PALMYRA, Maine — The mood was relaxed at Palmyra Consolidated School gymnasium recently as Paul LePage arrived for a rather unorthodox campaign fundraiser.
Unlike many campaign stops where the candidate is engaged with the electorate for every second, LePage was left mostly alone to collect a plate of spaghetti and a piece of garlic bread.
Tables along one wall offered a range of home-cooked desserts; on the stage were items for a raffle and a suit-wearing singer cooing big-band and brat-pack classics.
With families, town officials and others seated around cafeteria tables chatting and eating spaghetti, the only indications that the gathering was a political event were a few Paul LePage campaign signs taped to the walls. LePage finished his meal and went table to table, personally greeting everyone there.
The atmosphere turned serious as he stepped to the lectern. When the first standing ovation came just a few minutes into his speech, the mood went from serious to electric. It was clearly a LePage crowd.
“We’re seeing our taxes go up and our freedoms eroded,” said LePage to hoots and hollers. “The government is putting the shackles of economic slavery to each and every one of us. The Maine taxpayer has been put at an extreme disadvantage.”
One in a field of seven Republicans vying for the party’s nomination to run for governor, LePage has branded himself as a fiscal and social conservative who identifies with Tea Party principles, a strategy that has fueled his rise from a local politician to serious candidate for the Blaine House.
Scenes like the spaghetti supper in Palmyra are common, said LePage, an indication that he has stirred up grass-roots support across Maine from people who want smaller government and lower taxes.
He exhaustively touts his accomplishments as mayor of Waterville and general manager of Marden’s, where he has employed a strategy of scrutinizing the fate of every dollar and growing without having to incur debt.
In Waterville, LePage lowered taxes 13 percent in six years, improved the city’s credit rating and increased the rainy day fund from $1 million to $10 million, according to his stump speech. Most impressively, said LePage, he did it with a City Council full of Democrats. None of those claims has been disputed.
“I’ve heard that some people think I’m a nutcase or some kind of wacko conservative extremist,” said LePage during a recent interview at Waterville City Hall. “If those accomplishments are what makes a wacko, then I’m a wacko. I’m a fiscal conservative, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
LePage, like other Republican candidates, favors a tiered welfare system that reduces benefits gradually as recipients earn more money and major regulation reform that he says will improve the state’s business climate. His overarching principal as the state’s chief executive, though, will be to cut every dollar of state spending that he deems wasteful or lacking social benefit.
Despite that hard stance, LePage said he’s a consensus builder and that partisan votes are not the way to govern.
“I will work with legislative leadership on both sides,” said LePage. “I don’t like party-line votes because I don’t think they’re the will of the people.”
His secret, he said, is to start from an extreme position and compromise toward the center. Asked if that makes him a closet moderate, LePage says he shuns labels.
“I’m not a centrist; I’m a doer,” he said. “You’ve got to find common ground. You’ve got to get the job done.”
Asked what he’ll do when Democrats won’t budge, LePage said he’ll go to the media and make his case directly to the people — which he said in Waterville has earned him the nickname “Front Page LePage.”
There are clear indications that LePage is among the front-runners in the race. In addition to winning straw polls at Republican caucuses in Androscoggin, Aroostook, Washington, Kennebec and Knox counties, as well as a caucus of six towns in northern Cumberland County, according to the campaign’s website, LePage also had an extremely strong showing at last weekend’s Republican State Convention in Portland.
It was obvious that he had the most supporters at the convention, but according to Douglas Hodgkin, a professor emeritus of political science at Bates College, that does not guarantee he’ll run away with the nomination.
“It isn’t a good indicator of what the rank-and-file Republican voters might do in the primary,” said Hodgkin. “It is one indicator out of several that we could use.”
People who participate in party events such as caucuses and conventions typically come from the more passionate wings of the party, said Hodgkin, which in the GOP’s case means more conservative.
That conservatism was evident at the convention both in the number of LePage supporters and the fact that the delegates over-whelmingly adopted a more conservative party platform.
“I would say [LePage] would be in the top tier of candidates because he does have grass-roots support from the party faithful,” said Hodgkin. “Other resources are organization and money, which other candidates can bring to the table. Who wins the nomination will depend on the dynamics in the closing days of the campaign and the candidates’ ability to identify and mobilize their supporters.”
Another thing LePage has is a compelling personal history of pulling himself out of an abusive, impoverished childhood until he ran away from home at age 11. Through the years he was a truck driver, a meat packer and a bartender until he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Husson College in Bangor and an MBA from the University of Maine. Today, in addition to his duties as mayor, LePage is the general manager of the retail chain Marden’s.
At the convention last weekend, LePage summarized his life as a series of challenges that everyone told him were insurmountable, but which he conquered. Being elected as a fiscal conservative in Democratic-leaning Maine is just the next challenge, he said.
“All my life I’ve been told what I can’t do,” said LePage. “They were wrong, every single time, and they’ll be wrong again in November.”