Sep 1, 2016
How a Brooklyn Comedian (almost) Made the Governor of Maine Resign
Andrew Ritchie is a Brooklyn-based tech entrepreneur and standup comedian. He’s also, as of last week, someone who’s set in motion a series of events that might lead to the resignation of Maine’s far-right governor, Paul LePage.
Just by asking a question at a town hall meeting, Ritchie got the governor to claim he had a three ring binder full of photos that proved “90 percent” the drug dealers arrested in Maine were black and Hispanic people from Brooklyn and the Bronx, who were driving all the way to Maine to corrupt his citizens. This prompted several people, including state Rep. Drew Gattine, to call LePage a racist. This, in turn, got LePage to leave Gattine a voicemail calling him “a little son of a bitch, socialist cocksucker,” before finishing, “I’m after you. Thank you.”
According to an interview on Tuesday, with Bangor talk radio station WVOM, he’s “looking at all options,” saying, “If I’ve lost my ability to help Maine people, maybe it’s time to move on.” Then, on Wednesday, he said he’d never speak to a reporter again, then promising he wouldn’t resign. Who knows what tomorrow holds.
This all started with Ritchie (full disclosure: a friend of mine), who, on vacation, thought he’d check in on a town hall meeting. He asked the governor, “Given the rhetoric you put out there about people of color in Maine, calling them drug dealers et cetera, how can I bring a company here given the toxic environment you create?”
We caught up with him to see how this all got started.
Why were you in Maine?
I was just in Maine visiting my friend Jamie, who’s also a comedian.
We did some shows in Maine as well while I was there. We were mostly relaxing and talking about comedy, catching up. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years. He’d been going to these LePage town halls for months because Governor LePage doesn’t talk to the press. He uses these town halls instead of, what would be the term for like when a politician meets with the press?
Like a press conference?
Yeah, and he doesn’t do press conferences. He does town halls instead. Jamie’s been going to these because Jamie believes that LePage does the town halls because he doesn’t want to receive critical questions. To ask a question at the town hall, you have to write it down on a sheet of paper, like a worksheet or something. It’s like applying to ask the question. One of the things that Jamie was saying to me is to ask a question at this town hall, you have to write down the softball, and then say what you mean.
Why does your friend Jamie care? Why does he go to all these things?
He’s a Maine resident and is very politically active. I care a lot about politics, too. I worked for Obama for America. I’ve worked for the Oregon Democratic Party. I’ve worked for 1199 at CIU, which is a big union here in New York.
Can you play the scene out for me a little bit? Where is a town hall with an asshole Maine governor? Is it at a middle school auditorium?
It’s a high school auditorium. We drove about an hour. We were in Westbrook, Maine, outside of Portland, and we had to drive an hour to North Berwick. It was at the high school in North Berwick.
We get there, and to give you the idea of the production quality and the attention to detail that Governor LePage’s staff has, there was an empty Gatorade bottle on stage the entire time. Like off to stage right, there’s this Gatorade bottle.
Were there a lot of people there or not a lot of people?
I would guess there were about fifty people. First of all, he has the event at six o’clock. He makes it an inconvenient time.
Like if you work, you probably can’t go.
Yeah, if you work you can’t go, especially if it’s in some random town.
He does them like every week or two, so they’re regular things, and they’re not going to get a big crowd because you’re in a small town at an hour where a lot of people are still at work or just got off work.
Can you tell me, do you remember like your made up softball question was that you wanted to ask that you said you were going to ask?
Jamie and I discussed this. Since he’s been doing this longer than I have since this is the only time I’ve been to one of these meetings, his philosophy on it was write down something close to what you’re going to ask, but not phrase it as critically as you perhaps want to say it once you have the mic in front of you. The softball questions was, so we were focused on the economy, hence like, how can I bring my company here.
Is that something you were even considering doing?
Absolutely not. But Maine’s nice.
Were you the only person of color there?
I looked around to check. There might have been one other person. Ethnicity’s weird, right. Sometimes a white person looks really dark. I think that there was one other person that looked vaguely not white.
So, it’s your turn. You’re coming up to the mic. How are feeling? Are you feeling like I don’t know if I can go through with this? Are you feeling like I’m so fucking pumped that it’s my turn? Are you feeling like I’m going to cause trouble for all these nice people?
I didn’t think I was going to cause trouble for any nice people. At worst, I’m causing trouble for a really terrible person.
The way the town hall works is the governor gives some prepared remarks, and then they open it up for questioning. I think there were one or two questions before mine. I remember them being pretty, at least the first question was very right wing. It was complaining about immigrants in Maine. Either I was the next question or I don’t remember the second question.
