As the polls closed on June 8, Paul LePage and his cadre of die-hard supporters were settling in for what even the candidate expected to be a long night.
LePage was arguably the most conservative of the seven candidates in a Republican gubernatorial primary with no clear front-runner. But there would be no “too close to call” this night as LePage didn’t just win but trounced his rivals.
“We started this race and everybody said, ‘He doesn’t have a chance,’” LePage said during his victory speech, prompting laughs from the crowd crammed into a Waterville restaurant. “It took a couple of months for them to even call me a dark horse.”
More than three months later, LePage, 61, has been called everything from a hero to a liar by fans and foes, but “dark horse” is no longer on anyone’s lips. “Race leader,” meanwhile, certainly is — and this in a state not known for embracing conservative Republicans.
“Some people haven’t taken LePage as seriously as they should have,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. “He has sort of hit at the right time for a candidate with his message.”
It’s a message that LePage hammers home at every event — smaller and more business-friendly government, less regulation, lower taxes and welfare reform.
But as comfortable as LePage is in front of friendly crowds, he has stumbled in the media spotlight on a few occasions.
And several high-profile dust-ups with the press — including video of an irate LePage shouting and then marching away from reporters — have inevitably prompted the opposition to attempt to paint the blunt-speaking and occasionally temperamental candidate as ill-suited for Maine’s highest office.
“Maine’s next governor needs the ability to answer the tough questions, not one who charges out of the room and swears when confronted,” the Maine Democratic Party’s Arden Manning said following the recent media flap over a tax issue.
LePage’s transformation from the outspoken yet little-known mayor of Waterville to gubernatorial front-runner might seem surprising if it weren’t for the now-well-known story of his rise from abject poverty to business and political success.
His early years have been compared to something out of a Charles Dickens novel, and for good reason.
The second eldest of 18 children, LePage chose to live on the cold, gritty streets of downtown Lewiston at age 11 after an encounter with his abusive father landed him in the hospital.
To this day, LePage carries a worn 50-cent piece he claims his father gave him at the hospital as a bribe to lie to the doctors about how he suffered his injuries.
“I decided at that point that it was time for he and I to go our different ways,” LePage recounts in a campaign video. “So I got dressed and I left the hospital that evening and I never went back.
“I lived on the streets, I lived in hallways, garages. For a couple of years, I lived anywheres and everywheres,” he said.
Eventually taken in by two local families, LePage graduated from high school and was admitted to Husson College in Bangor after someone intervened to help him take the comprehension exams in French, the language he grew up speaking.
After graduating from Husson in 1972, LePage moved to Canada, married and went to work for Arthurette Lumber. But the couple divorced, LePage said, and he moved back to Maine.
He earned his MBA from the University of Maine and spent several decades working in the pulp and paper industry, in manufacturing and as a “turn-around” consultant for struggling companies.
In 1996, he was hired as general manager of the Maine-based discount chain Marden’s and placed in charge of sales and the company’s expansion efforts. In the years since, Marden’s has grown from six stores to 15.
A former member of the Waterville City Council, LePage eventually was elected mayor of the city in 2003 despite being a Republican in a largely Democratic town.
LePage boasts that, since he became mayor, Waterville’s tax rates have dropped by 13 percent, the city’s rainy day fund has grown from $1 million to $10 million and one of the major credit agencies has boosted the city’s rating two levels.
Now, LePage claims he can do the same for Maine.
“I am the only candidate running who has been successful in business and in running government,” LePage said during a recent interview.
It’s impossible to say which of the themes heard throughout LePage’s campaign — his anti-Augusta message, his compelling life history or his business success — is resonating most with potential voters. But polls suggest that something is.
According to a survey conducted in early September, LePage was leading his nearest rival, Democrat Libby Mitchell, by 14 points. Other polls have suggested the gap was closer, but in each case LePage remained ahead.
LePage also credits his success in the primary to a large group of grass-roots volunteers waging what he calls a “stealth campaign,” the strength of which only became apparent when the election results rolled in on the evening of June 8.
Among them was Joe DeCoste of North Anson, who was struck by LePage the first time he heard him speak at a tea party event in Augusta.
DeCoste, an active member of several of Maine’s tea party organizations, liked LePage’s messages of smaller, more limited government and was impressed by his accomplishments in Waterville. He also found him sincere and, importantly, “not the consummate politician.”
“The man seems to be a man of his word who has struggled like many of us have had to do,” said DeCoste. “And he had every opportunity to turn around and say, ‘I give up, where’s my check,’ but he didn’t.”
The extent of LePage’s connection to the tea party has emerged as a point of contention in the campaign.
The Republican nominee has, at times, attempted to distance himself from Maine’s tea party. He has said he didn’t know much about the movement and claimed he never sought out their support, although he welcomed it.
LePage’s critics, meanwhile, paint him as the hand-picked candidate of Maine’s tea partiers.
In one example of the rough-and-tumble nature of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, one anonymous anti-LePage activist posted a video online titled “Paul LePage lies a lot” containing video clips of the candidate speaking at several tea party events.
LePage’s support among the tea party crowd is clear, as is the fact that the candidate benefited during the primary campaign from the energy and volunteer labor of Mainers who found a political community in the tea party movement.
But DeCoste pointed out that, while tea party members clearly helped make LePage the Republican nominee, the movement is by no means large enough to have been responsible for his victory considering he received nearly 49,000 votes.
In a state where independent or unenrolled voters represent the largest voting block, LePage knows he will have to do more than simply lock up Republicans in order to move into the Blaine House next January.
On a recent weekday morning, LePage sat in the second-floor office of his Waterville campaign headquarters. His attire was casual — a short-sleeved polo shirt with slacks and sneakers — and so was his tone as he talked about his reasons for entering politics, his background and the tone of the campaign so far.
“I would like to ask the Democratic Party to continue the negative ads. It’s great for fundraising,” he said with a laugh.
LePage was laughing again Friday during an interview with conservative radio host Howie Carr. LePage accused desperate Democrats of spreading rumors about his background.
“So far, I am a tax cheat, draft dodger and a sexual harassment person,” he told Carr.
LePage’s jovial and easy-going tone during that interview contrasts starkly with his tense confrontations with reporters just a few days earlier.
The incident that garnered the most attention came in the final minute of a 20-minute press conference which, up to that point, had focused entirely on his policy agenda. But when the topic turned to his family’s personal finances, LePage shot back at the press gathered in a State House office.
“This is what I am going to say, and I will not bring this up again,” LePage said just before storming out of the room. “I am running for governor, not my wife. I want to talk about the $1 billion shortfall we have. And if you guys want to do the Enquirer, I’m not playing.”
Later that day, when asked again about the issue, LePage replied “OK, let’s stop the bull—-.”
Not surprisingly, the outbursts made headlines around the state and LePage’s Democratic opposition wasted no time putting the incidents to use in online videos and press releases attacking LePage.Back in his Waterville office, LePage said he responded angrily, in part, because he is overly protective of his family. But he also acknowledged that he is not afraid to bite back.
“You respect me, I will respect you,” he said. “You bark at me, I will bark at you.”