AUGUSTA, Maine — With less than three months on the job, Gov. Paul LePage has already managed to rankle more constituencies with his bluntness than any Maine governor in recent memory.
Even before he was elected, LePage said he would tell the president to “go to hell.” Two weeks after taking office, he called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People a special interest group and told critics to “kiss my butt” over his decision to not attend the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.
He later raised a ruckus when he dismissed the dangers of bisphenol-A, a chemical additive used in some plastic bottles, saying the worst that could happen was “some women may have little beards.”
Now he’s ticking off labor groups — and smaller constituencies such as artists and museum curators, which typically aren’t on anybody’s political radar screen — by removing a huge mural depicting the state’s labor history from the Labor Department headquarters because it wasn’t in keeping with his pro-business agenda. When asked what he would do if anybody tried to block the mural’s removal, he said, “I’d laugh at them, the idiots.”
“You could draw up a pretty extensive list of various constituencies across the state that Gov. LePage has managed to offend in one way or another,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “And the fact that he’s been in office for only a few months makes the size of that list all the more impressive.”
Nobody expected a polished, spit-and-shine governor when LePage, a Republican, was elected in November. The oldest son in an impoverished family of 18 children in blue-collar Lewiston, he left home before he was a teenager to escape domestic violence. He shined shoes and sold newspapers while sleeping at friends’ homes, in horse stables and even in an upstairs room at a strip joint.
With his tell-it-like-it-is attitude and his aim of shaking up state government, it’s inevitable LePage will anger certain people. The governor speaks what’s on his mind, said spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
“It’s his policies and the substance that people should be focusing on,” Bennett said. “Whether or not he gets style points is not high on our priority list.”
You’d have to go back to James Longley, an independent who served from 1975-79, to find anything close to the spiciness coming from LePage, said Kenneth Palmer, who has written several books on Maine politics and taught at the University of Maine from 1969 to 2004. Longley could be abrasive and once called some legislators “pimps,” but it was his ideology — not his off-the-cuff remarks — that most angered his critics, he said.
“On the whole, Maine governors have been fairly straight-laced and moderate,” Palmer said.
It’s hard to say if LePage’s style is hurting him politically, said MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of the Critical Insights market research firm in Portland.
LePage’s brusqueness may be energizing his detractors, but it may also be invigorating his supporters, FitzGerald said.
“Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you see him as being either very insensitive and careless, or you see him as being a pretty effective strategist,” she said.
Maine Media Today reported this weekend that LePage, who is asking thousands of state workers to pay a larger share of their pension contributions, now says he’s willing to boost his own contribution as well.
LePage’s spokesman Dan Demeritt said that LePage would absolutely accept an increase in the pension contribution for chief executives if lawmakers add that provision to the two-year budget that’s under review.
Demeritt said LePage also would be open to requiring lawmakers and judges to pay more.
LePage’s $6.1 billion, two-year budget seeks to save money by requiring 12,000 state workers and teachers in the state retirement plan to increase their contribution to the system from 7.65 percent to 9.65 percent of their pay.
LePage’s original proposal didn’t include him or judges.