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Maine's Pugnacious Governor Leaves Behind A Complex Legacy

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press/file
Maine Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a town hall meeting, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in Yarmouth, Maine.

For the past eight years, Gov. Paul LePage has been the gravitational center of Maine politics, pulling traditionally staid disputes over state policy into an orbit of bellicosity, and defying long established standards of behavior for elected officials. He was, as he has said, “Trump before there was Trump.”On Jan. 2, LePage’s second and final term will end when his longtime political foil - Democrat Janet Mills - is sworn into office. The approaching transition of power has prompted the typical retrospective analysis of the individual who controlled the state bureaucracy and bully pulpit for nearly a decade. But reviewing LePage’s two terms as governor is a complicated exercise.

LePage, 70, long ago disengaged with a Maine press that he repeatedly disparaged for, as he saw it, treating him unfairly. Throughout the past year, any queries into his daily activities, or into the reasons behind his policy decisions, have been relegated to the impromptu press gaggle, or reserved for the whimsical curiosity of his preferred interviewers on sympathetic, conservative talk show programs.

But an analysis of Gov. LePage’s tenure will likely conclude that the native son of Lewiston, who says his rise from poverty and abuse shaped his pugnacious personality, was profoundly consequential on Maine politics and state laws.

His two terms coincided with the national recovery from the recession. That recovery is reflected in Maine’s recorded low unemployment, but experienced more acutely in the southern regions of the state that opposed the governor’s policies than in the rural areas that sent the hard-charging conservative to the Blaine House.

Credit Mal Leary / Maine Public
Maine Public
Gov. Paul LePage announces his legislation to revamp welfare, including limits on what could be purchased with food stamps.

He has cut taxes, shrunk Maine’s welfare system, overhauled the state pension system and paid back the state’s hospitals millions in Medicaid debt. He has also stymied development of renewable energy sources while pursuing and attempting to revive the state’s traditional industries in forest products.

And LePage has also brought a confrontational style that, at times, has dragged routine governing decisions into Maine’s courts.

“I have never started a battle in this state,” he said during a recent interview on Maine Public Radio’s call-in program Maine Calling. “I react to battles and I'm a counter-puncher. When I was on the streets when I was 11-years old, I got beat up and I got pushed around and I got kicked around. It becomes part of you. And I learned one thing very early on in life:  If you turn the other cheek it hurts.”

The governor’s characterization of himself as something other than the instigator over the past eight years will likely perplex his opponents. They were often caught flat-footed as LePage initiated battles over traditionally non-controversial issues, like land conservation and voter-approved bonds.

And LePage’s unconventional tactics, which at one point included the use of westward expansion-era wanted posters of lobbyists and political opponents, were rarely considered defensive, but the tools of a politician trying to assert outright dominance.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press/file
Associated Press/file
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is welcomed to the stage by Maine Gov. Paul LePage at a campaign stop, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Portland, Maine.

And he shone in the political spotlight, first for his bombast and authenticity, and later as a prototype for the man he would later endorse for U.S. president.

“I think he (Trump) was right for the time,” LePage said on Maine Calling. “I think in 2010, despite all my gruffness and whatever you want to call it, I was right for the time. History has a way of doing that. FDR was right for the time. I think Harry Truman was certainly right for the time. ... I think history has proven that certain people come to the top, they rise to the occasion when they're needed.”

LePage’s conduct will inevitably darken his legacy to his many critics. But his base’s unwavering support illustrates how an elected official can survive traditionally lethal controversies.

“Before there was Teflon Don, there was bullet-proof LePage,” the governor said.

Swept In A Red Wave

LePage began his political career in Waterville, first as a city councilor and later as the city’s elected mayor.

His efforts to lower taxes and overhaul city government caught the attention of some conservative activists who convinced LePage to run for governor in 2009.

The Dickensian story of his rise from poverty and abuse was compelling, as was his rhetoric about overreach by the Obama administration’s health care law. 

During the June 2010 primary, both narratives helped LePage slip into the jet stream of conservative sentiment, which was powered by the tea party rebellion against Obama, and tapping the angst over a lagging economy. He defeated six other Republicans to win the party’s nomination and he spent a fraction of the money spent by most of his opponents.

“When I first started, they called me a dark horse,” LePage said during his 2010 inauguration speech. “After June they called me Secretariat.”

