BOSTON >> Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a second-term Republican who has become a lightning rod in the debate over drugs and race, did not shy away Monday from his suggestion that black and Hispanic drug dealers from other parts of New England are fueling the opioid epidemic in his home state, expanding his list of exporters to include two Massachusetts border cities - Lowell and Lawrence.
LePage, visiting the Bay State for a conference with other New England governors and Canadian premiers, linked the heroin and fentanyl epidemic in his state to drug dealers crossing the border from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
He also told the News Service that while white people in Maine are being arrested for drug crimes, they tend to be related to methamphetamines, while black and Hispanic offenders are responsible for the bulk of the opioid trade.
His comments drew a sharp rebuke from Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy at the conclusion of the conference after LePage had long left the Hynes Convention Center. Gov. Charlie Baker offered a more muted response without directly addressing the charge that Lowell and Lawrence are at the epicenter of the heroin crisis.
"Nobody wants to listen," LePage told the News Service in an interview between panel talks. "What I said was this: Meth lab arrests are white. They're Mainers. The heroin-fentanyl arrests are not white people. They're Hispanic and they're black and they're from Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx and Brooklyn. I didn't make up the rules. That's how it turns out. But that's a fact. It's a fact. What? Do you want me to lie?"
LePage had previously identified Connecticut and New York as the source of drugs entering Maine, but expanded the landscape to include the two former industrial mill cities along the northern border of Massachusetts.
LePage sparked outrage around the country last week when he said "90 percent plus" of drug dealer arrests in Maine were black and Hispanic. After a local Democratic state representative challenged the racially charged comments, LePage left a profanity-lace voicemail for Maine state Rep. Drew Gattine.
During a press conference with four of the six New England governors and Canadian premiers at the conclusion of Monday's conference, Malloy called it a "tremendous mistake" by LePage to make the opioid epidemic a racial issue.
"I think it is a great disservice to look at this as a racial issue. It is not. It should not be confused as one and we need to be careful about not mixing race into this particular issue," Malloy said.
The Connecticut Democrat said he had asked "someone" to research drug trafficking incarceration rates in Maine, and found that as of last Friday there were four Asians, seven unknown, eight Native Americans, 12 biracial, 90 black inmates and 301 white people serving sentences for trafficking crimes.
Baker did not directly address the question of whether drug dealers from Lowell and Lawrence were traveling to Maine to sell heroin and fentanyl, but said the governors did discuss whether an effort should be made to reach out to the federal government for help to fight trafficking.
"I said many, many, many times this issue knows no neighborhood, it knows no race, it knows no class. It's as pervasive as anything I've ever seen in my 30 years in health care and I think we're doing a lot of the right things with respect to prevention, education and treatment-recovery, all of us across the New England region, but there are probably some additional things we should be doing with respect to interdiction and collaboration and I look forward to working with my colleagues on that," Baker said.
LePage and Baker are the only two Republicans currently serving as governors in the six New England states, but the two men are not exactly cut from the same cloth.
While the uncensored LePage has often clashed with Democratic legislators in his home state and is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, Baker has forged strong working relationships with the Democrat-controlled Legislature in Boston and refuses to support the GOP presidential nominee.
Prior to his most recent comments, LePage said last week's controversy did not come up when the governors spoke privately about how to partner to fight the drug epidemic in New England.
"Not at all," LePage told the News Service. "And why is it my comments and not the comments he made to me? I called him things that I'm very comfortable with. He called me a racist. That's the worst thing you can call a human being, so why is it my comments?"
LePage said he and the other New England governors will need help from the federal government to fight drug trafficking.
"I think we're collectively all in agreement that it's time that the federal government comes in and helps us," LePage said. "It's an interstate commerce commission issues, interstate transfer it's an IRS issues. I think it's a national problem. It's a national problem and I don't see how the federal government can expect us to just resolve it on our own."
He added, "The crimes that are being committed are federal crimes, but the individual states have to incarcerate these folks. That's the big problem."
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is running for U.S. Senate, said government needs a "comprehensive approach" to address both the supply and demand sides of the drug crisis. "We all know that we need a comprehensive approach that addresses both the supply and the demand side," Hassan said.
"This is one of those moments where it doesn't matter which side of the border you're on. It doesn't matter which state you're in. It doesn't matter which walk of life you're from. This impacts everyone," Hassan said.
Hassan said that local and state police already work together across borders and with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to fight the drug trade, but could do more.
"We think we could improve that collaboration and really have an even more comprehensive approach, but at the end of the day we will stem and reverse the tide of this epidemic and we will beat it as we all continue to do it together," Hassan said.