PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s first year in office was filled with a whirlwind of controversy and blunt talk as the tea party favorite, backed by the first Republican-controlled Legislature since the 1960s, sought to overhaul government.
The Republican governor’s first year in office, along with the GOP’s return to power in the State House, has been named Maine’s top story for 2011 by The Associated Press.
Just nine days after being sworn into office in January, LePage sparked a clamor when he told critics to “kiss my butt” over his decision not to attend the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations over the holiday weekend. That was only the start.
With the backing of the first Republican-controlled Legislature in more than 40 years, the governor made headlines throughout the year on efforts to streamline state regulations, rewrite health insurance laws, rework the state’s pension system and cut income taxes and welfare benefits. He created an uproar when he ordered a 36-foot mural depicting Maine’s labor history removed from the Department of Labor lobby because he considered it biased in favor of organized labor at the expense of business interests.
LePage’s supporters have said his proposals were long overdue. But his opponents claim he is hurting Mainers and giving the state a black eye.
The runner-up in the AP’s year-end survey was the Occupy Wall Street movement in Maine. On the heels of the Occupy encampment in New York City, protesters angry at what they call income disparity and corporate greed set up similar sites in Portland, Augusta and Bangor to draw attention to their message.
The encampments in Augusta and Bangor have come to an end, but campers have held fast in Portland’s Lincoln Park pending the outcome of a lawsuit that was filed challenging the city’s decision to evict them.
Across Maine, police and hospitals faced a new menace in 2011 as a new synthetic drug known as bath salts took hold in many towns and cities. With daily occurrences of people becoming delusional and violent after injecting, snorting or smoking the drug, the Bangor police chief called the problem an epidemic and the Legislature acted quickly to control the drug. The growth in the drug’s use was the No. 3 story of the year in Maine.
Wealthy conservationist Roxanne Quimby’s proposal to donate 70,000 acres of remote land in northern Maine for the creation of a national park was the No. 4 story of the year. While many Mainers applauded the offer from Quimby, the founder of Burt’s Bees personal care products, others in the region stood firmly against the plan, fearing government intrusion would outweigh any benefits. Critics say they prefer a “working forest” where logging can co-exist with outdoor recreationists to a park with restricted uses.
In November’s election, the No. 5 story of the year, Maine voters restored a four-decade policy of allowing people to register to vote up to and on Election Day by repealing a law passed earlier in the year that would have required voters to enroll at least two days before an election. Voters also rejected referendums calling for a casino in Lewiston and racetrack casinos in Biddeford and eastern Maine.
Tropical Storm Irene knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses when it rolled into Maine in late August. Although Maine wasn’t hit as hard as other northeastern states, the storm — the No. 6 story of the year — knocked out power to more than 300,000 utility customers while washing out bridges and roads across the state.
An Amtrak train traveling at 70 mph smashed into a trash-carrying tractor-trailer in July in a fiery collision that killed the truck driver, injured a half-dozen other people and sent flames more than three stories high. The collision in North Berwick, the No. 7 story of the year, was the most serious accident in the 10-year history of the Downeaster, which runs between Portland and Boston.
The discovery of the body of a 6-year-old boy along a rural dirt road in southern Maine was the No. 8 story of the year. Julianne McCrery of Texas was arrested three days after the body of her son, Camden Hughes, was found in South Berwick. She pleaded guilty in November to smothering her son with pillows in a New Hampshire motel room before disposing of his body in Maine.
Maine also had other high-profile homicide cases.
In June, 37-year-old Steven Lake shot and killed his estranged wife and their 12- and 13-year-old children at her home in Dexter, despite having a protection-from-abuse order against him. In Lewiston, the human remains of a woman last seen 28 years ago were discovered in a freezer in a storage unit rented by her former boyfriend. Kitty Wardwell’s remains were found in October by the family of Frank Julian shortly after his death at the age of 80. In July, a Massachusetts man was charged with double murder for allegedly fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend and his longtime friend outside her New Gloucester home in front of their four young children.
Paul Violette’s 23-year reign as the executive director of the Maine Turnpike came crashing down with his resignation in March amid allegations of lavish spending and misappropriation of turnpike funds. Violette has agreed to pay the authority $155,000 of his own money to settle a civil lawsuit, while a criminal investigation by the Attorney General’s Office continues in what was the No. 9 story of the year.
An unresolved missing child case comes in at No. 10. Twenty-month-old Ayla Reynolds was reported missing from her Waterville home on Dec. 17, and scores of officials and volunteers have searched for her since.
Ayla’s father, Justin DiPietro, told police he last saw his daughter when he put her to bed, but that she wasn’t there when he checked on her the next morning.