Maine’s first lady balances life and causes, steers clear of politics

Posted Aug. 02, 2014, at 9:58 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 03, 2014, at 9:38 a.m.

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Maine's first lady, Ann LePage, says in her office in the Blaine House in Augusta that she decided she would make veterans, military members and their families her top cause.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Maine's first lady, Ann LePage, says in her office in the Blaine House in Augusta that she decided she would make veterans, military members and their families her top cause. Buy Photo
Maine's first lady, Ann LePage, sits in her office in the Blaine House in Augusta on Thursday afternoon.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Maine's first lady, Ann LePage, sits in her office in the Blaine House in Augusta on Thursday afternoon. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA — You would think being married to one of Maine’s most colorful and controversial governors wouldn’t be easy, but Ann LePage makes it look that way.

During a recent one-on-one interview with the Sun Journal, LePage spoke about what it’s like to be one of Maine’s most prominent figureheads, what it’s like to live in the “fishbowl” of the public eye, why she decided she would make veterans, military members and their families her top cause, and what advice she shares with her husband, Gov. Paul LePage.

Unassuming and lively, Ann LePage is quick to laugh, even at herself, and quick to note she knows her husband’s passions sometimes get the best of him.

“I tell Paul, ‘You know, it’s OK to be passionate about the things you believe in, but when you are passionate you’ve just got to do it with a smile on your face,’” Ann LePage said.

She said her husband really cares about improving the lives of Maine people, and she fully supports him in his efforts.

The couple will be married 30 years in September. They met while working at the same paper mill. He worked in the natural resources division, and she was a union representative for office workers. They also worked together for a time at the popular salvage and surplus chain, Marden’s, for which Paul LePage served as general manager.

They have two adult children together and are close to Paul LePage’s children and grandchildren from a previous marriage. In fact, the grandkids are in town for a visit this weekend.

In her role as first lady, Ann LePage has been an apolitical star in an era of Maine history dominated by bare-knuckled partisanship.

But when she’s working with veterans or at a public school reading to children — she’s big on literacy and helping the elderly — she often follows her own advice, with a beaming smile on her face.

To say she was a reluctant first lady when her husband first took office would be an understatement, she said. She’s more comfortable in a flannel shirt and jeans than in any fancy dress, but once she took to the stage, she did it with gusto, flair and determination.

“I like the grunt work and being in the back of the room,” Ann LePage said. “So being pushed to the front of the room was really out of my comfort zone.”

Those who have been around the first family say Ann LePage is a hands-on kind of woman.

“She doesn’t like to be waited on,” Brent Littlefield, a top political consultant to Paul LePage, said. Littlefield said he doesn’t attend many functions at the governor’s residence, the Blaine House. But when he does, he has seen Ann doing the work that usually is left to staff.

“I’ve seen her clearing the table and helping with the dishes,” Littlefield said. “She’s just a true reflection of Maine and Maine people: She’s just a real person. She just is who she is.”

As for regular family meals, Paul and Ann LePage seldom use the elaborate dining rooms in the governor’s mansion. They instead prefer to eat their meals in the kitchen around a butcher-block table. Ann said they usually have four to six people with them at the evening meals, including a state trooper who is assigned to protect them.

Living in the Blaine House, the family’s primary residence in Maine, requires giving up a fair amount of privacy, because they share the home with the staff who work at the historic building. But Ann LePage said they’ve become close to the staff and they are all treated like family.

In 2010, when then-Waterville Mayor Paul LePage decided he would seek the Republican Party’s nomination to run for governor, Ann LePage said she never really considered what role she would play, should her husband ultimately win.

One role she played was driver for her husband during the campaign.

“I didn’t really give it any thought at all, while Paul was running for public office,” she said. “It never really occurred to me that I was going to have to play a public role. And then he won the primary, and I still didn’t give it too much thought. Then, come September, it was like, ‘Wow, holy moly. If he wins, that means I’ve got to come out of the closet, so to speak.’”

