AUGUSTA, Maine — When Paul LePage first ran for governor in 2010, he touted “people before politics” as his mantra.
It serves as a pledge to his constituents that LePage will put the interests of Maine people ahead of political posturing that’s designed to keep an individual or a party in power. Though LePage’s effectiveness at accomplishing that has been the subject of much debate, there is little question that he’s followed a slight variation on the theme:
Personal before politics.
That theme has become more evident during LePage’s second term. Throughout his two gubernatorial campaigns and during his first term, the Republican governor regularly railed against what he called decades of failed policies foisted on the Maine people by Democratic governors and liberal legislatures. Now, the target of his ire has shifted from those policies to the people who enact them and anyone else whom the fiery governor sees as an obstacle to his goal of re-inventing state government as an efficient, pared-down, conservative operation. As such, the rhetoric and the conflict it entails have become much more personal.
Through robocalls, public forums and impromptu media appearances, LePage has gone on the offensive against legislators, individually and collectively. He has called them out by name and castigated them as a group.
At the same time, LePage has intensified his efforts to be in the same room with voters, engaging them in one-on-one or small-group dynamics, thereby capitalizing on a style of retail campaigning that catapulted the former Waterville mayor to the top of Maine’s political power structure.
Many politicians go personal to lend juice to their arguments — such as when the president points out a teacher or veteran in the audience during a State of the Union address. LePage has established a pattern of publicly identifying his foes and allies, sometimes with name-calling, sometimes with his personal reflections on public officials working around him.
He often addresses them directly, but in ways meant to send a message to people outside the room.
There is perhaps no better example of this than LePage’s opening comments during a Jan. 8 news conference in response to the previous day’s international media firestorm over his comments about drug dealers impregnating Maine white girls. LePage opened by paraphrasing one of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” movies:
“Youse don’t like me, and I don’t like youse,” he said to the roomful of reporters.
That’s just one example of a communication style that shows up regularly in LePage’s public comments, particularly when he goes off-script. His personal feelings regularly supersede whatever he and his staff had planned to communicate in prepared remarks.
No time for niceties
In a State House steeped in decorum and traditions of forced civility between the executive and legislative branches, LePage breaks long-accepted rules. He does not hide his animosity, methodically paying back political scores.
His willingness to affect the personal lives of political foes triggered a pending federal lawsuit by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who is not employed by Good Will-Hinckley because of LePage’s intervention.
During an impromptu March 2013 news conference outside the Blaine House, he referred to the Legislature as a “ day care.”
On more than one occasion, he has called Portland Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond — a legislative leader for the past four years — a “ little spoiled brat.”
He has said that former Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash — who has attacked LePage personally on more than one occasion — has a “ dark heart.” And in front of a statewide audience during a gubernatorial debate in 2014, he called Democratic candidate and former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud a liar.
The name-calling hasn’t been confined to Democrats. He has frequently lambasted moderate Republican Sen. Roger Katz since the Augusta senator wrote an OpEd criticizing the governor’s brash statements in 2011.
He has said the Legislature is full of “socialists” and that Senate Republicans are “liberals,” both of which are loaded labels designed to harm re-election bids of lawmakers who did not support LePage’s 2015 budget or otherwise earned the governor’s personal wrath.
LePage fights with all his might to defend allies
In 2014, the Democrat-led Senate scuttled LePage’s nomination of Susan Dench of Falmouth to the University of Maine System board of trustees. LePage and some Republicans framed Democrats’ opposition to Dench’s nomination as “character assassination.” In a written statement, LePage called Democrats closed-minded and vicious, especially in contrast to Dench, whom he called “a woman of integrity.”
He used the same tactic Tuesday during a judicial confirmation hearing for Cynthia Montgomery, his chief legal counsel. LePage showed up at the hearing after Montgomery faced critical questions from Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.
Defending his administration’s choice, LePage mentioned each of his former in-house attorneys by name, extolling their personal virtues.
The message was clear: Lawmakers should consider LePage’s personal assessment of individuals before casting votes. LePage’s comments helped lead to the committee’s unanimous recommendation of Montgomery, even though some lawmakers said earlier in the day that they expected opposing votes.
Taking his message to the streets
LePage has been on a much-publicized town hall tour for months, touting his policy goals of lowering taxes, education costs and the price of electricity. He says he is hosting these meetings so he can have genuine face-to-face interactions with random Mainers, though the events have been to some degree scripted and the questions from the public screened by LePage’s staff.
The series of meetings is designed to build grassroots support for LePage initiatives that have failed in the Legislature and others that could be the subject of a statewide referendum in 2017 if the Maine Republican Party gathers enough signatures.
It also provides him with a largely unchallenged opportunity to attack the Legislature, laying campaign groundwork in hopes of convincing voters to elect candidates more supportive of his agenda.
LePage also has announced he will break from tradition by not giving a State of the State speech in the same room as the Legislature and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices. LePage said he opted to deliver the address by letter because of the impeachment attempt against him.
Despite the fact that it will deprive him of a chance to make his case to Maine viewers during a live broadcast, snubbing legislators by refusing to give the speech in the same room with them represents another opportunity to toss a personal rebuke their way.
He is at his best one on one
LePage is clearly more comfortable in small groups than he is in front of large crowds, another example of his preference for personal over political interactions. Often, those exchanges happen outside the view of television cameras.
In 2013, during an anti-domestic violence event at the Augusta YMCA, LePage made a public speech in which he called domestic violence “ the most heinous of all crimes in society.” LePage’s well-documented temper flashed when he angrily told a Democratic tracker who was recording the event to leave. But then LePage stepped away from the podium and huddled with then 14-year-old Gabriel Brady, who five years prior had watched his 29-year-old mother be shot to death.
LePage said a few quiet words to the boy before removing a state of Maine pin from his lapel and giving it to Brady.
“He told me just to have hope and to just keep going,” Brady said afterward. “It means a lot.”
That ability to make strong, immediate personal connections — whether buttressing a vulnerable child or verbally eviscerating a perceived enemy — 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.