LePage’s latest comment about drug dealers was so disturbing. I saw its effect on my son

Note to readers: I sat on this post for 24 hours before deciding to run it. It was a difficult decision for many reasons. First and foremost, I don’t think Gov. Paul LePage is a bad person, and while I have found his conduct problematic on many occasions, I have also found myself agreeing with a few of his positions on principle. Contrary to his comments at a recent news conference about Maine bloggers, this Maine blogger has been willing to admit when I do think his position is right, even if his conduct isn’t.

Of course I have blogged about the times I think he is flat out wrong, too, like his positions on MaineCare expansion and his concept of welfare reform. And I’ve blogged more than once about finding his conduct unacceptable, but I try to avoid falling too prey to the default anti/pro LePage storyline, especially as it pertained to the Good Will-Hinckley situation.

The conduct of an elected official matters, though, and LePage’s words have ripple effects, and this was one ripple I just couldn’t ignore.

Anyone else sick of hearing Gov. Paul LePage say something utterly … utterly … it’s hard to pick the right pejorative term. Utterly offensive? Utterly thoughtless? Utterly stupid? Utterly scary?

And are you sick of hearing him minimizing the intent and impact of his outrageous statements?

LePage’s latest comment to reporters about the state’s drug problem reminded Mainers they have the right to carry concealed weapons

“Load up and get rid of the drug dealers. Because, folks, they’re killing our kids,” he said.

When asked by a reporter if he was advocating vigilantism, LePage said no. The reporter should have then asked LePage, if not vigilantism, what exactly did he mean? And did he intend to appear to be doing an impression of Pacino in “Scarface?” I was waiting for the “Say hello to my little friend.”

It sure sounded like vigilantism to my 16-year-old son when he heard the quote on the radio on the way to school in the morning. He let out a shocked and serious, “whoa.” Then the teenager snark kicked in, and the “whoa” was followed by a very sarcastic, “go Governor LePage.”

The tone of my son’s voice when he let out the “whoa” was one I’ve only heard him use a handful of times in his entire life in response to very serious situations.

It’s a tone that tells me he’s genuinely disturbed by something.

It’s not easy to rattle my son. Teens, especially mine, are a pretty irreverent bunch. I’ve felt a twinge in my ears overhearing one-liners and analogies about everything from hard-ons to Hitler. My son and his friends tend to apply this loose sense of appropriateness to anyone.

I asked him how he thought LePage might expect people to know who was and who wasn’t dealing drugs — in my mind, it was a teachable moment, an opportunity to talk about the importance of the “innocent until proven guilty” aspect of our justice system. My son took the conversation in a totally different direction, though, when he replied, without hesitation, “if they’re black.”

Ouch. I hadn’t expected that response, at all. In my head I was picturing a sketchy neighborhood we lived in several years ago. I planned to use his memories of our neighbors (all white, not that it matters). I was going to ask him if he could have been sure which ones were heroin dealers, which ones were prostitutes, or which ones were people with substance use disorders, but not dealers, and what about dealers with substance abuse disorders, etc.

I was going to ask if he thought the average citizen was qualified to reach those conclusions in a way that resulted in someone’s death. Instead, for the first time, I heard my son say something that indicated he thought a fellow Mainer had a serious problem with racial bias. It was also the first time I stopped and seriously wondered about the impact LePage’s rhetoric is having on our kids.

My teenager is mixed-race but presents with fair skin. In other words, he presents as darn close to white or white. He’s white enough that when he complains about doing something I ask, and I don’t feel like arguing, I tell him to consider it his penance for being born into white privilege. (I’ve found the best way to handle irreverent snarky teens is to throw irreverent momma snark right back at them; plus they can’t argue when they are laughing.)

Whether or not LePage has intended to insert racial overtones into his campaign against drug dealers doesn’t change the outcome that, at least in my son’s mind, he has. The comment about arming against suspected drug dealers on the heels of LePage’s comment about drug dealers impregnating white girls is disturbing, and not just because LePage’s comments keep landing Maine in the national media spotlight.

The comment is disturbing because I’ve raised my children to avoid getting too ensnared in the whole race thing, so my boys are not the first to throw down the race card. My children were born in Maine, and we consider ourselves blessed to live in a state where people have always treated our mixed bag of skin tones so well. It’s disturbing that our governor is rattling my son’s perceptions with his thoughtless rhetoric.

LePage can say all he wants about the “white girls” comment being a slip of the tongue that didn’t imply racial overtones. And he can say that the media reads too much into his quotes and the fallout that surrounds them is the result of perceptions formed from misrepresentations. I have difficulty buying into this line of thinking.

Good leaders understand that perceptions of their messages are at least as important, if not more important than the actual message. Good leaders understand when they are being not only poor role models for children, but downright scary to children.

LePage’s obviously genuine concern about the addiction epidemic does not blanket him with some cloak of invincibility when it comes to his disturbing rhetoric — neither does having a black person in his family.

Further, even if I buy into the idea that there are no racial undertones to LePage’s comments, good leaders in a free state and nation with established systems of justice understand that vigilantism makes all people less safe — and the idea, if acted upon, would lead to a bottomless pit of possible culpability.

I mean, why stop at the suspected drug dealers, white or black? What about the doctors whose prescribing of prescription opiates played a role in making this mess? 

What about the folks at the FDA who bought into the idea that Oxycontin wasn’t highly addictive and the makers who convinced them of this? What about folks who won’t expand MaineCare, which would increase insurance access for some of the people I keep hearing about who want treatment but don’t have insurance? Do we know if any of the overdose deaths last year included anyone who tried to get treatment but was turned away for lack of insurance?

If LePage is going to raise the idea of vigilantism as pertaining to the addiction epidemic, where does the culpability trail end?

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.