It’s so early in the Q & A to have to go because you haven’t really established what this Q & A is like.
Yeah. I didn’t really know what it was like. Also, in my head, I’m a little distracted and not paying full attention to what’s going on because as soon as the Q & A starts, I’m thinking about what I plan on saying and getting it right. I was actually really nervous. That might sound normal, but I did three stand up sets in Maine while I was there. I do comedy regularly here. I’ve done a show at the Bell House, that there were at least a couple hundred people there. I feel jittery before going out to perform, but I don’t feel nervous the way I felt in this moment. I was thinking about that a lot. I think it’s because I’m used to saying things that I think people want to hear. If someone shows up to a comedy show, they want to laugh. If I can make them laugh, then I’m doing a good job. I have this real fear because I was about to say something that could make a lot of people upset. Also, I’m one of maybe two non-white people in the room.
To back up a little bit. Did you know anything about the governor, other than your friend telling you, “Oh this governor’s such an asshole.” Were you familiar with him before this?
I was familiar with him because Jamie posts about him on Facebook all the time. I was familiar with him because my friend makes these social media posts and is like, “This guy is our terrible governor.” Basically, I spent some time talking with Jamie and had heard other things from Jamie, and news reports that Jamie had posted about this guy, and then I also spent some time on my own, so I wasn’t totally going off of my friend.
I got additional context by reading some more. It felt like, yeah, this is really a guy I would want to cause trouble for.If you Google Paul LePage, you find he said that there are drug dealers named Smoothie, D-Money, and Shifty, that are black and Hispanic, bringing drugs into Maine. That’s so absurd. I’m sure there must be some people bringing drugs into Maine, but his comments are such a caricature of the actual issue. The fact that he chooses to target these fictionalized people of color, and make this racialized caricature. He’s a horrible person. That’s terrible. Who does that?
With that, with knowing that he said these things, I felt comfortable from an ideological perspective and a political agitator perspective. I also felt insanely nervous.
It’s your moment. They’re looking you in the eye, I presume. You’re asking your questions.
It’s weird because you’re not quite looking him in the eye because this woman holds the mic for you. She didn’t hold it in the right spot.
They don’t hand it to you, they hold it in front of you?
Yeah, she holds it. She doesn’t want someone to take the mic, so she holds the mic with both hands, really tight. You can see that she doesn’t lose control of it.
You say what you want to say, and then what?
I ask my question, which is objectively, like, not that hostile.
No, it wasn’t hostile. To read about it, it’s like, that seems pretty reasonable as far as questions go.
He immediately got angry. He started complaining. He said, “Ever since I said whatever, people are calling me a racist.” Well, first of all, I didn’t call him racist, and I clarified that. He said, “People are calling me a racist.” Then he goes on this spiel that ended up in the papers the next day where he says, “Ninety-five percent” or whatever the number, “Ninety percent of drug dealers arrested in Maine are people of color coming over from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.” That’s his thing. First of all, he didn’t answer my question, and he says, “I’m not a racist” at the end. My response was I didn’t call you a racist. I said you created an environment where racists feel comfortable, and those numbers sound like racial profiling.
If ninety-five percent of people are arrested for it, that’s because you’re looking to arrest any black person that you see.
It sounds like it, yeah. That was one of the angles the ACLU picked up on the next day.
It’s also not actually true. There was another article. In the moment, I don’t have those numbers in front of me. It’s like okay, if you insist this, I don’t have empirical evidence to the contrary, but it sounds a little fishy. Then actually NPR [affiliate WBAU] wrote an article, saying, “No, actually, those numbers aren’t accurate.” When he said something about the ninety percent, he says he has a binder full of their photos and that I’m welcome to look at it.
When I brought up the profiling thing, he backed down a little bit, but he backed down in a race baiting way, and said, “Well, you know, there’s one or two white girls in there, too.” It’s just like, what kind of mugshots are these that are like, well, we arrested the two of you together, so you’re the mugshot together. What he said doesn’t even make sense, but also it was clearly race baiting with this idea that, he’s done this before, he said, “There are people of color coming to Maine to impregnate white women.” That’s one of his things to prey on the idea that white women are victims.
I’ll just put it out there that if you’re a drug dealer in the greater New York area that wants to impregnate a white woman, you don’t have to drive to Maine. That’s like a ten hour drive.
That’s a long way.
You could do it in New York.
You can. It’s true.
He kicked you out of the meeting. How did that happen?
That didn’t happen yet.
I settled down. There was a back and forth about the racial profiling and clarifying that I didn’t call him racist. That went on for a second, and finally they’re like, “This question’s been answered.” It’s like, well, it hasn’t been answered actually.
