AP

A massive portrait depicting Maine's embattled Republican governor Paul LePage as a member of the Ku Klux Klan has spurred a furious debate over the limits of free speech and public art in a city known for its progressive bent.

For the past 15 years, artists have been given free rein to paint the wall alongside a Portland, ME wastewater treatment plant. In that time, the Portland Water District, which owns the surface, has never removed or repainted any art that's gone up, a company spokeswoman told the Portland Press Herald. However, after an anonymous artist or artists painted LePage in KKK regalia, some city officials have begun wondering if a line has been crossed.

Advertisement

"Comparing the governor to the Grand Wizard is a step too far for me," Mayor Ethan Strimling told local NBC affiliate WCSH.

But, Strimling explained, his objection to this particular piece of public art is more than just a question of free speech.  Strimling told the station. "The Ku Klux Klan in this country played a role that should be minimized."

Strimling isn't alone. On Tuesday evening, WCSH reported that the satirical portrait had been covered over in white paint by incensed LePage supporters, only to have their efforts washed away by another group. Speaking with the Herald, local neighborhood association president Jay Norris explained that while he agrees "with the sentiment, it is the depiction I disagree with." Norris argued that the bike and jogging path which runs alongside the wall upon which the mural was painted is used by people of all ages who should not have to "suffer the glaring, scary image of an enormous Ku Klux Klansman."

Advertisement

According to the Herald, the Portland Water District is in talks with the city over what, if any, action it should take in response to the graffiti.

LePage has a longstanding reputation for blunt, and often offensive rhetoric. In January, former KKK leader David Duke defended him after he used flatly racist language to describe drug dealers. LePage is currently embroiled in a series of scandals stemming from recent remarks in which he declared people of color "the enemy" in Maine's war on drugs. Following that statement, LePage left a bizarre voicemail for Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine, a state lawmaker, following a local news report which suggested Gattine had been among those accusing the Governor of racism. On it, LePage demanded Gattine "prove that I'm a racist" and proceeded to call him a "cocksucker," and "son of a bitch" before insisting the tape be made public.

Gattine did just that, prompting LePage to declare he would no longer speak to the press. In the wake of this scandal, Maine lawmakers from both parties began voicing concerns over LePage's ability to govern.

Tuesday's artistic back-and-forth over the installation resulted in a slight alteration to LePage's KKK depiction, in which he was modified to be wearing Mickey Mouse ears. The words "No Hate" and "Hate is Hate" were written around his head.

Speaking with the Herald, Portland resident Kellie Smith was not put off by the controversial graffiti.

"This city always seems to create great art over awful stuff," she explained. "And he is awful stuff."