NORTH FRANKFORT, Maine — Mike Thibodeau has been called a lot of things: truck driver, father, road builder, husband, shovel-maker, Republican state representative and now, most recently, president of the Maine Senate.
No one ever branded him liberal until Gov. Paul LePage.
It came as a startling statement about a guy who has been one of Maine’s leading conservative voices, particularly during recent debates about landmark issues such as same-sex marriage and expanding MaineCare.
Until recently, Thibodeau, 49, had been one of the governor’s top supporters. Their relationship soured this year during a bruising, intense state budget fight that divided Thibodeau and 20 Senate Republicans into a faction opposing House Republicans and LePage.
During that uncertain time, when state government appeared headed for a shutdown, Thibodeau’s unexpected emergence as a proponent of compromise — in spite of stern rhetoric from others in his party and LePage — earned him plaudits for statesmanship and sensibility.
It also earned Thibodeau and others the governor’s scorn in news conferences, personal letters and radio interviews. Maine People Before Politics, a conservative political action committee that LePage founded and his daughter, Lauren LePage, leads, even placed robocalls to their constituents to vilify them for working with “liberal Democrats.”
Now the second-highest elected official in state government hasn’t spoken with LePage in months. The ordeal has affected Thibodeau where he says it hurts most: at home in his Waldo County district.
“There’s no question, folks I’ve been friends for decades with, they don’t call,” Thibodeau said recently, taking a break from his snow shovel-making business in North Frankfort. “But the guys at the store in the morning who are worrying about hauling a load of gravel, they recognize that I’m a conservative.”
The difference between him and LePage is not ideology, then, but approach.
“I get the fact that the governor has an agenda, but in a representative democracy there’s a lot of people with ideas,” Thibodeau said. “You have to be willing to work with everyone in the process. No one person gets to dictate all aspects of policy.”
It was a Wednesday afternoon in early June in Augusta. Budget negotiations weren’t going well. Months of work by the Legislature’s budget committee had ended in a stalemate. Legislative leaders were taking over the talks. A budget deal struck the day before had fallen apart overnight. Fingers were being pointed.
Dueling news conferences between House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, fiercely criticized the other for reneging on deals and being unwilling to compromise. It was an ugly day for politics in Maine on many fronts.
Except, in the opinion of many observers, for Thibodeau.
In his news conference, Thibodeau emerged as a peacemaker, calling for both sides to return to negotiations as the budget fight looked ever more likely to shut down government
“Because of politics creeping into something that it never should, we end up where we are today, with people pulling back,” Thibodeau said that day, words that established him as a surprising, unexpected voice of moderation — and in opposition to LePage.
It wasn’t always that way. When Thibodeau started presiding over the Senate in November 2014, he faced two important and divisive issues for which he was heavily criticized by opposition Democrats.
First was a razor-close election in the Falmouth-area Senate district. Election night tallies had put Democrat Catherine Breen ahead of Republican Cathleen Manchester by seven votes ahead, but the secretary of state’s office overturned the result in a recount. But 21 disputed ballots left the election unresolved.
With important elections of constitutional officers looming, Democrats called upon Thibodeau to delay seating Manchester in the Senate, but he took the harder line and seated her anyway. Eventually, a re-examination of the ballots gave the seat back to Breen.
The second issue arose in March, when Republican Sen. Michael Willette of Presque Isle came under fire for inflammatory Facebook posts. Thibodeau rebuffed calls from Democrats, the NAACP and others to subject Willette to an ethics probe or discipline him.
Thibodeau’s emergence during the budget came against this backdrop. Alfond, who served as Senate president before Thibodeau, said his leadership style changed considerably.
“I think Mike Thibodeau has evolved as a leader of the Senate, no doubt,” Alfond said. “There were many examples of the evolution, but nothing to me crystallized it more than after Gov. LePage and Lauren LePage started making phone calls in his district. I’ve never seen that done before. He was just so upset.”
Alfond said he thinks being targeted by LePage changed Thibodeau.
“From that moment on I saw Mike Thibodeau really understand that his leadership, this institution and the state Senate are all under attack by the governor,” Alfond said. “It was pretty amazing to be right there by his side for that.”
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, became another unlikely ally of Thibodeau in budget negotiations, though Eves admits he and Thibodeau are about as far apart ideologically as any two Maine politicians.
“I have to give him a whole lot of credit just for being a man of his word,” Eves said. “When he says something, you can believe it. When you negotiate with someone like that, you can get things done … which was something I was not anticipating going into working with him as presiding officers.”
LePage, through his office, declined to comment for this story.
‘Future of our state’
Thibodeau started driving a truck for his father’s then-fledgling rock-crushing and asphalt business after graduating from Hampden Academy.
Today, he and his wife, Stacy, run their snow shovel-making venture, Mt. Waldo Plastics, which they started in 2014. They have churned out some 50,000 snow shovels since. With winter approaching and orders coming from across New England, molding and assembling the shovels until well past midnight has become their norm.
Thibodeau said the noisy monotony of the hulking molding machine and the repetitive nature of linking scoop and handle are relaxing compared with the stress of keeping government going.
The simplicity of the process mirrors how Thibodeau likes a lot of things in life. His rides a 1969 Ski-Doo snowmobile in the winter. His political campaigning, both for himself and other Republicans, is done from behind the wheel of a red 1947 Mack truck he restored bolt by bolt.
“It gets 5 miles to the gallon,” he said, pointing out the “beautiful” welding job that restored the rig’s formerly corroded undercarriage. “It’ll pull a mountain over, but very slowly.”
Inside his factory, he has another relic: an ice cream machine powered by an antique John Deere hit-and-miss motor that was a familiar tool in farms and factories a century ago. He brings it to fairs and other charity events.
So what’s his favorite flavor?
“Plain vanilla,” he said. “I’m a pretty basic guy.”
It may take something sweeter for the relationship between the governor and the Legislature to improve, though. Thibodeau said this is crucial, but he acknowledged it is up to LePage.
“The sad part of all this is that the governor could be out there taking credit for some of our accomplishments, but it’s been all negative,” said Thibodeau. “I hope the governor reconsiders that because we need him to be successful. We’re talking about the future of our state.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that election night results showed Republican Cathleen Manchester winning the Falmouth-area Maine Senate district race. Democrat Catherine Breen led by seven votes in preliminary election night tallies.