MATTHEW GAGNON

Paul LePage, Maine’s comeback kid

Posted Oct. 27, 2011, at 4:27 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 27, 2011, at 4:59 p.m.

May was pretty rough for Gov. Paul LePage. He had a rough start to his administration, with one distraction after another making Mainers shake their heads and wonder if the new guy was really up to the job after all.

The main culprit for the slow start was of course a string of administrative and policy false starts and a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease. LePage was making headlines for all the wrong reasons, distracting everyone and focusing our attention on his missteps rather than a substantive agenda to get Maine working again.

Resignations. Mural controversies. Verbal gaffes. Those early months had it all.

The low point came when a Critical Insights poll showed the governor with an approval rating of just 31 percent, with a 54 percent disapproval rating. LePage looked to be headed into Baldacci level unpopularity only a few months into his term.

But then a funny thing started to happen. Things started to get done. May saw a major health insurance reform bill muscled through the Legislature.

June saw the passage of a contentious but reform-minded budget that cut taxes, reformed welfare and pensions and soberly addressed the state’s shortcomings. Budget committees were announced. Statewide town halls happened. Some very good bills got to his desk and the Republican reformers, timid as they may be, started to produce things that Maine people could see.

Oh sure, there were more resignations, some legislative defeats and a couple more gaffes, but they were greatly overshadowed by the mostly good work of the administration and the Legislature. It certainly could have been a lot better, but for a first crack at governing in the majority in four decades, not too shabby.

It seems that Maine people are pretty forgiving of the unpolished and gruff so long as they think they are acting in the best interest of the people they represent. Yesterday Critical Insights released a brand new poll which showed that the governor’s approval rating had rebounded to 47 percent, with only 40 percent disapproving.

I am hardly surprised. In general, voters of all persuasions tend to appreciate and respect a good old-fashioned college try from somebody who doesn’t always get it right but seems to be coming from the right place and trying to do the right thing. Voters reward those who are rough around the edges if they genuinely try to reform a broken system.

Look at the state of New Jersey, where the unvarnished straight-talking Republican Gov. Chris Christie is now sitting on a 58 percent approval rating in the heart of a very Democratic state after two confrontational and controversial years in office.

It is most certainly a contrast with the previous administration in Maine. Gov. John Baldacci seemed to have the opposite problem, appearing indifferent and bland in the face of enormous challenges. He didn’t make very many mistakes, but he was no reformer, he was not very bold, and didn’t take many risks.

Unflappably cool and dispassionate in a volatile time, the governor seemed to be viewed by Maine voters as more than a little milquetoast and they gave him atrocious approval ratings for most of his tenure.

LePage is not the best communicator we have ever seen in the Blaine House. He can be rough around the edges and quite impolitic. He is fiery and emotional and prone to making mistakes.

But he also seems genuinely interested in draining the swamp and cleaning up Augusta. And while the execution has left much to be desired at times, a lot of the ways he wants to do it seem to have a lot of support among the Maine people.

So let this be a lesson to future office seekers: Be yourselves. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and don’t dwell on them when you make them. Be genuine and try hard to change things for the better. Take a stand on some things that you know people will disagree with and don’t back off when the backlash comes.

If people see you doing things, and believe that you care, they’ll be forgiving and will still appreciate you.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

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