Mural removal in Augusta leads to federal lawsuit
Last month, Governor Paul LePage (R-Maine) ordered that a 36-foot mural be removed from the Department of Labor’s lobby. This decision incited immediate outrage among labor representatives and concerned citizens. LePage’s removal of the mural, which depicts the state’s labor history, has prompted a statewide controversy and a federal lawsuit.
Artist Judy Taylor painted the mural in 2008. It consists of eleven panels depicting significant historical events and people in Maine, including the 1937 shoe mill strike in Auburn and Lewiston and "Rosie the Riveter" at the Bath Iron Works.
Charley Scontras, a labor historian at the University of Maine, developed the ideas for the scenes that were portrayed on the mural. The Governor has plans to donate the mural to a state museum.
In addition to replacing the mural, LePage also plans to rename several government conference rooms, that currently carry the monikers of famous pro-union figures. A bidding contest will be held to determine a replacement muralist and select new names for the conference rooms.
Dan Demeritt, former director of communications for LePage, explained that the administration felt that the images in the mural and the conference room monikers were inconsistent with the pro-business goals of Maine’s government.
“It is inappropriate for a taxpayer funded agency to appear to be one-sided,” Adrienne Bennett, another spokesperson for LePage, said in a press release.
According to Bennett, the decision to remove the mural reflects the department’s readiness to consider both employers’ and employees’ opinions. She emphasized that the Governor's Office has received "several messages" from the public complaining about the mural.
Taylor and other protesters argue that the mural is simply a representation of facts and contends that the LePage administration’s decision is inherently political.
“There was never any intention [on my part] to be pro-labor or anti-labor,” Taylor said in a press release.
Labor advocates have raised numerous objections about the government’s decision. Many contend that the removal of the mural represented a direct affront to unions. On April 2, a group of artists known as "BrokeFix" projected an image of the mural onto the state capitol's building. In response to a security guard’s inquiry about BrokeFix’s action, the group responded that they were simply “putting the mural back up.”
“[LePage was] elected to create jobs, not to be the state's interior decorator," Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the Maine People's Alliance, said in a press release.
Other labor advocates agree that it is not LePage’s job to dictate the aesthetics of the Department of Labor. "This is political payback, the opposite of putting people first,” Don Berry, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, said. “It's unfortunate that Governor LePage continues to pick fights with the working class.”
Amid protests, the LePage administration is concerned about its reputation in the state and the effects on the results of future elections. Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, acknowledges that the mural controversy is a “distraction we don’t need.”
LePage has reevaluated his decision, and while he still stands by his choice to remove the mural, he says that he should have waited until summer to announce his plans. “We and the people of the state of Maine need to get away from 'us and them,’” LePage said in a press release. “We have to be 'we,' a people, we have to do it together."