Mural protesters say they'll fight governor's removal order
By Steve Mistler, Staff Writer
Published Mar 26, 2011 12:00 am | Last updated Mar 25, 2011 11:45 pm
AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage says he's found a new home for the disputed 36-foot mural hanging at the Maine Department of Labor.
But an artist who helped organize a large protest Friday at the department's headquarters says his group will fight to keep the artwork where it is.
LePage said his office was working on a deal to temporarily relocate the mural to Portland City Hall. The move would have to be OK'd by the Portland City Council, which will take up the issue at its April 4 meeting.
The deal was brokered by Rep. Ben Chipman, an independent lawmaker from Portland. However, it's unclear whether Portland's City Council will accept the mural.
Portland Mayor Nick Mavodones said he was wary of the council being seen as "enabling" the governor's decision to remove the display. He also acknowledged that the fight unfolding in Augusta could suddenly shift to Portland.
"There will be a crowd of people and some will tell us not to take it," he said.
There's also a political component. The nine-member council is supposed to be a nonpolitical body, but its members traditionally disclose their party affiliation and advance policy in keeping with party ideology.
The council includes five Democrats, three Green Independents and one Republican.
Councilor David Marshall, a Green, participated in Friday's protest at the Department of Labor.
The gathering drew about 250 people who filled both ends of the wide hallways that flank the mural. The rally was organized by artists and attended by organized labor representatives.
Several carried signs holding the names of 146 workers who died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the blaze. (See story, Page B8).
The mural references that tragedy and depicts several other prominent national and local labor figures such as former federal Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who has connections to Maine and is buried in Newcastle.
Robert Shetterly, an artist from Brooksville, said the protest was organized in about 24 hours. He promised another "nonviolent" event if the governor proceeded with the removal effort.
Shetterly said the mural represents Maine's labor history and should stay where it is.
"We've determined it's going to stay right here," Shetterly said.
LePage, however, appears intent on moving the 11-panel mural elsewhere because he believes it's hostile to business and doesn't balance the historical contributions of industry.
His decision has made national news and drawn the ire of unions, artists and Democrats who say he's provoking a fight with organized labor amid pending legislation that could weaken unions' political power.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said he was stunned that the LePage administration would try to scrub the Labor Department of Maine's worker history, particularly given the governor's French Canadian heritage.
Several of the images in the mural reference French Canadian millworkers.
"You don't want to lift your leg on the working people of Maine and the people who built this great state, and that's including the French community," Gerzofsky said.
He added, "We all know that the French community was held down to a lower class. This governor, above all others, should know what it's like. He worked his way up. He's got to remember what it was like. He can't just now think that he's going to make these edicts to get rid of these paintings."
Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, said the governor has never seen the mural in person, only in photos. She said the mural's removal was originally proposed by John Butera, a senior staff member.
Bennett said there was some debate among senior staff about whether removing it was appropriate.
"The timing (of the removal announcement) was unfortunate," said Bennett, referring to ongoing tension between the administration and organized labor.
Republicans are also questioning the governor's decision to make the mural an issue.
Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said Friday that he supported the governor's agenda but said the mural issue "was a distraction we don't need. I'm worried about changing the state," Webster said. "I'm not worried about what pictures are hanging on the wall."
LePage on Friday announced he was seeking artwork submissions to replace the mural.
A spokesman for the governor said the mural would remain in the Labor Department until it finds a new home.