PORTLAND — Maine’s brash governor has offended plenty of people in his five years in office. But this time he really did it: A wisecrack at a town hall meeting in Auburn that fell flat with women across the state.

A spokesman for Maine Gov. Paul LePage said he was clearly joking when, during his criticism of a campaign finance reform referendum, he likened the spending required for the proposal to “giving your wife your checkbook.”

The governor’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, pointed out that the governor’s wife, first lady Ann LePage, controls his checkbook, drawing a laughing acknowledgment from the governor.

But the governor’s remark, made Wednesday, isn’t sitting well with many women.

Eliza Townshend from the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Women’s Policy Center called the remark “bizarre” and “deeply disturbing.” She said his defense that it’s just a joke is often used by bullies.

“I think all human beings are deserving of respect. And for the elected leader of our state to speak with that kind of contempt to women is really disturbing. And it’s really telling about where we are in Maine today,” Townshend said.

Karen Brace, chair of the state board of the Maine Women’s Network, which promotes women in business, wasn’t amused, either.

“The comment represents a very narrow view and is surprising to see in this day and age. Most citizens understand that women are as responsible as anyone with regard to handling the finances of a business or a family,” she said. “The Maine Women’s Network works hard to build the self-esteem of young women in the state, and I wonder what his wife thought.”

Peter Steele, the governor’s chief of communications, said in an email the audience in Auburn knew the governor intended for the remark “to be humorous, not to offend anyone or make social commentary.”

He accused the media is blowing the remark out of proportion.

During his remarks, the governor said that the campaign finance reform will be expensive.

“Now the Legislature is going to have to fund it, but that’s like giving my wife my checkbook,” he said. “I’m telling you, it’s giving your wife your checkbook. Go spend.”

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, House co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, knows a thing or two about balancing a checkbook — the one held by the state of Maine. She said the remark wasn’t funny.

“What decade does the governor think we’re living in? Once again he creates embarrassing headlines for Maine. His comments show how out of touch he is with the realities of the lives of Maine’s women who working hard outside the home, raising families and contributing to our state,” she said.

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