RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin plans to travel to Maine this week to campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage, a former two-term governor with a history of making racially incendiary remarks.
A proudly unvarnished politician who has claimed that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump,” LePage caused his most notable uproar in 2016, midway through his second term, with a series of comments about race and drug dealing.
LePage claimed — falsely — that more than 90 percent of people arrested for drug-trafficking in the overwhelmingly White state of Maine were Black or Hispanic. He also called Black and Hispanic people “the enemy” and said that many out-of-state drug traffickers passing through Maine “impregnate a young White girl before they leave.”
As the episode reached its nadir in the summer of 2016, with LePage leaving a profanity-laden voice mail for a lawmaker and publicly pining for the days when he could have killed the Democrat in a duel, lawmakers from both parties questioned the governor’s fitness to hold office, the Portland Press Herald and news organizations nationwide and overseas reported at the time.
Youngkin is scheduled to headline a LePage fundraiser in Lewiston, Maine, on Wednesday, as Virginia’s General Assembly convenes for a one-day special session to select a handful of local judges and possibly a member of the State Corporation Commission.
LePage, who racked up substantial policy wins as governor despite repeated controversies, is seeking to unseat Gov. Janet Mills (D). The race is expected to be competitive.
Asked early last week why Virginia’s governor is willing to campaign for LePage given his record of inflammatory comments, Youngkin political consultant Kristin Davison said: “Gov. Youngkin believes Republicans make better governors. He will discuss Democrats’ failure to address cost of living, education, and safety.”
Asked the same question a day later, Youngkin himself said he was unaware of any controversy about LePage’s rhetoric, which made national news in 2016 — “Maine’s governor is completely unhinged,” read the headline on a Washington Post editorial — and which the liberal Blue Virginia blog recapped Aug. 29 under its own, hard-to-miss banner: “Glenn Youngkin to Campaign for Unhinged, Extremist, Racist Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Who Among Other Horrendous Things Said ‘the enemy right now … are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.’”
“I don’t know of [any] racially inflammatory statements and, therefore, I’m not sure that that’s accurate,” Youngkin said in a brief gathering with reporters after an economic development event Wednesday south of Richmond.
At the same time, Youngkin indicated that he had been personally involved in choosing his out-of-state appearances, and choosy about where he stumps, noting that given his responsibilities in Virginia, he has had to “selectively … pick a few places to campaign.”
“As I have planned out our fall schedule, what I’m trying to do is help Republicans win,” said Youngkin, who established two political entities to bankroll out-of-state campaign travel. “I believe the philosophy that we espouse — of small government, and low taxes, and fiscal responsibility, and a growing economy, and really supporting parents and schools for great education, and standing up for law enforcement — they all come together to deliver better outcomes for states.”
Youngkin’s plans to help LePage have outraged Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), a member of the Legislative Black Caucus who questioned why he would back someone “who has said so many crazy and racist things.”
“Anybody who has any true consciousness about how toxic that is would not go anywhere near LePage,” said state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth). While skeptical of Youngkin’s claim that he was unaware of LePage’s rhetoric, Lucas said he cannot play the “ignorance game” now that he has been asked about it.
“Why didn’t he do some research and rebuke it?” she said. “So now he knows, so why is he still going? Because he doesn’t give a snap?”
Asked late last week if Youngkin had taken time to familiarize himself with LePage’s statements, Davison replied in a text: “He’s been very busy!” Her text also linked to a news report on two education initiatives Youngkin had unveiled that day.
“That’s kind of calculated ignorance,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst. “The guy [LePage] has been in the news for years. There’s no possible way that the people who prep him or do the backgrounds haven’t explored this person’s history.”
LePage made waves with aggressive and sometimes crude language throughout his eight years in office — a habit that inspired the Press Herald to compile a list of his “greatest hits.”
LePage has pushed back against allegations of racism over the years by noting that he invited a Black teen from Jamaica to live with his family after the youth’s father caddied for the governor during an island vacation. LePage campaign spokesman Brent Littlefield made note of that again Sunday in response to inquiries from The Washington Post.
“Paul and Ann LePage are the only Governor and first lady in Maine history to have a person of color in their family photo at the Governor’s mansion, because they brought a young black man into their home to join their family so he could have a chance for success. Paul and Ann helped him through high school, college and he is a success,” he wrote in an email.
For years, LePage’s defenders have called his blunt style an outgrowth of a hardscrabble boyhood marked by poverty, physical abuse and homelessness. Littlefield hit on that theme last month, when the former governor again stirred controversy by threatening to “deck” a Maine Democratic Party staffer if he got too close while filming the candidate at a public event.
“Paul LePage is not like most people. He was homeless as a child and was forced to live on the streets, overcoming tremendous odds to earn an advanced college degree, become a successful businessman, mayor and governor,” Littlefield told the Bangor Daily News after the incident.
Just days after assuming the governorship in 2011, LePage told the NAACP to “kiss my butt” because the civil rights group had criticized his decision to skip ceremonies honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the paper reported at the time. He took a memorable swipe at a Democratic state senator in 2013, saying he was “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”
LePage faced widespread calls for his resignation in 2016 with a series of comments, starting with a claim that “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” come from New York and Connecticut to sell heroin in Maine, and “half the time they impregnate a young White girl before they leave.” He later said he was not commenting on the race of the traffickers and that he’d meant to refer to “Maine women,” not “White” girls.
Months later, LePage told reporters that he kept a binder of drug arrests in the state and that “90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ring binder, are Black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Conn., the Bronx and Brooklyn.” (The Press Herald later identified 56 of the people pictured in his book as White.)
LePage also effectively endorsed racial profiling, telling the paper: “You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”
Amid the uproar, LePage publicly hinted he might step down but quickly backtracked and served the rest of his term.
Maine prohibits its governors from serving more than two consecutive terms but does not bar a comeback after a break. LePage won the GOP nomination this year with no competition.
Youngkin’s hectic out-of-state travel schedule had drawn bipartisan criticism even before he added LePage to the lineup. A political newcomer who ignited 2024 presidential buzz with his win last year in seemingly blue Virginia, Youngkin appears to be exploring a White House bid and stumping for GOP gubernatorial hopefuls around the country as a means of raising his national profile. He hit Nebraska in July, Michigan last month and has so far disclosed plans to hit Nevada, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon and Kansas.
“I am hopeful that maybe he will intensify his focus on the commonwealth’s issues,” Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) told reporters in August.