AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday night formally announced his re-election campaign to hundreds of enthusiastic supporters.
LePage, speaking at the Buker Community Center in Augusta, touted his record of lowering taxes, paying down debt, shrinking Maine’s welfare rolls and working to invigorate the state’s economy during his first term as governor, and pledged to continue along the path forged in his first three years.
The incumbent governor emerged as a dark horse from a crowded GOP primary in 2010, and rode the conservative wave into the Blaine House in a year when many other small-government, tea-party backed Republicans surged into elected office.
On Tuesday, he sought to contrast himself with his opponents. He will run against six-term U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and independent businessman and lawyer Eliot Cutler, who worked in the administration of Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
“I came to the governorship from a background in business. I’m not one of those smooth-talking politicians. I came in as a job creator who knew how to grow Maine’s economy,” he said.
LePage was introduced by Rick Bennett, the state GOP party chairman, as well as Cyndi Robbins, a small-business owner who said despite supporting Michaud in his last two congressional campaigns — including a $500 campaign contribution in 2012 — she was supporting LePage for governor in 2014.
“Doing business is not only difficult when dealing with the ups and downs of the tourist seasons, it is also difficult doing business in a state that has not always been friendly to job creators,” she said. “But I believe that has changed here in Maine. It has changed in large part due to one man: Paul LePage.”
LePage noted that unemployment has gone down under his administration and that businesses, including the international shipping firm Eimskip, have moved into Maine in the last three years.
Another speaker, Theresa Dempsey, who said she’s an independent voter, praised LePage because of his personal dedication to fighting domestic violence. LePage was raised by an abusive father, and has used his bully pulpit — and hundreds of thousands of dollars from his discretionary fund — to fight domestic violence.
Dempsey said she spoke one-on-one with the governor after she and her children became victims.
“Tears began to well up in his eyes and I saw my governor start to cry,” she said. “I will never forget those moments. I was so moved by his actions and his kind words. He was not on camera. He was not a politician filming a TV ad. He was my governor, Paul LePage.”
Each speaker at the event uttered what has become the governor’s campaign theme: “Actions speak louder than words.” It’s a political slogan, but it’s also a subtle rebuke of the governor’s critics, who criticize LePage for his rough-around-the-edges demeanor and often combative style.
Those critics have sought to make a campaign issue of his tone, and of the series of controversial statements that began during the last gubernatorial election. LePage didn’t mention his critics or gubernatorial opponents head-on Tuesday, but downplayed their criticism.
Supporters made their opinion on the governor’s style known as they accepted bumper stickers, some of which were attached to signs or stuck to their bodies.
“Better LePage with his foot in his mouth, than a slick politician with his hands in my pocket,” they read.
The “actions” LePage hopes to impress upon voters are the policy achievements of his first term. During his first campaign, LePage rode the tea party wave of 2010 through a crowded primary and on to general election victory. He campaigned on small government, minimizing state debt, reforming welfare and making Maine more attractive to business.
Since entering the Blaine House, LePage has implemented the largest income tax cut in state history, reduced the state’s pension debt, instituted a five-year cap on beneficiaries of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and bolstered the state’s effort to prevent welfare fraud.
He also pushed for the renegotiation of a state liquor contract and used a bond based on the proceeds to pay down Medicaid debt owed to state hospitals to the tune of about $184 million, which drew federal matching funds to total nearly half a billion dollars. On education, LePage supported and oversaw the creation of the state’s first charter schools.
LePage said there’s still much more to be done, including lowering energy costs to attract more businesses to Maine, continuing budget and welfare reform, and controlling the growth of government.
“Bigger government, more welfare and higher taxes have not helped Mainers succeed,” he said. “They have not helped Maine families pay the bills or put their kids through college.”
There’s no debate that LePage has been notably savvy in achieving his goals. In the 2013 Democrat-controlled session, LePage proposed 25 bills and saw 16 become law, for a 64 percent success rate — higher than either party, or the Legislature as a whole.
And he wasn’t afraid to use the veto pen to stop legislation he opposed, issuing 83 vetoes in the first session after Democrats took back the Legislature. Despite Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, lawmakers sustained 78 of those vetoes, including two that thwarted Democrats’ efforts to expand Medicaid eligibility as allowed and funded by the Affordable Care Act.
Opponents characterize that success as a result of a bullying, “my way or the highway” approach to politics. Democrats have repeatedly claimed that the governor is regularly unwilling to negotiate with them, despite their party holding the reins of power in the Legislature.
LePage said Tuesday that he’s simply a “man of action, not a man of words.” He said he was a fighter.
“When I see a problem that needs to be solved, I take action,” he said. “I will keep fighting to make Maine a better place to live and do business for you and your family.”
The Michaud and Cutler campaigns both issued statements reacting to LePage formally entering the race.
“Gov. LePage wants us to focus on his actions, not his words,” Cutler wrote. “More important than either words or actions are performance and results. Maine continues to lag well behind New England and the rest of the nation in economic recovery. We remain stuck on the bottom of Forbes’ list of places to do business, and the governor has failed to bring people together in Augusta to work on behalf of Maine citizens.”
Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman, Lizzy Reinholt, said, “Gov. LePage is a skilled politician who can excite his tea party base, but we all know that Mike is the strongest candidate in the race, and momentum for his campaign continues to build. Maine voters are ready for a governor they can be proud of.”
But all that was the furthest thing from the minds of LePage’s supporters in Augusta. They chanted “Four more years!” as the governor exited the stage to shake hands and talk with attendees.
“He’s just fearless in taking on the tough issues,” said Jim Donnelly, a banker from Brewer, who said he supported LePage in 2010 and will support him again next year. “It’ll be an interesting political season.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.