The woman had already taken the mic away, but it’s such a small auditorium that it doesn’t matter. If you speak loudly, the attention’s on you. You’re not going to be ignored. If you’re speaking to the governor, whether there’s a mic in front of you or not, or you’re speaking at all whether there’s a mic in front of you or not, it’s loud enough that it’s going to be a distraction.
He’s obviously worked up talking to you.
He was very worked up, yeah, very worked up.
All it took was this pretty straightforward question to make him furious at you.
Yeah. If you have any professionalism or any ability, any political tact at all, you could defuse that.
He couldn’t even put out bullshit platitudes. It immediately went to, “I’m really angry.” I have a back and forth, and I’m aware that you can get kicked out because Jamie has been kicked out several times before. I’m like, okay. Let’s not get kicked out yet. They continue on, and the next question’s about bear traps.
Oh and his joke about bear traps was great. The lady’s asking the bear trap question. They thought there were too many bear traps, and they were worried about the bears. LePage’s response was, “I think some animals get treated better than humans in this state.” It’s like, I agree! I’ll get on board with that statement. Then they try to end the meeting, like they’re like, “The governor will now give his closing remarks.” The other thing that people should know about this is Jamie and I aren’t sitting together because Jamie’s a known agitator. One of the things that we had to do as we’re preparing, Jamie told me, “Look, I’m going to drop you off outside the high school. Do your best not to be seen with me. Go in. I’ll come in separately later, and we can’t sit together. We’re pretending we don’t know each other.”
Did you make any friends at the meeting before you started agitating because you were sitting next to strangers?
No. I sat on my own. Maybe I should’ve sat down and talked to someone. It would’ve made a better story, but I was so nervous.
… And confused as to what role I was playing. Worrying about all those things, I wasn’t in the mood to chit chat. Also, everyone’s older. It’s mostly older people. I don’t know what I would bring up. I could totally blow my cover too at that point. I doubt anyone would care, but it could be very obvious that I’m not who I appear to be, ie, a resident of Maine. I don’t know. I just want to keep it cool. I don’t want to screw anything up. They try to close the meeting, and the governor says he’s going to make his closing remarks. At that point, Jamie speaks up and says, “Excuse me. I had a question that no one gave me a chance to ask.” They know Jamie. They know him by name. They say, “Jamie, you’re always here. You’re being disruptive. Please don’t be disruptive.”
He says, “I don’t know how I could not be disruptive because I wrote down a question, and I submitted a question. I haven’t been given a chance to ask it. I’m a resident of Maine. I attend these meetings. If you won’t let me read my question, what am I supposed to do other than be disruptive?” Which is a good argument. They say, “Okay. Jamie, if you will just sit down, my aid will read your question.” Jamie’s question boiled down to there had been a Trump rally in Maine a week or two prior, and Trump, at this rally, made some remarks that were anti-Somali immigrant. There’s a Somali immigrant community in Maine, and Trump made some comments that were, I can’t remember what they were exactly, but he made some offensive comments. He might’ve said that they were bringing disease.
The thing I love about Donald Trump is that’s so specific, like against Somali refugees.
Yeah, so his researchers are good. They’re like, these are the people that you can offend.
These are the people that local people hate.
There’s already tensions with these immigrant groups. Why don’t you come in as the Republican nominee and insult them and get people riled.
Trump makes this comment about the Somali immigrants, and apparently, LePage was on stage with Trump. Basically the gist of what Jamie was saying is, why didn’t you denounce Trump’s racism against the people of your state.
Yeah, and LePage dodges. He said that Trump has First Amendment rights. He can say whatever he wants.
Again, that does not answer the question.
You have First Amendment rights to say, well I disagree with that. That’s what I’d say. Please don’t say that the residents in my state are bringing disease.
So, he dodges the question. He refuses to denounce Trump’s racism. Jamie keeps pressing the issue. When LePage won’t answer the question, Jamie keeps speaking up, keeps following up. Finally, they’re like, “You have to leave.” As soon as Jamie started talking, there were cops and staff were surrounding him.
Like they were ready, immediately. They were like, “We’re going to have to do something.”
What is Jamie, what is this person like? How old is he?
He’s thirty. I went to college with him.
Is he like a hippie, like a rabble-rouser? Does he come in a suit? What is his presentation?
I think he usually comes in a suit, but he said that he was going to dress like a normal person for once. He’s like, people don’t come to these. He just wore a t-shirt and jeans. He said started wearing suits to these events, I think, because he thought it looks better to get kicked out in a suit rather than, I don’t know, camo.
