It sounded like such a great fit at the time.

“Norman Olsen … comes from a fisherman background and a diplomatic background,” said Gov. Paul LePage in January as he nominated Olsen to lead the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “That’s a good mix to keep those lobstermen in shape.”

They’re in shape, all right. Turns out Olsen spent the last six months serving as their human punching bag.

“I am leaving, not for health reasons, and not to spend more time with my family, and not to pursue other interests, which are all the commonly used themes for such resignations, but because this administration is more interested in pacifying special interest groups than in responsibly managing Maine’s marine resources for the benefit of the entire state,” Olsen said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “I cannot be part of that. The legacy of my fishermen father, grandfather and great-grandfather will not allow it.”

This from a guy who, after growing up pulling his own lobster traps off Cape Elizabeth, served honorably in places like Kosovo and the Gaza Strip before retiring as a State Department diplomat in 2008 and returning to his Maine maritime roots.

A guy who just a few months ago was described by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, as “very good at bringing opposite sides together and trying to find some common ground.”


A guy who, unlike former environmental protection Commissioner Darryl Brown (conflict of interest) and former economic development Commissioner Philip Congdon (conflict of brain waves), at least departs LePage’s creaky Cabinet with his integrity intact.

We could spend days charting the undercurrents in Maine’s fishing industry that led to Olsen’s abrupt resignation after a 45-minute meeting with the governor Wednesday morning.

From his thinking-out-loud comments about ground fishermen being allowed to keep their lobster bycatch (as they do in Massachusetts) to his discomfort with the waiting list for Maine lobstering licenses (it’s backed up over a decade), Olsen clearly found himself a fish out of water when it came to the tightly knit community he was charged with regulating.

But that stuff happens. It comes with the turf — or, in this case, the surf.

What’s truly startling (overstatement alert — make that “painfully predictable”) about Olsen’s 1,661-word “supplemental statement” to his 13-word, handwritten resignation letter is his portrayal of LePage’s management style.

The word “murky” comes to mind.


We have a governor, alleges Olsen, who met repeatedly with “groups and individuals objecting to my open discussion of the issues,” but prohibited the commissioner from attending those sessions.

Meanwhile, Olsen said, it took him six weeks to get his own sitdown with the Guv to discuss “time-critical issues of resource management worth tens of millions of dollars to the state.”

We have a governor who, according to Olsen, dispatched two top aides to “threaten me with firing if I would not do whatever necessary to stop the complaints reaching (LePage) from special interest groups.”

And who were these people, pray tell, who had far better luck “reaching” the governor than his own commissioner?

“I was not allowed to know the source of the complaints, or their contact,” wrote Olsen. “But I was to back off.”

Nice. We can only assume that Olsen’s detractors, like the forever-anonymous emailer who single-handedly persuaded the governor to remove the now-infamous Department of Labor mural, counted themselves among LePage’s “secret admirers.”


We have a governor who should have been doing handstands when Olsen, during a top-down efficiency review of his department, discovered “a “supposedly well-run program (that) essentially doesn’t exist.”

Instead, even after Olsen asked LePage to back him publicly in rooting out the waste, LePage demurred.

“His aide said after Labor Day they would call unspecified people to get their opinions on me, and those poll results would determine whether I stay on as commissioner,” recalled Olsen.

If the results were good, Olsen would be rewarded with a LePage press conference at which the governor “would voice his unequivocal support for me.” If not, the commissioner would be “relieved.”

“In short,” observed Olsen, “my future, and that of Maine’s fishing industry, would depend on a staffer’s telephone poll.”

We even have a governor who, brace yourself, doesn’t like Portland.


When Olsen told LePage about his plan to collaborate with the city to lure back some of the fishing boats that have been lost over the years to points south, LePage told him to deep-six the idea (along with every other initiative Olsen brought to the table that day).

“Portland was against him, he said, and we will not work with that city,” reported Olsen. “Rather than work with Portland, he said, we’ll build a new port somewhere.”

Sounds like a plan. Welcome to the Port of … Rumford?

What makes Olsen’s exit so disheartening, aside from the fact that the man actually seemed to know what he was doing, is the mounting evidence that LePage isn’t quite the myopic, hard-charging ideologue that so many Mainers feared.

He’s worse.

He promised he wouldn’t be beholden to “special interests.” Yet, as Olsen puts it, “a tiny faction of industry members seeking to protect their state-granted monopolies over a public resource” (read: lobsters) can put their signatures to a pre-printed letter and “trounce a supposedly iron-willed governor.”


He promised a transparent administration. Yet he not only excludes a department head from meetings with that department’s constituents, but also refuses even to identify them.

He says he doesn’t care what the polls say. Yet he commissions his own anything-but-scientific survey — again, sans names — to decide whether to keep a member of his own Cabinet on board or make him walk the plank.

And now, when confronted with a guy who refuses to go quietly, he shrugs and says he hasn’t a clue what Olsen’s talking about.

“I never had that conversation with Norm Olsen,” LePage replied when asked by Mal Leary of Capitol News Service about Olsen’s shape-up-or-ship-out allegation. “I never have.”

So much for a quiet Maine summer.

But hey, at least the lobstermen are in shape.

Bill Nemitz — 791-6323

[email protected]


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