Economic conditions favored LePage’s sprint to the governor’s office. In Maine, the unemployment rate was over 8 percent. Budget cuts had forced state workers to take furlough days. The state owed its hospitals millions in Medicaid payments.

Credit Pat Wellenbach / Associated Press/file
Associated Press/file
Republican Paul LePage, left, holds his hand on a Bible as Senate President Kevin Raye, right, reaches to congratulate him after administering the oath of office while being sworn in as Maine's next governor on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011, in Augusta, Maine.

LePage campaigned on cutting taxes and allowing businesses to revive the economy by cutting regulations. “Profit is not a dirty word,” he said during his 2011 inauguration speech.

LePage also benefited from a general election field of candidates that would split his opposition, and years later, inspire adoption of Maine’s ranked-choice voting law.

He weathered several high-profile controversies on the campaign trail, including dubious claims about a state sales tax on bull semen, and a buffalo and black fly study that he said stymied an energy proposal from a peat bog.

None of that mattered. LePage went on to win the general election with a narrow plurality, defeating independent Eliot Cutler, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Kevin Scott and Shawn Moody.

Two months later, his inauguration ceremony on Jan. 5, 2011 was designed to reflect the austerity that he promised to bring to state government.

His 32-minute speech was filled with the same tea-party inspired constitutionalism that had swept LePage and so many other Republicans into power, but also populism.

"My pledge to Maine people is very simple. It's going to be people ahead of politics," he said. He then skipped the traditional inaugural ball because he believed it was too frivolous.

LePage’s win inspired Maine Republicans, who also gained control of the Maine Legislature.

"I think he came into the statewide political arena viewed by many as a breath of fresh air and with high hopes that he could be a real change agent," said former Republican Senate President Kevin Raye, of Perry.

Republicans were excited by LePage's business background and promise of disruption - to challenge the establishment and crush the special interests he said had infiltrated state government.

It was a winning message, as was his vow to purge Maine's welfare system of waste and fraud.

Tough On Republicans

But Raye and other Republicans would quickly experience tensions with the new governor - tensions that would deepen during LePage’s two terms in office.

LePage had narrowly won election in a five-way race, but began vigorously pushing conservative policies as if he had a statewide mandate.

Raye and GOP legislators were more deliberate, avoiding policies that could boomerang on them during the 2012 election and pursuing ones popular enough to withstand a Democratic takeover.

"I felt a responsibility to make sure that we didn't overreach," said Raye.

Republicans also worried about LePage's temperament and penchant for outlandish statements.  A week after being sworn into office, he upset the local chapter of the NAACP over his refusal to attend the annual Martin Luther King Breakfast.

"Tell 'em to kiss my butt," he said to a reporter who asked about the event.

A month later he flippantly dismissed the health dangers of BPA, a chemical added to plastics. "Worst case is some women might have little beards, but we don't want to do that," he said.

And then he ordered the removal of a mural depicting the history of the labor movement from the Maine Department of Labor, sparking protests from activists who saw the move as a signal of LePage's hostility for unions and drawing national press attention that would return again and again during his time in office.

Credit Clarke Canfield / Associated Press/file
Associated Press/file
An 11-panel mural depicting the state's labor history is on public display in the atrium leading to the Maine State Museum on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Augusta, Maine, after Gov. LePage ordered the panel removed from the Labor Department lobby in March 2011.

At times, the controversies drowned out LePage's push to overhaul the state pension system, cut taxes, reduce regulations and bring charter schools to Maine.

Despite success on those fronts, Raye says LePage was impatient and especially tough on Republicans. "In so many issues that came where he should have declared victory, instead he was unhappy that he didn't get it all," Raye said.

Democrats Back In Control

LePage would get even less after the 2012 election. Democrats reclaimed majorities in the Legislature, largely stalling the governor's agenda and sparking battles over Medicaid expansion, welfare and the state's hospital debt.

But the governor seemed to relish the disputes with Democrats. He threatened to move out of the governor’s office after Democrats objected to his use of a television in the Hall of Flags to broadcast political messages.

When Democrats passed a bill to expand Medicaid, he preempted their celebratory press conference by staging a public veto of the legislation as reporters and television cameras looked on.

