March 14, 2013

In heat of concealed carry debate, LePage administration woos pro-gun media

Boston and New York personalities among those to be courted

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage's administration sought exposure for LePage and his pro-gun stance on conservative national and regional talk shows as a public frenzy exploded about requests for the names of Maine concealed-weapon permit holders.

click image to enlarge

Adrienne Bennett, Gov. Paul LePage's press secretary, answers questions during a news conference on Friday March 1, at the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed-carry permit in a photo posted to his Twitter account. "If newspapers want to know who has concealed weapons permits, they should know I do," LePage tweeted.

Contributed photo

LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, sent two emails on Feb. 14 earmarked for talk show hosts sympathetic to gun owners in the national debate on gun violence.

The first message was sent to an associate producer at Fox News in New York City, with a request to forward it to national television political commentator Bill O'Reilly. The second was sent to Boston conservative radio host Howie Carr, who aired a segment condemning the Bangor Daily News for making a Freedom of Access Act request for the permit information.

MaineToday Media obtained the emails under an FOAA request to the governor's office for public records related to the concealed-weapon controversy. The Bangor newspaper's request generated a withering backlash from gun owners and activists, prompting the Legislature to enact an emergency bill making the permit information secret for 60 days.

Lawmakers are debating legislation that would take the information permanently off the public record -- for the first time since 1981.

The MaineToday request yielded more than 500 pages of emails sent to and from administration staff during the six-day controversy. Most of the emails were from activists and constituents expressing outrage or fear that the Bangor newspaper intended to publish the concealed weapons data.

MaineToday Media includes the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers.

Others showed how the administration scrambled to get the temporary ban.

The emails from LePage's spokeswoman, Bennett, to Carr and Fox News producer Daniel Hillsdon reveal that the administration saw a political opportunity amid the backlash.

Both emails contained a defiant press statement from LePage, who said, "If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the governor has his." The messages also contained a link to the governor's Twitter post, which included a photo of him brandishing his permit for the camera.

"Wondering if you can pass this along to Bill O'Reilly's folks?" Bennett wrote to Hillsdon. "Very interesting!"

Twelve minutes later, Bennett emailed Carr directly.

"It's been awhile since you've chatted with Governor LePage," she wrote. "Thought you might find this interesting."

Bennett said in an interview Thursday the emails were self-explanatory.

"My job is to make sure the governor's message is heard loud and clear," she said. "There are certain shows that ... gain or have a large audience, and sometimes I reach out to them."

She added, "I did that on my own. It's part of my job."

It's routine for political communications staff to solicit media coverage, particularly during controversies. The goal is to amplify politicians' messages and gain as much exposure as possible.

LePage, for example, has appeared several times on Carr's program to discuss a variety of issues. He's appeared on conservative talk shows across the country when he attended events hosted by the Republican Governors Association.

LePage once plugged O'Reilly's book "Killing Lincoln" during his weekly radio address. O'Reilly later returned the favor by mentioning LePage during his popular Fox News Channel show "The O'Reilly Factor."

Bennett said the inquiry to Carr produced no immediate response, nor did the one to O'Reilly. However, Carr did mention the governor, and the Twitter picture of him holding up his concealed weapon permit, during a Feb. 15 show, the day that the Bangor newspaper rescinded its records request.

Republicans and gun-rights Democrats both used the controversy to show their allegiance to gun activists and gun owners. The emergency legislation to shield the data was sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the assistant majority leaders of the Senate and House, respectively.

However, Republican lawmakers may have received more political mileage from the controversy.

Lizzy Reinholt, communications director for the Maine Democratic Party, said the emails were common in her line of work. Reinholt said conservatives proved adept at using the concealed-weapon permit flap for political gain.

She said Bennett's emails showed how the controversy wasn't "completely organic."

"They were trying to stir it up, and they did," Reinholt said. "They were very successful."

She added, "I almost have to give them kudos. It was extremely well orchestrated. They knew the right-wing media was going to grab onto this. They saw an opportunity and they seized it to build a well-orchestrated press campaign."

Said Bennett, "It's all about a messaging and getting the word out to as many people as we can. It was nothing more than that."

Steve Mistler -- 620-7016
smistler@pressherald.com
Twitter: @stevemistler

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