Gov. LePage as latter-day Secretariat

Posted Jan. 08, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.
Kent Ward, NEWS columnist and former Assistant Managing Editor. This photograph was taken on December 17,1997. &quotThe Old Dawg"
KEVIN BENNETT | BDN
Kent Ward, NEWS columnist and former Assistant Managing Editor. This photograph was taken on December 17,1997. "The Old Dawg"

The transformation from just another face in the crowd to the first popularly elected Franco-American governor of Maine involved four distinct phases, newly minted Gov. Paul LePage told a capacity audience at the Augusta Civic Center shortly after he was sworn in on Wednesday.

The first stage — coming after he announced his candidacy to seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the June primary election — had Mainers asking one another, “Who in hell is this guy?” the 62-year-old former mayor of Waterville and general manager of the Marden’s discount chain store said.

Then, as the primary campaign got under way, there were murmurs among the electorate about “this guy, LePage,” he said. When polls began to show his high favorability rating, he entered the “dark-horse” stage, a little-known contender making an unexpectedly good showing in a crowded field of wannabe governors. After his surprisingly decisive primary win, and his subsequent general-election victory over four other candidates “they were calling me ‘Secretariat’” (a reference to horse racing’s legendary Triple Crown winner), LePage declared, to spirited applause.

From obscurity and dark horse to the circle of champions in his run for the roses is pretty much the new governor’s compelling life story. Few, if any, governors since Maine had the good sense to break away from Massachusetts and become a state in 1820 can match LePage’s Horatio Alger-esque rags-to-renown resume.

“The oldest son of 18 children in an impoverished, dysfunctional family, Paul left home at the age of 11 and lived on the streets of Lewiston for two years, making a meager living shining shoes,” reads a campaign biography put out by his campaign staff in advance of the June primary.

Taken in by the Bruce Myrick and Ed Collins families of Lewiston when he was 13 years old, LePage eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Husson University and an MBA from the University of Maine that opened the door to executive positions with a Canadian lumber company and then with Marden’s, leading to numerous professional affiliations and awards. Myrick spoke at Wednesday’s inaugural ceremony, suggesting that the lifelong LePage perseverance and drive to succeed bodes well for Maine.

Next to escaping a life of poverty, LePage sees his greatest success as the tax-reducing Republican mayor of solidly Democratic Waterville, his campaign biography states. But business is his “favorite subject,” he told the Augusta audience on Wednesday, so Mainers can expect their new governor to spend a good slice of his time working to improve the state’s shaky business climate.

A man known for bluntly saying pretty much what is on his mind — one whose staff presented him with a roll of duct tape for his mouth after one disastrously memorable utterance during the campaign — LePage said when he begins a sentence with the words “quite frankly,” it tends to make his staff nervous. “That means I am going off on a tangent,” he explained. But quite frankly, he said, Maine has become one of the least business-friendly states in the nation — a major problem crying out for an early solution.

“I don’t care about editorials, opinion polls or the next election,” the man who succeeds Democratic Gov. John Baldacci declared, reciting a tea party mantra that energized the Augusta audience. Often, such a declaration by a politician can be a tip-off that he in fact cares very much about editorials, opinion polls and the next election. But since LePage appears to march to the beat of a different drummer, the possibility that he really doesn’t give a hoot about such things seems distinct. Good on him, as my Canadian friends are inclined to say. We independent and contrary-minded Mainers have always liked a touch of that in our political leaders.

The new sheriff in town, who said he has “four years and a job to do,” promised to always put people ahead of politics as he tackles the many difficult issues facing the state. But he and the Legislature can’t do the job alone, so expect him to ask for lots of help, he said — from all quarters.

Which explains why the person swearing in the governor in these inauguration deals always shouts “God save the great state of Maine” once the deed is accomplished.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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