Sometimes LePage was too eager to engage in the political tussles. Later in 2013, when it was clear that he was on the losing end of a bruising budget battle, the governor made a crude sexual remark about assistant Democratic leader Troy Jackson.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press/file
Associated Press/file
Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters shortly after the Maine House and Senate both voted to override his veto of the state budget, Wednesday, June 26, 2013, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

"Senator Jackson claims to be for the people, but he's the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline," LePage said.

A Second Term

The verbal knife fights continued into 2014, LePage's reelection year. The Maine Democratic Party believed that the governor's conduct made him vulnerable.

"He had a number of high-profile gaffes that we felt like might have made him personally unpopular compared to when he was first elected," former party chairman Ben Grant said.

Democrats convinced 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud to abandon his reelection bid and challenge LePage.

But Democrats also made what Grant acknowledges was a tactical mistake - focusing on LePage's reputation as a national embarrassment.

The Republican Governors Association, which spent over $6 million to boost LePage’s reelection campaign, deftly countered the Democrat in a 30-second TV spot. The RGA ad proclaimed LePage "Blunt, honest, one of a kind ... unique, like Maine."

While LePage’s opponents would disagree with that assessment, Grant said LePage had what is now the “coin of the realm in today’s politics,” authenticity. “He demonstrated authenticity in spades,” Grant said.

And Grant says that as the campaign unfolded, he saw something alarming in public opinion polls.

"LePage was able to rehabilitate his approval rating through the campaign,” Grant said. “Now that's unusual. Most politicians start a campaign sort of at the peak of their popularity and it gets worse as the attacks come in. But with LePage the opposite happened."

Michaud was also locked in a kind of quasi-primary battle with independent Eliot Cutler over center-left voters.

The governor's disciplined campaign stayed focused on LePage's push to reduce welfare, pay back Maine's hospitals and cut taxes.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press/file
Associated Press/file
Gov. Paul LePage, with his wife Ann LePage, celebrates his re-election bid at his election night party, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Lewiston, Maine.

LePage won by a wider margin and more votes than he did in 2010. He was triumphant, validated.

And he was about to embark on a pursuit that would split his party in two.

Going After The Income Tax

LePage’s 2015 inauguration speech teased a budget proposal that would finally slay his white whale. "I will give you a hint, we're going after the income tax," LePage said.

The governor's quest to eliminate Maine's income tax became the centerpiece of his two-year budget.

It was also dead on arrival. Senate Republicans didn’t like how the plan increased and expanded the state sales tax to partially pay for the income tax cut. In fact, many of them, including Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau, rose in prominence by campaigning against a similar proposal passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

But LePage was determined. When it was clear that Thibodeau’s caucus and leaders in the Democratic-controlled House were working on an alternative budget plan, the governor’s political operation - ironically named Maine People Before Politics - launched robocalls attacking Republican senators.

"Some Republican state senators, including your senator, Mike Thibodeau, are now supporting no cuts in income taxes and instead welfare funding for illegal aliens,” said the governor’s daughter Lauren, who voiced the recorded calls. “That's not right."

It was classic LePage political hardball. Tensions escalated when he vetoed nearly all bills sponsored by Democrats until the Legislature passed a budget with a tax cut - which LePage vetoed anyway.

The governor's penchant for vetoes helped him achieve a milestone of questionable distinction: He will depart office having rejected over 640 bills - more than the combined totals of all Maine governors.

And the 2015 budget battle effectively split Republican legislators into two groups, those willing to work with Democrats and those loyal to LePage.

The balkanization carried into LePage's final years, paralyzing the Legislature and leading to the first state government shutdown in nearly three decades in 2017.

An Attempt To Consolidate Power

LePage seemed inspired by the divisions in Augusta. He launched a series of forums that effectively doubled as a campaign against the Legislature. The meetings sometimes drew protestors.

They also ignited several of the governor's greatest controversies, drawing national headlines for his comments about the race and sexual activities of drug traffickers.

Credit Mal Leary / Maine Public/file
Maine Public/file
Gov. LePage at a town hall meeting in North Berwick August 24, 2016.

In 2016 he claimed that immigrants increased the risk of disease, including the “ziki fly,” an apparent reference to Zika virus.

His comments about the dangers posed by immigrants were widely condemned, but arguably put him on the leading edge of the simmering nationalism stoked by the eventual Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump.

Early in 2016, the New York Times reported that LePage objected to Trump’s imminent nomination as the GOP’s presidential nominee during a Republican Governors Association meeting.

