Republican Charlie Baker is, by some measures, the most popular governor in the country, showered with praise even by Democrats. Republican Paul LePage is under attack from all sides, after leaving a crude voice mail for a state legislator — and publicly pining for a 19th-century-style duel.
Baker has shunned his party’s presidential nominee. LePage calls himself “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” and has speculated openly about serving in a Trump administration.
The chief executives of Massachusetts and Maine have shared a party affiliation, a corner of America, and, on Monday, a stage at the Hynes Convention Center, but there may not be two governors from the same party more dissimilar in the country.
“Governor LePage was a thoughtful and active participant in all the conversations that we’ve had here, and he didn’t challenge me to a duel either,” Baker said Monday at a press conference ending the second day of a gathering of New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers.
Baker’s assessment — typically low-key — was in stark contrast to bombastic comments Monday from the governor of Maine, which dominated much of the conference discussion. LePage doubled down on allegations he made last week that 90 percent of drug dealers arrested in Maine were black or Hispanic — and spoke pointedly of Massachusetts, host of the conference, in the process.
“Meth lab arrests are white,” he told the State House News Service. “They’re Mainers. The heroin-fentanyl arrests are not white people. They’re Hispanic and they’re black, and they’re from Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts; Waterbury, Connecticut; the Bronx and Brooklyn. I didn’t make up the rules. That’s how it turns out. But that’s a fact. It’s a fact. What, do you want me to lie?”
Asked about LePage’s assertion that people of color from Massachusetts are partly to blame for Maine’s drug trade, Baker did not directly criticize him.
“I said many, many, many times that this issue knows no neighborhood, it knows no race, it knows no class. It’s as pervasive as anything I’ve ever seen in my 30 years in health care,” said Baker, who was chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and the state’s top health care official before becoming governor.
Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, a Democrat, was more pointed. “I think it was a tremendous mistake last week to try to make the opioid issue a racial one,” he said.
Earlier in the day, LePage told the Globe he was “very, very comfortable” with his remarks last week, including the controversial voice mail he left for a state representative for allegedly calling LePage a racist. The legislator, Drew Gattine of Westbrook, has denied doing so.
“Sir, let me tell you something,” LePage said, poking his finger into a reporter’s chest. “You know, when you’re called a racist and you’ve spent your life fighting it, personally, and helping others, I think it’s like calling — it’s the worst thing that I could be called by any human being.”
Baker and LePage share many common concerns — the drug crisis, the regional economy, energy policy — but they take vastly different approaches to their jobs. Baker seeks bipartisan accord, a necessity given the heavily Democratic Massachusetts Legislature. The Maine State House is far more balanced, and LePage seems to relish nothing more than a good fight. One eschews the national spotlight, the other apparently basks in its glow, even when the attention is negative.
LePage’s feud with the local lawmaker and his racially charged comments are just his latest brush with controversy. Elected governor in 2010, the former Waterville mayor ignited a confrontation with the NAACP during his first months in office after refusing to attend events honoring Martin Luther King Jr. And in January, he apologized after saying out-of-state drug dealers came to Maine to “impregnate a young white girl.” He said the dealers “are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty — these types of guys.” The comment was widely condemned as racist.
LePage won a second term in 2014 by nearly 5 percentage points. But in recent days, Maine Democrats have publicly pressured their GOP colleagues in the Legislature to call for LePage to step down, and Republicans have grown increasingly critical.
Baker first ran for governor in 2010 as a conservative, proposing identification requirements at homeless shelters and running against a measure, similar to one he signed this year, that would have allowed transgender people to use bathrooms designated for the genders with which they identified.
But since then, Baker has taken great pains to distance himself — at least rhetorically — from the national Republican Party, which is considerably more conservative than the Massachusetts strain.
He kept his distance from the GOP presidential primary — endorsing Chris Christie only on the eve of the New Hampshire vote — and has focused largely on nonpartisan issues such as the beleaguered MBTA and the drug crisis.
To be sure, Baker sometimes ventures into controversy, but, unlike LePage, he can backtrack quickly. Last year, amid a controversy about the Confederate flag flying over South Carolina’s Capitol, Baker apologized hours after defending the right of local governments to raise the flag.
The Massachusetts Democratic Party insisted Monday that Baker seems moderate only when compared with a figure like LePage. In an e-mailed statement, state party chairman Thomas McGee, a Democratic state senator from Lynn, criticized Baker for vetoing $1.2 million set aside for a new early-voting program and for looming layoffs among MBTA contract janitors.
“Of course Governor Baker is going to appear balanced when measured against someone as reckless as LePage, but it’s no excuse for cutting the funding for [early voting], or looking to fire the custodians from the MBTA,” McGee said. “Baker’s ‘short-term fixes’ have long-term negative impacts on our state.”
A Baker adviser said the two governors seldom speak outside of official conferences. Timothy S. Buckley said Baker’s administration “maintains strong relationships with all the region’s governors.”
At least publicly, Monday’s interactions between Baker and LePage appeared limited. At a morning session, Baker, as the host governor, introduced his guests one by one.
“Governor Paul LePage, from the great state of Maine,” Baker said flatly.
“Thank you. Formerly part of Massachusetts,” LePage chuckled.