Opinion

Is LePage trying to help or hurt Janet Mills?

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Current Maine Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills started her first television commercial of the campaign with an image of Gov. Paul LePage.

She’s betting that just the picture of LePage will generate a visceral reaction for Maine Democrats, grabbing their attention and setting up a sharp contrast between herself and the lame duck governor.

With an early lead in the only public poll and probably the best name ID in the governor’s race, Mills is betting that she doesn’t need a straight introduction ad. She’s playing to the anger on the left against the governor and the president.

Now, whether this theory of the race holds up, I can’t say. But the ad and Mills’ apparent lead have generated a strong reaction from Republicans.

In his weekly radio address, the governor goes straight after Mills. His radio address reads like the script for an attack ad: “Janet Mills is not telling the truth.”

Now the governor can say and do whatever he likes, but it’s highly questionable to use state resources to record and distribute this kind of attack against a candidate for public office.

And even if it is legal, it’s clearly unethical. The governor’s staff, the Maine.gov website where the radio address is hosted, the people in IT who make sure the links work should not be involved in partisan politics while they’re on the clock.

Title 5 of Maine law prohibits an employee of the executive branch from using their official authority to interfere or affect the results of a partisan election or nomination for elective office.

Saying that a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor “has already proven to be disingenuous with the people of Maine, and she has already demonstrated a morally flexible relationship with the truth” sure seems to me like attempting to interfere with her run for office.

LePage, himself, has a troubled history with the truth, which is a nice way to say he lies a lot. He’s also got a habit of scrambling the facts, even when he might not be trying to deceive.

He doesn’t have the credibility to call anyone else a liar. When the governor and other Republicans let loose on Mills, they are validating the very story she’s trying to tell: That she stands in opposition to the governor and his policies.

If Mills is right and Democrats are activated and motivated by LePage, his attacks only strengthen her case in the Democratic primary. Every time he strikes out, the theory goes, it makes her a little stronger, elevates her a little higher — particularly with hard-core Democrats who are likely to vote in a primary.

As Ben Kenobi told Darth Vader in the original Star Wars: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Mills might be thinking, swing away Darth LePage, swing away.

I’ve known Mills for years, and although I haven’t talked to her about the governor’s radio broadside, I have to believe she greeted it with a chuckle.

You might argue that LePage is some kind of political ninja and he’s boosting Mills because he thinks the eventual Republican nominee can beat her in November. Or maybe he sees her as a real threat to take the Blaine House and, if she does, start to unwind his legacy and begin to repair the damage he has piled onto the state for the past seven years, and he wants to attack her as often and as strongly as possible.

But I have another theory. The governor is simply unable to resist a fight, particularly when it’s with a longtime rival like Mills. He can’t help himself, even if his actions are ethically or legally questionable.

No one has ever accused the governor of taking the high ground, and he’s not taking it now. He’s used his office and the power of the executive branch to level an attack on a political opponent and a candidate to replace him.

I don’t know if LePage and other Republican hitters are trying to help or hurt Mills or if they only know one way to operate — attack.

Since my candidate, Jim Boyle, left the race for governor, I have not publicly endorsed any of the other worthy contenders. But when I decide who I’m voting for on June 12, I can tell you that the last person I’ll be taking advice from is LePage. And I bet a whole lot of Democrats agree.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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