During a town hall meeting in Bridgton, Maine, on Wednesday, Republican Gov. Paul LePage accused out-of-state drug dealers – "guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty" – of impregnating “young white” girls before they leave the state.
He made no further descriptions of the race of these supposed drug dealers, but critics were quick to say that Governor LePage was painting a picture in voter’s minds with connotations of negative racial stereotypes.
"This is one of the most blatantly racist statements he's ever made," moderate Republican Lance Dutson, former chief executive officer of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, told the Associated Press. "One of the things that's offensive about it is that it's reminiscent of this fearmongering in American history that people would like to think is long gone."
Michael Alpert, president of the NAACP’s Bangor chapter, called LePage’s comments "sad" and "foolish."
The LePage administration insists that the governor's comments were not intended to be racial. LePage's chief of communications, Peter Steele, insisted the governor wasn't talking about race when he made the comment. "Race is irrelevant," LePage's chief of communications, Peter Steele, told AP in an email. "What is relevant is the cost to state taxpayers for welfare and the emotional costs for these kids who are born as a result of involvement with drug traffickers. His heart goes out to these kids because he had a difficult childhood, too. We need to stop the drug traffickers from coming into our state."
Heroin use has been on the rise in many US communities for the past decade, up 62 percent from 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. The increase has been particularly pronounced among whites, women, and young people. Many users are believed to have turned to heroin after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin. In many cases, crackdowns on misuse of pills has driven users to the streets in search of alternatives.
Maine has been especially hit hard by the opiate scourge: the number of people who died from a heroin overdose has jumped from just 7 in 2011 to 57 in 2014, the Portland Press Herald reported in August.
The lack of state funding for treatment programs has also placed the state in a difficult position. In May of 2015, Mercy Recovery Center, one of Maine’s largest treatment centers for heroin use, announced that it would be closing. Some of the center’s detoxification services have continued, but its outpatient services have been significantly cut back.
In the fall, a task force was created to assess paths forward for tackling Maine’s drug concerns, with an emphasis on law enforcement and curbing out-of-state dealers.
“Law enforcement is not interested in filling county jails with drug users,” Public Safety Commissioner John Morris told the Portland Press Herald in October. “We must hunt down the dealers.”
But critics contended that treatment centers must also be part of the path forward, and without the proper funding for the needed care, there is a risk that many people will end up relapsing.
“It's frustrating not to be able to get people services who desperately want it,” Dr. Mary Dowd, the medical director at Milestone Foundation, a detox center in Portland, told NPR.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.