When Fidel Castro wanted to poke a stick in the eye of the United States, he released prisoners from Cuban jails and allowed them to join a mass exodus of immigrants coming to America.
When Paul LePage wanted to poke a stick in the eye of the Maine Legislature, he freed thieves and burglars from a prison in Washington County and advertised to the world that they’d soon be filling seasonal jobs in our tourism industry.
Despots can be pretty clever sometimes.
In Castro’s case, there were no misguided notions that he’d suddenly become an advocate for prison reform or wanted to assist the U.S. in filling service industry vacancies. He used the prisoner releases to cause havoc and dampen our willingness to serve as a magnet to Cuban exiles.
But in LePage’s case, many have not gotten the joke.
The same governor who advocates the death penalty for drug dealers and attempted to refuse life-saving Narcan for drug overdoses is now being hailed for his liberal embrace of leniency for criminals by the Maine ACLU.
The same governor who previously expressed animus toward tourism by saying the industry was more appropriate for a third-world nation is now being hailed by tourism professionals for his efforts to help the industry.
But realistically, these prison releases won’t help at all. The few dozen people he released will have no noticeable impact on the tourism industry’s job shortage, estimated to be in the thousands.
And more broadly, how helpful is it to Maine tourism to have the Wall Street Journal and New York Times broadcast to potential vacationers that convicted felons will be hosting them on their getaway weekends? For example, the Times reported that William Dawson, convicted of stealing $500,000 from the elderly, was released as part of this program. Is this the person you want cleaning your hotel room while you’re at the beach, or swiping your credit card at a restaurant?
The truth is, the governor isn’t attempting to help the tourism industry by releasing these prisoners. And he’s not had a sudden change of heart from his “hang ’em high” philosophy on crime.
As a press release from the Maine Senate Republican office describes the situation, after the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee voted to continue funding the Washington County prison, LePage fired all 46 prison employees, transferred some prisoners to other facilities, and then started commuting sentences.
In other words, he’s freeing these prisoners to do an end-around of the Legislature and close the prison. And his sudden shift from wanting to execute criminals to wanting to integrate them into the seasonal workforce is no more than a cover story.
It’s exactly what he did when his opposition to an effort to add “nips” to the bottle deposit program blew up on him. LePage threatened to outlaw those small bottles of booze altogether if the deposit bill passed, claiming the deposits would be harmful to business. When the nips manufacturers condemned the governor’s plan, saying it would kill a $12 million a year industry, he pivoted off his tangled reasoning and pretended his real concern was that nips are being consumed while people are driving.
This explanation was taken at face value by the press and the Legislature, and even liberal columnist Bill Nemitz took it seriously. LePage’s opposition to drunk driving and open containers in vehicles wasn’t questioned, even though, just the week before, he brushed off the exact same behavior in one of his political appointees. The governor appointed Barry Hobbins as Public Advocate, a $119,000 a year state job, despite the fact that Hobbins was arrested and charged with drinking and driving in Massachusetts recently, with empty beer cans in his car.
We need to stop treating everything LePage proposes as serious just because he’s the governor. There’s a point where the foolishness of an elected official overwhelms the respect due the office, and LePage crossed that line somewhere between the moment he declared “black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers” and when he told a radio host he was calling out the National Guard to force people to be more civil.
Of course it’s not legitimate to release prisoners to fill vacant tourism jobs. Of course it’s not legitimate to outlaw nips outright instead of charging a deposit on them to stop people from throwing them out their car windows. We’re dumbing down our political dialog by allowing these absurdities to occupy the space of reasonable policy proposals on serious issues like economic reform, health care policy, or the opiate epidemic.
Until the people of this state — voters, politicians, and the press — stop humoring this silliness and start demanding a grown-up government, we’re doomed to languish as state with big problems and no plan to solve them.