since leaving office in January.
Updated 4:00 p.m. Oct. 24, 2019