Did You Shave This Morning? Maine's Governor Stars on his own Chemical Industry Dream Team

One reason that elections, whether mid-terms or presidential years, are interesting (and important) is that they usually lead to a new crop of Governors across the country.   And, each time you shuffle the deck, you stand a good chance of sifting in a few wild cards.  Some people like to keep track of the Governors, because so many of them seem to think of themselves as prime Presidential candidate material (and, they do indeed bear watching for that reason).  But I’m more interested in watching the other race, the one to see which of the nation’s Governors distinguishes him or herself and gains national attention and notoriety based upon:

extreme and/or misguided policies (substance);

provocative and/or odd pronouncements (professional behavior);

questionable relationships or actions of one sort or another (personal behavior).

What is great about this particular contest is that it is truly, completely bi-partisan; there is no automatic exclusion based on race, gender, sexual preference or religious affiliation; and all regions of the country are eligible to be represented.  As a result of the last elections, a few regulars in the Governor’s Gambit for unwanted and unflattering national attention have now left their state mansions and moved on to other endeavors, leaving room at the top for ambitious freshmen, rejuvenated incumbents, or even sitting Governors that to date have kept a low profile but are ready to make their move.

There is no question that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been fast out of the box and onto the nation’s collective radar by virtue of his hardball quest to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights (including, presumably, the right to negotiate on the safety of their workplace conditions, such as exposure to toxic chemicals).  And, whatever the outcome of this current showdown, he has certainly gained a measure of immortality simply by virtue of his recorded conversation with a blogger posing as anti-environmental billionaire David Koch.

But, despite the attention currently directed toward Wisconsin, I want to make sure that a promising self-starter gets his due, by tipping my hat in acknowledgment to the startling words and outrageous actions of the new Governor of Maine, Paul Le Page.  Although it is still early in the new political season, I’m going to go out on a limb and call it: Governor LePage is the Blake Griffin of the new class of Governors. And, based on his early stats, he has Hall of Fame potential: I’m saying he could be putting up Mark Sanford or Rod Blagojevich-type numbers in his first (and, perhaps only) term.  He’s that good.

Let’s go to the videotape:

Almost as soon as he took office, Governor LePage announced his intention to kill a nearly-final rule in Maine to ban the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles, sippy cups and cans of infant formula.  That pending action stems from a 3-year old state law, the “Kid-Safe Products Act” which requires the state to identify chemicals of concern, and prioritize them for phase out and replacement with safer alternatives .  The Governor clearly knew that rolling back landmark legislation to protect the health of children in the Pine Tree State, particularly in light of its passage with overwhelming bi-partisan support (it was unanimous in the state Senate and 129 to 9 in favor in the House), was going to take a team effort.  So he wasted no time in appointing the Chemical Industry’s lobbyist in the state who had worked in opposition to the safer products law and the rule banning uses of BPA, to be the Deputy Commissioner at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.  Sweet cross-over move Governor!

But that is just one part of the Governor’s effort to build a chemical industry dream team to help set his agenda for eliminating state-based health protections. As the Boston Phoenix recently reported, the co-chair of the Governor’s transition team, and his head advisor on “Regulatory Reform” Ann Robinson, is the head of the lobbying group for a major corporate law firm in Maine.  While advising the Governor, she is also working as a lobbyist for, among others, the Toy Industry Association of America, and pharmaceutical giant Merck (both of which opposed passage of the Kids-Safe Products Act and fought the BPA rule). Hiring the chemical industry’s top lobbyists to come into the government to rollback state laws and rules to protect the public from toxic chemicals – the man has got mad skills!

But he didn’t stop there.  Last week the rookie phenom also showed he can trash talk like a pro.  Governor LePage had this to say on the public’s concern about the health effects of BPA:  “Quite frankly, the science that I’m looking at says there is no [problem]. There hasn’t been any science that identifies that there is a problem. The only thing that I’ve heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards.”  Of course, if the Governor really understood science, he would know that exposure to an estrogen-like chemical, such as BPA, will not result in women growing beards, but it might result in men growing little breasts (sorry, no link here).  Would he have a problem with that?  I wonder if his grandson would.

One of the things I really admire about this play is that the Governor was quick to back up his provocative and odd remarks (that’s a 2-fer) with some pseudo-science talking points that sound like they were hand-delivered by a chemical industry lobbyist…, or by the new Deputy Commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Protection.  When Governor LePage said “the science that I’m looking at says…” he is probably referring to the two studies that the chemical industry has been relying upon for the last five years or so to argue for the safety of BPA, even though they have been heavily criticized for their serious methodological flaws.  He has already mastered the chemical industry’s playbook! 

Now, the chemical industry isn’t only making a play to prevent any regulation of BPA or other toxic chemicals in Maine.  That is just one part of the industry’s larger state and federal strategy to protect the market for BPA, and oppose regulation at all costs, even for the highest sources of exposure for the most vulnerable population (infants and children).  This was made clear almost two years ago (how time flies) when notes from a chemical industry meeting (which also included several major food conglomerates and their trade association, the Grocery Manufacturers of America) were leaked to the press. And, just this past November, the industry successfully killed a bi-partisan agreement to include a ban on the use of BPA In baby bottles and sippy cups in the federal Food Safety bill.

In the memo that was leaked to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Washington Post, the industry identified their “holy grail” as a pregnant mom that would talk about how safe BPA is.  Their second choice was a credible scientist that would be willing to assert that BPA is safe. So far, the chemical industry hasn’t found its holy grail, or its scientific beard. 

But, while they are waiting, they have to be excited about the rookie Governor who has already brought the chemical industry’s lobbyists into his inner circle, and has demonstrated he isn’t afraid to make fun of people (and many, many scientists) who are concerned about toxic chemicals causing cancer, or harming their children and grandchildren.

Take it from me: Governor LePage is one to watch.  He could be the total package.

P.S. To find out the latest on the fight to maintain protections from Toxic Chemicals in Maine, visit the website of the Environmental Health Strategy Center at www.preventharm.org