Oh sure. So, Jamie’s getting told and told to leave.
Jamie’s getting told to leave.
How do you get roped into that?
Well, Jamie gets asked to leave, and then the whole conversation has been about LePage’s refusal to denounce racism. I just said, excuse me, this ties right back into what I was saying earlier. They’re like, “All right, you’re out too.” That’s all it took. This is right back to the American procedure. They’re like, look, we’re not denouncing racism. We’re kicking out the only black guy, and we’re not answering your questions. I’m escorted out by one or two police officers and members of LePage’s staff. I got applause, which is great. I got some high fives leaving, leading to the door too.
Are these people escorting you out vaguely what then? Like this guy is our boss. He’s making us do this, like you’re a human being and I feel bad about doing this.
No, they’re pretty happy to get me out of there. No one tried to rough me up or anything. No one put their hands on me. They just walked.
Someone did follow me out. Someone that I felt intimidated by.
Like a LePage supporter?
Yeah. I can’t be certain, but this big guy followed me out and yelled at me, “What’s your business?” Which I’m assuming he’s asking what my business in New York is, but he said it, and I would’ve told him if he was asking nicely that I have a software development consultancy in Brooklyn, but I was afraid of this guy. He wasn’t like, hey sir. I’m also in the Brooklyn area. I’m also an entrepreneur, like what’s your business. It’s like, what’s your business sir.
That also means what’s your fucking beef.
Yeah, it could be that too.
How did you feel when it started to be covered in the press the next day? Were you surprised? Were you not surprised?
No, we weren’t surprised. I think Jamie expected it. The press covers the town halls. It was a particularly disruptive town hall because people got kicked out. The things that LePage said were pretty crazy. It was like, well we were hoping that it would get covered. We’re like, okay, that was the intended outcome. That was the idea. That’s the idea of being there. You’re like, this guy is Maine’s Donald Trump. He flies off the handle. He says stupid things. If we can come up with some good questions and criticize him, and he runs from criticism. He won’t talk to the press. One of the funny things about his total avoidance of the press is, apparently, they got a quote from him the next day, the local papers.
They had to corner him leaving lunch or returning from lunch. It was like, he’s out of the building. We have to make it physically impossible for him not to answer our question. This is the way to shape the press coverage of LePage, to show up at the town hall meeting and ask him critical questions. The idea was this should be covered. We weren’t surprised. We were pleasantly surprised that ACLU picked up on the LePage’s comments and pressed the issue and doubled down on the potential racial profiling angle. They also filed a Freedom of Information Request for the binder that he described. Which is great because either he has to supply it or say, well okay, I was just saying that we have binder. I was just saying we have it. He said, “I have this binder.” He said, “And you can come see it.”
Since then, it’s just continued to grow, right, until the Times this weekend. How has that been for you?
At this point, I’m no longer directly involved. It feels like I started a fire. That’s a bad metaphor. I mean that’s a good one because usually you don’t want to start a fire, but this guy, I would like to see this guy burn down. It seems like I started it. I needled this guy or started a fire, and he’s just out of control now. It seems like he has the thinnest skin of any human possible. Just a little prodding just turned him into a seven year old in the midst of a tantrum. It’s just been fun to watch. It’s terrible, but it is really fun to watch. For the next couple of days and even today, it’s like, did he say anything? What else did he say? Because by Friday, on Friday LePage said, “In war, you shoot the enemy. You’re wearing blue. They’re wearing red. You shoot the guy that’s wearing red. Here in Maine, the enemy are people of color and Latinos.” He said that. Did you know that?
Oh my God.
Now people, now they’re calling for his resignation.
Has this whole thing been inspiring to you in a weird way because the thing everybody says who’s our age is, “Politics is bullshit and no one can make a difference. It’s all rigged.” By doing a very simple bit of civic participation, you’ve caused a very big bunch of trouble for someone. Has that been weirdly inspirational?
It’s weird. I was never one of those nobody can get anything done people. It is still hard to get things done. I was a slightly disaffected political person, but not entirely. I told you that I worked in politics a lot. I also left because of how hard it was to get things done. I’m in this weird position, and I never entirely believed that was impossible, but I did believe it’s tough. Am I inspired? Yeah, I would say I’m inspired. It’s hard to see it scaling. It’s hard to have that opportunity and to have someone who’s frankly so bad at what he’s trying to accomplish. It was really, really easy to set him up in that way.
You might also like
Introducing the inaugural Brooklyn Magazine Festival, June 15-18
Introducing the inaugural Brooklyn Magazine Festival, June 15-18
The Divine Delights of An Italian Holiday in Sicily