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Will LePage's Legacy Reflect Economic Accomplishment Or Myriad Controversy?

Mal Leary
Maine Public
Maine Calling host Jennifer Rooks and Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday.

At the end of a wide-ranging interview on Maine Public’s call-in show, Maine Calling, Gov. Paul LePage was asked how the history books will depict his two terms in office.

The governor paused briefly before rattling off a series of fiscally-focused accomplishments.

“I believe I’ve done what I said I would do and turn the state around financially. That was my goal. I’ve done it,” he said.

Whether LePage will be rewarded for an economy and state finances that are far superior to those he inherited and was left by his predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci, is up to the history writers. But in penning the hard-charging governor’s legacy, those same writers will also likely assess his penchant for controversy and false or unverifiable statements.

The latter was on full display during the Maine Calling interview, a dizzying, 50-minute segment in which LePage jousted with callers over his various statements and policy positions.

LePage claimed he didn’t bar the press and public from his new commission on wind power, even though the executive order he signed last week clearly does.

“That’s not true,” he said. “Hey, fake news, what can I tell ya.”

He reiterated his claim that 7,600 Mainers fought for the Confederacy and cited the Maine State Archives as his source when challenged by a caller. The Archives has previously stated that maybe 30 Mainers fought for the Confederacy.

The governor also doubled down on his opposition to expanding access to the overdose revival drug Narcan. LePage has taken heat for sitting on rules that would allow pharmacies to dispense the drug to people age 18 and older.

When pressed to explain why he was blocking access to Narcan at a time when Maine is averaging an overdose death a day, the governor attempted to draw an equivalence between laws barring anyone younger than 21 from purchasing tobacco or alcohol products and allowing someone younger than that to purchase or administer Narcan.

Maine Calling host Jennifer Rooks attempted to press the governor on his stance.

“I don’t understand what the link is because cigarettes and alcohol are dangerous but Narcan saves lives,” Rooks said.

“No, Narcan extends lives,” LePage said.

“So why would it matter if …” Rooks said, getting cut off.

“Did you hear what I said? Narcan extends lives because when you take a shot of Narcan — if you go to rehab and you get cleaned up, I’m all in,” LePage said.

“But no one could argue that cigarettes or alcohol extends lives. My point is …” Rooks said.

“No they don’t extend lives, they slowly kill you,” LePage said.

It’s unclear whether LePage’s stance on Narcan is fueled by the belief that some people simply cannot be saved from the grip of addiction. Nonetheless, it makes him an outlier among most elected officials who have expedited policies to expand access to the drug during an opioid epidemic that President Donald Trump has officially declared as an emergency.

But throughout his seven years in office, LePage has demonstrated a willingness to take positions that divide his constituents.

His move to block wind power projects comes shortly after he announced support for a Trump administration plan that could allow for the exploration and drilling off the Gulf of Maine.

LePage said on Maine Calling that wind projects “deface” Maine’s mountains and hurt tourism. But he defended offshore drilling as a key to energy independence despite risks that an accident could affect a fragile ecosystem and fishing grounds vital to Maine’s marine economy.

The governor also used a question about the governor’s race to take a swipe at a fellow Republican who is hoping to replace LePage when he leaves office next year.

LePage was asked whether he will back Republican candidate Shawn Moody. The governor’s daughter, Lauren LePage, is working for Moody’s campaign, as are former members of LePage’s campaigns, including his top political advisor, Brent Littlefield.

“I’m not endorsing Shawn Moody or any of the candidates. I can tell you who I’m not going to endorse,” he said. “I’m not going to endorse any Democrat that I’ve seen so far, or [Republican Senate] President Mike Thibodeau.”

The governor’s swipe at Thibodeau is the latest in a long history of conflict between the two GOP leaders, who were once allies. The feud began in 2015 when a political group closely aligned with LePage flooded Thibodeau’s district with robocalls criticizing him for negotiating with the Democratic-controlled House to create the state’s two-year budget.

Thibodeau, one of five GOP candidates vying to replace LePage next year, said the governor’s behavior had been a distraction for him and other Republicans.

“Maine is a better place because of the Republican policies that have been put in place the last eight years,” he said. “However, when we’re spending time dealing with poor behavior rather than advancing conservative principles, we’re not moving Maine forward. The Governor is clearly still upset about some of the direct conversations I’ve had to have with him.”

LePage closed the Maine Calling program by citing his accomplishments. Among them: income tax cuts, pumping money into the state’s rainy day fund, paying off its debt to hospitals and a low unemployment rate.

Barring a financial disaster in the next 12 months, the governor could arguably leave office making such achievements his legacy. But that may depend on whether his controversial opinions and policy positions will overshadow them.

This story was originally published Jan. 30, 2018 at 7:29 p.m. ET.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.