PROSPECT, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage and right-wing radio host Howie Carr rallied their troops Saturday at Fort Knox, speaking before hundreds of conservative activists at the second annual Economic Freedom Festival.
The event — organized by the Maine chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an Arlington, Va., group that mobilizes voters for lower taxes and smaller government — attracted about 400 people to Fort Knox.
To the receptive audience, the governor, Carr and two other speakers — Falmouth author Susan Dench and Tarren Bragdon, former CEO of Maine Heritage Policy Center — railed against the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of President Barack Obama’s health care reform package, allegedly rampant abuse of food stamp benefits and federal spending.
LePage received a standing ovation when he took the lectern to decry a federal government he said wants to keep its residents dumb, obese and poor while “trying to put the shackles of economic slavery on our children, our grandchildren and our unborn great-grandchildren.”
The governor said the only way to recover from a soaring national debt of nearly $16 trillion and an unemployment rate lingering around 8 percent is to shrink government.
The feeling of the day was light, but LePage’s speech was serious. He talked not of victories but of what still needed to be done, saying the state had failed to lower the cost of energy or reform state education in the two years since he has assumed the governorship.
He blamed the latter on school superintendents, who he accused of “double-dipping,” earning salaries and pensions after returning to work from retirement.
The governor didn’t earn points with supporters when he broke with the conservative “no tax increase” line.
“We’re gonna have to see higher taxes to pay down that [federal] debt,” he said.
But for many conservatives, cutting taxes is as much a moral imperative as it is a policy decision. Cheryl Parkman of Palermo said that regardless of how high the debt is, she was surprised LePage seemed resigned to tax increases.
“I would fight it tooth and nail,” she said. “You have to cut spending.”
Parkman’s husband, Waldo County Treasurer David Parkman, said free riders are the problem, not lowering taxes.
“We’re not creating any wealth in this country,” he said. “There’s too many people on the dole.”
Another audience member, Hazen Camber, a Manset landscaper, said he didn’t like the message but respected the governor’s honest approach.
“It’s not what you want to hear, but it’s true,” he said of the governor’s tax comment. “That’s why I like Paul LePage. He speaks the truth.”
On Sunday, LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor is not advocating for new or higher taxes but is resigned to the fact that if cutting spending doesn’t rein in the debt, taxes are the only solution left.
“He’s very reluctant in saying this is the only alternative we have,” Bennett said.
LePage also reiterated comments made earlier in the day during his weekly radio address, when he said his administration would not implement parts of Obama’s health care reform package. At Fort Knox, he told supporters that “we need to put good, solid Republicans in Congress and repeal Obamacare.”
Howie Carr, a Portland native turned conservative radio talk-show host in Massachusetts, mostly cracked jokes on the stage. But he also told stories of alleged food stamp fraud and criticized supporters of gay marriage for their repeated referendums to allow same-sex weddings in Maine.
Carr was more contemplative in an interview with reporters before the festival.
“I grew up in Maine in the 1960s and it was a very different state,” he said. “There were no food stamps. There was basically no welfare. Everybody fended for themselves. That’s the way the whole country was. I like many of the modern improvements in the country, but in many ways it was a better society when I was a kid. I’d like to see that old standard restored.”
All the speakers urged activists to vote in November, though no mentions of any specific candidates were made. References to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, U.S. Senate candidate and current Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, and U.S. House candidates Sen. Kevin Raye and John Courtney totaled exactly zero.
After the festival, Americans for Prosperity was scheduled to host a fundraiser dinner with LePage, Carr and Bragdon on the banks of the Penobscot River. Tickets were sold for $100.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.