After eight years under Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Eves — who served as House speaker from 2012 to 2016 — is using words like civility, integrity, collaboration and respect to describe himself. But are those the qualities that can break through the entrenched partisan gridlock that resulted in 2017’s government shutdown and left critical legislative business unfinished this year?
LePage and President Donald Trump have proven that candidates who use stump speeches while in public office as a bully pulpit — insulting, manipulating and threatening their way toward their policy goals — can win elections and advance policy initiatives.
During his first term, LePage attracted negative national attention for his inflammatory statements. Democrats built their campaign strategy around repudiating LePage. That helped them regain control of the Legislature in 2012, leading to Eves’ election as House speaker, but the strategy failed in 2014, when LePage roared to easy re-election.
Now, the four Republicans vying to replace him are working to cement themselves in his image, albeit with all of them promising to some degree that they’ll operate without LePage’s verbal bluster. Meanwhile, the seven Democrats running for governor are vying to convince voters that they are best equipped to unravel LePage’s personal and ideological legacy.
While LePage seemed to delight in tormenting political enemies — fortifying his executive power by vilifying legislative leaders, including Eves — the 41-year-old North Berwick Democrat says Mainers are now looking for a unifier and that he can best fill that role.
“If people think I’m a nice guy, that’s not a terrible starting point for negotiations, but don’t mistake that for being a pushover or someone who is not going to fight aggressively,” said Eves during a recent interview. “Part of my effectiveness as a leader is that you don’t have to scream and shout and get red in the face to get things done.”
After showdowns with LePage and other opponents, some of Eves’ biggest initiatives failed. Working on issues confronted by senior citizens was a hallmark of his time in the Legislature, but progress was less than he’d hoped. His Keep ME Home initiative, built around a $65 million bond to create 1,000 new housing units for senior citizens, was pared to $15 million and 250 units. The bond won approval in a 2015 referendum but to date has not come to fruition because of LePage’s refusal to sell the bonds.
He championed a $17 million bill to give raises to the state’s direct-care workers, who provide medical care and other supports to people in their homes, but it was reduced to $125,000 a year. Those workers received raises in last year’s state budget, but those raises could be reversed because the Legislature failed to enact a bill to fund them after July 1.
Eves fought back against LePage’s and Republicans’ 2013 gutting of the state’s property tax circuit breaker program, but was able to restore only a portion of the program — though additional tax savings were targeted at homeowners over age 65 in 2014.
Despite those efforts, what many voters likely remember most about Eves resulted from the governor forcing a publicly funded charter school in Fairfield to fire him as its president by threatening to withhold state funding. In 2015, Eves sued LePage for blackmailing the school. The suit has been on a roller coaster ever since, rejected on appeal in 2017 and revived by a federal appeals court in January of this year. Oral arguments were held last month in Boston and a decision could come at any time.
Eves says the case and its outcome have little bearing on his campaign but show that sometimes, being aggressive looks like patience.
“When I make my mind up about where we’re going, we get there and it’s by everyday stubbornness that we get there,” said Eves.
James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said Eves’ years of experience leading the legislative process would be a clear asset, but perhaps not enough to avoid gridlock if the balance remains tight.
In that case, “Eves’ leadership style being low-key could be a liability,” Melcher said. That could bode well for Attorney Janet Mills, who according to a recent poll is battling Eves for the lead in the Democratic primary. While Eves generally downplays his personal conflicts with LePage, Mills is emphasizing years of clashes with the Republican governor in her campaign.
“There are a lot of Democrats out there who are kind of mad and a lot of them are in a mood of pushing back,” said Melcher. “Janet Mills’ approach is to go right after that.”
But Eves said Mills isn’t progressive enough, calling her a “conservative Democrat” for her stances on gun control, the minimum wage, drug possession laws and tribal rights.
Several legislators — most of whom declined to be identified for this story — said Eves handled his duties as House speaker well, but some thought he could have been tougher on LePage in the legislative realm. Former independent Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship, who spearheaded a failed effort to impeach LePage, called Eves “fair and collaborative” but wishes he’d supported the impeachment effort instead of focusing in the courts.
“I know that Mark will start fresh and extend the olive branch and try to bring both sides together, but if things get tough and people don’t want to negotiate in good faith, it can all go downhill fast,” said Evangelos.
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