According to the Times, LePage worried that Trump was too divisive. But eventually came to embrace Trump -- and the inevitable comparisons to himself.

"You know the media has been asking me, 'Are you still supporting Donald Trump?' The answer is very simple, yes, more than ever," LePage said during a rally attended by Trump in August of 2016.

The Voicemail

But after the August rally, LePage suddenly disappeared from the Trump surrogacy tour. The reason was never made public, but it coincided with the release of a profanity laced voicemail to state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook.

"You little son of a ---, socialist ---, I need you to -- this freakin' -- I want you to record this and make it public because I'm after you," LePage said in his message to Gattine.

The verbal assault on Gattine was just the half of it. LePage also openly fantasized to reporters about challenging Gattine to a duel and pointed a pistol between his eyes. For about 24 hours, it appeared the governor had finally gone too far.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press/file
Associated Press/file
In this Jan. 8, 2016, file photo, Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Critics of LePage on Thursday, Jan. 14, took up a longshot bid to impeach him over allegations of abuse of power.

But LePage survived once again. Loyalists in the Legislature refused to convene a special session for a censure vote. Democrats were still smarting from a half-hearted effort earlier that year to reprimand LePage when he threatened to yank public funds to a private school unless it rescinded its hiring of Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

They didn’t have enough votes to force a special session and seemed resigned to waiting out the remainder of LePage’s final term.

The governor's durability frustrated his opponents. It also coincided with the ascension of Trump, who openly relished that he seemed to be coated in a similar Teflon.

"They say I have the most loyal people, did you ever see that?” Trump said during the 2016 campaign. “Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I couldn't lose any voters, ok? It's like incredible."

And like Trump, LePage held special contempt for the press. "I have no respect for you at all,” LePage told reporters during a press conference in the fall of 2016. “Make no bones about that."

‘The Most Transparent Administration In State History’

From the beginning of his tenure, LePage had promised that his administration would be the most transparent in state history. But he routinely flouted Maine's public records law.  

He is still holding documents about his official travel and use of public money to fund his multiple lawsuits to block the voter-approved expansion of Medicaid, close the Down East Correctional Facility, and withhold money for Maine's public campaign finance program.

In his second term, he forbade most of his commissioners from talking to the press, or even from appearing before legislative committees.

Sometimes LePage would testify on behalf of a commissioner, a decision that would inevitably create a spectacle that superseded and immediately politicized the issue at hand.

The outbursts could also get personal. Earlier this year he called Republican state Sen. Tom Saviello, of Wilton, the “most repugnant human being” he’s ever seen during a meeting by the Government Oversight Committee. He then stormed out of the hearing.

No Apologies

Former Republican Senate President Kevin Raye says LePage could have accomplished more if he swapped his pugnacious style for a more collaborative one.

“He had a tendency to bully. He had a tendency to lash out and he had a tendency to engage from time to time in vindictive behavior," Raye said.

But Raye says LePage deserves a lot of credit for his achievements. "He believes strongly in certain principles. And whether or not you share those principles, you have to respect when somebody is authentic,” Raye said.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
Associated Press
Gov. Paul LePage arrives to deliver the State of the State address to the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Raye, who has become a vocal critic of Trump, says there are obvious parallels between the president and LePage. But he says there’s a significant distinction between the two: LePage’s conduct is the result of his belief in conservative principles, while Trump is more concerned with himself.

LePage, however, does not shy from the comparison. But he does acknowledge that his beliefs can create problems for himself. "I'm a victim of my own passion,” he said on Maine Calling.

At the same time, LePage said he's proud of his accomplishments and suggested that he would have had less of an impact if he had altered his approach.

"I did it my way, yes,” he said. “And I tried to do it the best way that I knew how. And if I had done what people have asked me, I'd have been an ordinary governor who got nothing done."

And that, perhaps, is the biggest mystery about LePage. If he had conducted himself differently, would he have achieved more or less?

The governor, for his part, doesn’t appear to be dwelling on the question. As his final day, Jan. 2, fast approaches, he has used his exit interviews with selected media outlets to lash out at the judges who have ruled against him and Republicans who disappointed him.

He also made one other thing clear:  If Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills takes Maine in a direction he doesn’t like, he'll return four years from now to challenge her.

Originally published 7:58 a.m. Dec. 28, 2018

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