WATERVILLE, Maine – Paul LePage, who once said he would tell President Barack Obama to “go to hell” and do without Washington’s help, is getting the chance to carry out his pledge to slash government.
Sworn in Wednesday as Maine’s 74th governor, LePage is confronting a projected $800 million budget shortfall over the next two years with a display of confidence his supporters have come to expect.
“I’m going to be the Chris Christie of Maine,” he said in an interview, referring to the budget-cutting New Jersey governor. “My goals are to reverse the trend of increasing taxes, reduce the size and scope of government and bring common sense to Augusta.” He also said he might not need a second term if all goes as planned.
The tea party-backed Republican’s bravado was a trademark of his successful campaign. LePage, 62, said Democratic opponent Libby Mitchell, 70 at the time, was too old to serve. He insisted regulations once forced him to take a census of buffalo while working for a power company, a claim for which Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has no record. And at a candidates’ forum, he said welfare recipients who can’t wean themselves off public assistance would be given a bus ticket to neighboring Massachusetts.
Describing his youth as one of abuse and homelessness, LePage also campaigned as the candidate of change and won 38 percent of the vote, enough to prevail in a five-way race. A three-term mayor of Waterville, and general manager of Marden’s, a chain of discount stores, he gives up both jobs for his new post.
At a Republican forum in September, LePage told a group of fishermen he would react strongly to any attempts by Obama to interfere in Maine’s affairs. “As your governor, you’re going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying, ‘Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell,’” he said.
He replaces term-limited Democrat John Baldacci. Maine Republicans retook the state Senate and House too, giving them control of the executive and legislative branches for the first time since 1966.
“Wave elections like this produce hell-raising leaders who speak their minds and try to shake things up,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
LePage beat six Republicans in a June 8 primary including Les Otten, founder of the American Skiing Co. and a former Boston Red Sox co-owner. In the general election, he defeated four candidates including Mitchell. Eliot Cutler, an energy adviser in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, finished second by barely more than 1 percentage point.
Creating jobs and cutting red tape were LePage themes for boosting the economy in Maine, where the unemployment rate is 7.3 percent compared with 9.8 percent nationally.
LePage cut taxes in each of his first five years as mayor of Waterville and held them steady in the sixth, according to Mary-Anne LaMarre, a former Democratic city councilor there.
“He was phenomenal,” she said.
LePage has said he grew up poor and Catholic as one of 18 children in a French-Canadian enclave in Lewiston. He said his abusive father beat him so badly at age 11 that he landed in the hospital, and then his father bribed him with 50 cents to tell doctors he fell down the stairs.
LePage was a provocative campaigner. In an August radio interview on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, LePage said he was working for a peat-powered utility plant and was ordered by the state to count the buffalo.
Donna Gormley of the Department of Environmental Protection said the agency’s records show no such order.
LePage stands by his statement that he was told to make the survey, spokesman Dan Demeritt said.
“Paul is very authentic and free-spoken,” Demeritt said. “There may be times where we get a date or a fact wrong, but the sentiment is always very genuine.”
Kerri Davis, 26, of Fairfield, finds the new governor’s style refreshing.
“If he can tell the president to go to hell, he can probably get a lot done,” she said.