Even Maine lawmakers accustomed to Gov. Paul LePage's aggressive style of politics said Thursday they were troubled by accusations that the Republican had the top Democrat in the House of Representatives removed from his new job at a school for at-risk youth by threatening to cut off funds to the institution.
"The governor is taking partisan politics to a new, dark level," Republican Sen. Tom Saviello said in an email.
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Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves said Wednesday that LePage told the Good Will-Hinckley school that he would withhold more than $500,000 a year from a charter school the nonprofit operates unless it fired Eves as president. That would've caused the charter to lose an additional $2 million in private funds, greatly threatening its viability, Eves said.
LePage's office declined Thursday to discuss the specific accusation, citing a potential lawsuit from Eves.
But the governor said in a statement that he stands by his opposition to Eves holding the post because the Democrat frequently opposed charter schools in the Legislature. LePage said the funds are an investment in the school's success.
"To provide half-a-million dollars in taxpayer funding to a charter school that would be headed by Maine's most vehement anti-charter-school politician is not only the height of hypocrisy, it is absolutely unacceptable," the governor said.
Good Will-Hinckley has not said specifically why Eves will not be taking up the school's top position July 1, but says it is seeking a new president because it doesn't want to get involved in a "political controversy."
Eves said Thursday he believes the governor's actions will have much greater implications than the loss of a job. He said he's concerned it could have a chilling effect on lawmakers who may worry their livelihoods could be at risk because of the way they vote.
"This is, I believe, a true threat to our democracy," Eves said.
LePage has never been shy about using strong-arm tactics. He has refused to sign off on millions of dollars in bonds in order to get lawmakers to do what he wants and recently threatened to veto every bill until the Legislature approves his plan to ask voters whether they want to eliminate the income tax.
But several lawmakers said Thursday that the latest allegation, if true, has crossed a line.
"It has affected Mark Eves' livelihood. It's taking away his ability to provide for his family," Democratic House Leader Jeff McCabe said.
Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau said he's saddened and shocked by the allegation.
"I am still trying to learn exactly what transpired," he said in a statement. "Above all, we must ensure that the people of Maine can continue to have faith in their public institutions."
A small group of Democrats in the House said they were looking into taking action against LePage, including launching a formal investigation that could potentially lead to impeachment.
Eves says he's considering suing LePage, arguing that he violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
"In this case, the protected right would be Eves' political activities and votes cast," Dmitry Bam, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said in an email.
Bam said Eves could have a valid claim, assuming that he can show that LePage's action was in retaliation to the speaker exercising his constitutionally protected right.
Associated Press reporter David Sharp contributed to this story from Portland.
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