AUGUSTA, Maine — With multiple jobs, a schedule of college courses and four children to raise on her own, Jennifer Cloukey says she isn’t someone who normally has time to pay attention to politics.
So when a professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, where Cloukey is working toward a registered nurse certification, suggested late last year that she attend a Chamber of Commerce breakfast attended by then-Gov.-elect Paul LePage, Cloukey didn’t know what to expect.
Though the 36-year-old usually votes Republican, it wasn’t until she heard LePage speak that day that she was compelled to approach him.
“After I heard him talk, I just felt it was important to express my support,” said Cloukey.
She couldn’t have guessed that short conversation would lead to her becoming one of the honored guests at LePage’s inauguration Wednesday. Sitting in reserved seating with three of her children, answering questions from one reporter with several more waiting for her, Cloukey admitted she was a little out of her element.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “One thing I’ve already learned is that I should have eaten lunch first.”
Cloukey’s reason for approaching LePage is the same reason LePage featured her on perhaps the biggest day of his life and most certainly from his biggest-ever stage.
“People need to know that just because someone is on welfare [that] doesn’t mean they don’t have a work ethic,” she said.
At first glance, it’s a little ironic that someone who receives multiple forms of welfare — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, government food vouchers, MaineCare and the ASPIRE program — would be such an ardent LePage supporter. Aside from his repeated pledges to cut state government spending virtually across the board, LePage supports 5-year lifetime limits on welfare programs and a tiered system to transition welfare recipients into the work force.
During his inauguration speech, LePage repeated those goals.
“While we have a generous spirit in Maine, we do not have an unlimited ability to pay for them,” said LePage. “Our programs have to be focused on Maine residents, we must make every effort to move people from dependency to self-sufficiency and we must have a tiered system that rewards work and progress.”
What might seem to some to be a threat to Cloukey’s support system is seen by Cloukey as the way welfare should be.
“I think you should use the help you’re getting to improve your situation,” said Cloukey, who lives in Bowdoinham in a home built for her and her children by the Habitat for Humanity program.
Four years ago, said Cloukey, her options looked limited. She had a low income and giving up her state benefits seemed impossible. With the help of the ASPIRE program, she’s scheduled to graduate nursing school in May and is confident she’ll earn enough as a maternity nurse to put welfare in her past.
“Even though I have a low income, four children and I’m not married, I decided I wanted more,” she said. “I felt trapped, but I decided I could overcome it. I’ve learned that if you look at yourself and don’t like what you see, you can change.”
Cloukey’s 13-year-old son, Elijah, sat next to his mother, looking around the inauguration spectacle at the Augusta Civic Center and tugging at the collar of his shirt. He stayed silent until asked a question by a reporter.
“I know she’s going to make a great nurse,” he said. “She’s so confident, happy-go-lucky and looking forward. She’s always looking toward the future and doing better things.”