She decided working with veterans and the military would be her focal point. To that end, she will do a tandem parachute jump in Aroostook County next weekend in support of Travis Mills’ work to help veterans injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mills, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, who was injured on duty in Afghanistan, is one of only five quadruple amputees to survive such injuries. He is moving to Maine — his wife’s home state — and runs a foundation that works with veterans in outdoor settings.

Ann LePage is a big supporter and a big fan. She encourages nearly everyone she meets to get to know Travis Mills, who has become a friend of the first lady.

Even three years into the job, Ann LePage said she still doesn’t think of herself as first lady.

“I really just wanted to stay Ann, because I don’t think of myself as first lady material,” she said.

Others would beg to differ, especially her husband, who makes frequent mention of his wife and his pride in her work.

Ann LePage earned the nickname “Anna Banana” during her first trip from Maine to Washington, D.C., with the Patriot Riders’ escort of the Wreaths Across America convoy.

The nickname was the CB handle the truckers gave her when she conversed with them on the road, and it’s a name the governor has shared with the press on occasion when he mentions the first lady.

When she met with a reporter and a photographer/videographer Thursday, she quipped, “Anna Banana is ready for prime time.”

The wreath convoy brings holiday wreaths from Maine to be placed on the graves of service members interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It also makes stops along the way to speak to schoolchildren and others about the sacrifices members in the armed services make for their country.

Littlefield recalled being on hand for a stop at the Naval Academy in Bethesda, Maryland, where Ann LePage was asked to speak without notice. Her impromptu speech brought tears to the eyes of those in attendance, Littlefield said.

LePage notes her grandfather was a veteran, but neither her father nor her husband served in the military. Even so, supporting the military is something she believes in.

“It’s not like we had a military upbringing or a military family, but I just think it’s so important that we as Americans support those who put themselves in harm’s way,” she said.

Once she determined she wanted to focus her time as first lady on helping veterans, she did it without a political thought in mind. She said she was warned by ranking members in Maine’s military elite that not everybody in the military would share her husband’s political views.

After her first year, she had won over much of the brass and was awarded the Maine National Guard’s top honor for civilians and later was honored by the U.S. Army at the national level for her enthusiastic support of military families.

Ann LePage also regularly attends military funerals, troop send-offs and welcome-home ceremonies. Once a month, she stands with the Freeport Flag Ladies and hands out blue-star banners to as many Maine military families as possible. And she hosts an annual reception for Operation Tribute, a nonprofit that provides Christmas presents to military children. She hosts a Military Kids’ Ice Cream Social prior to the start of school, providing backpacks and school supplies. She and the governor also host a military family for dinner at the Blaine House once a month.

Even with all that, Ann LePage says there’s much more to do, and she wants to be involved.

“(Post-traumatic stress disorder) is a huge problem,” she said. “It breaks my heart when I see homeless vets on the side of the street with signs. I think a lot of work needs to be done there. A lot of these guys and gals coming back, we need to get jobs for them, so I’ve been on a big push when people expand their businesses, urging them to look to the veterans’ community.”

She said it has been an honor to serve as first lady and oversee the care of the Blaine House.

“We just happen to live here, but this house really belongs to the people of Maine,” she said. “It’s their home.”

She said having a husband who often is in the news — sometimes in a less-than-positive light — is something she takes in stride.

“He is who he is,” Ann LePage said. “He really is. He campaigned on trying to do something to make the lives of Maine people better, and — right, wrong or indifferent — he is going to do exactly what he said he was going to do.”

She said like any wife, she gives her husband advice all the time. “Sometimes he takes it; sometimes he doesn’t.”

She said the governor has been “super supportive” of the work she does.

She would be happy to serve another four years, but she and her husband have made peace with the possibility their time at the Blaine House could be drawing to a close.

“If it’s in the stars — if it’s in the stars … ” Ann LePage said. “I can honestly say, and we both feel, that if he’s re-elected, that’s fine; but if the people of Maine decide they don’t want him and they want someone else, that’s fine, too. You just roll with the punches. He will do something else. Who knows? Maybe I’ll go back to work at Marden’s.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

 

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