Editor’s note: This story is part of a series examining Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy as his tenure comes to a close, including his impact on the economy, politics and more. You can read the rest of the series here.
In many ways, Paul LePage’s tenure as governor upended the order of things in Maine politics.
His brash style excited supporters and angered opponents. He explored the limits of executive power. He also revealed deep political divides between urban and rural Maine.
But LePage’s unconventional political style has without a doubt profoundly influenced politics in the Pine Tree State. That influence may very well outlast his eight years in office.
During his time in office, we have tried to make sense of LePage and his approach to governance.
Here are 10 dives into LePage’s style and politics and what we took away from them.
When it comes to LePage, Mainers attitudes toward the businessman-turned-pol are miles apart. It’s been that way since the very beginning.
In 2010, only 19 percent of Portland voters went for LePage, while 91 miles to the north in the Kennebec County town of Albion, 61 percent of voters backed him. To Portlanders, he was bombastic and bully, and to those in Albion, LePage’s rough-around-the-edges style was a symbol of his authenticity — “He’s kind of like me.”
LePage came to office with the goal of setting Maine’s “fiscal house in order,” a message that appealed to voters in 2010 as the state continued to deal with the fallout of the Great Recession. LePage had no patience for the typical give-and-take in politics and refused to “compromise” on his principles.
That often led early on, and later during his second term, to verbal sparring with lawmakers and his opponents. Sometimes he came out on top, other times his comments got in the way of his policy goals.
But that was just part of doing business, as he saw it, in the Blaine House: “The little bit I got done is because I forced it. If I was nicey-nice, I would have got nothing done.”
Safety net programs have functioned as a political punching bag since the earliest days of the LePage administration. The governor has used the rhetorical power of “welfare” to try to win the public over on issues.
And LePage has extended the fight beyond food stamps and cash benefit programs to the Affordable Care Act, which he branded as “welfare expansion,” and even municipal revenue sharing, which he blasted as “welfare for communities.”
LePage’s rhetoric tapped into a deep-seated skepticism of public benefits targeted toward lower-income Americans, and proved its power.
LePage once was compared to Maine’s legendary Edmund Muskie, who helped propel Maine Democrats to a decadeslong hold on power in the state — until LePage came along. That has given hope to the state’s Republicans that he may reshape Maine’s political landscape.
The governor’s “damn the torpedoes” mentality and wielding of executive authority reflected a political doctrine informed by the private sector in which leverage, not consensus, is key in winning fraught political battles.
LePage’s legacy certainly influenced Maine Republicans’ choice to run Shawn Moody during the 2018 election, and has carved out a new course for the state party.
Though Moody’s bid to continue the governor’s legacy failed at the ballot box in November, LePage’s doctrine will likely reverberate well beyond his eight years in office.
In his political arsenal, the veto pen arguably has been one of LePage’s most effective weapons for achieving his policy vision. He has inked the death of more bills than all other Maine governors, combined, since 1917.
There has been a method to his vetoes. Early in his second term, LePage demonstrated that there were certain bills destined for a veto, particularly studies, “feel-good” bills and any half-measures.
While he has been famous for declaring that he would veto all Democratic-backed bills in the first session of the 127th Legislature, LePage also has consigned Republican bills to his veto pen when they don’t align with his vision.
When LePage ran for office in 2010, his slogan was “people before politics.” As his years in office went by, there was a slight variation on this same theme: “personal before politics.”
While the governor spent his first term attacking Democratic policies, in his second term those attacks focused more and more on the individuals who pushed for those policies and anyone who stood in the way of his objectives.
At the same time, LePage intensified his efforts to engage voters in one-on-one or small-group dynamics, thereby capitalizing on a style of retail campaigning that catapulted the former Waterville mayor to Maine’s highest public office.
The ability to make strong, immediate personal connections reveals why LePage engenders such loyalty from his base of supporters, much to the astonishment of those outside the state who only know of him through impersonal media reports about his often outlandish behavior.
LePage was never afraid to bulldoze his way over opponents to achieve his objectives. That came to a head in 2015 when Mark Eves sued LePage over getting Good Will-Hinckley to rescind a job offer to the Democratic House speaker.
Good Will-Hinckley operated a charter school, and Eves was an opponent of charter schools while in the Legislature. LePage succeeded in getting Eves’ job offer withdrawn by threatening to withhold some state funds from the organization. Eves then sued the governor.
A federal judge ruled that LePage is legally immune as long as he operates within the scope of legislative business, and that threatening to withhold discretionary funding from Good Will-Hinckley unless it fired Eves is within those bounds.
His legal victory over Eves showcased just how powerful a governor who pushes the limits of authority can be.
When he first ran for governor, LePage pledged to make Maine a competitive and cost-effective place in which to do business.
The governor has focused his energy on eliminating the state income tax, reducing energy costs and lightening regulations in hopes of reviving the state’s flagging manufacturing and natural resource industries and attracting businesses from out of state. But economists have said the results of these efforts have been mixed. That’s in part because the state’s economy already has transitioned from one largely based on extracting natural resources to an urban service economy.
It fits within the governor’s overall focus — be it economic development or conservation — on rural areas, where he has been most popular.
LePage’s antipathy for the media is well known, from calling reporters “ pencil terrorists” to famously saying — while in a fighter jet simulator — that he wanted to find the Portland Press Herald building and “ blow it up.”
So when it came to interacting with the public, LePage often preferred small groups or friendly radio shows.
That form of retail politics became LePage’s main method of communication with voters. Those appearances allowed him to deliver the message he wanted — factual or not — and avoid tough questions. On welfare reform, for example, LePage repeated blatant falsehoods, such as that half of all food stamps are redeemed between midnight and 3 a.m. on the day they are issued, while the correct figure is about 0.65 percent.
But as when he first ran for office, his audiences, whether in town halls or on radio calls, reacted favorably to his rough-around-the-edges style that often came out.
During his tenure, LePage has often sparred with environmentalists. He has demonstrated opposition to certain conservation projects, famously withholding voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program before eventually releasing them.
But LePage on occasion found conservation projects he can support, and it says something about his priorities when it comes to conservation.
The proposal in question was to protect the Big Six Forest, a 23,600-acre property that contains the head of the St. John River along the Quebec border and may have America’s biggest sugarbush with 340,000 taps that in 2013 yielded 24 percent of Maine’s maple sugar production and 3.4 percent of the national output. Its owner, Paul Fortin, was also a LePage donor.
While LePage’s office couched support for the project as consistent with his jobs-minded approach, a land trust official said it shows how the governor has favored rural conservation over more accessible projects near population centers.
LePage found a new way to test executive power in March 2017 when he issued a pardon for a husky named Dakota destined to be euthanized after killing one dog and attacking another.
Gubernatorial pardons normally come after hearings on petitions submitted to a clemency board by people whose livelihoods are affected by old convictions. The Maine Constitution gives the governor wide authority to remit “all forfeitures and penalties” after convictions and to “grant reprieves, commutations and pardons.”
But LePage didn’t go through his board in this case. Instead, he intervened by attaching an official-looking pardon document to a news release on the dog’s case after it was brought to his attention.
The Kennebec County district attorney’s office argued in court documents that LePage had no authority to pardon Dakota because there has been no conviction, and that he didn’t follow proper procedure in issuing it because Maine law requires public notice and a pardon requires a hearing.
It was not the first time LePage tested the authority of his office, but it was certainly a novel approach to wielding executive power. But after a state judge agreed to a deal to let Dakota live, the question of whether the governor has the authority to pardon a dog remains unanswered.