At the center of most of the political conflicts at the State House in recent years have been two names: Paul LePage and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette.
Together, along with the reliable votes of the minority Republican House caucus, they have shut down state government to prevent a tax increase, rejected Medicaid expansion, blocked scores of bills from Democrats and upheld LePage’s vetoes of even more.
Now LePage is at the end of his tenure and Fredette, 54, who was first elected to the House with the 2010 Republican wave, wants to succeed him.
Despite being the governor’s most ardent legislative ally, Fredette has not gained LePage’s support in the gubernatorial race. LePage has not personally endorsed anyone but many of his political operatives and Cabinet members support either Gorham businessman Shawn Moody or former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
“I’ve said all along, why the governor doesn’t come out and fully endorse Ken Fredette baffles me,” Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, an influential member of the Appropriations Committee, said. “The governor must have his reason.”
Perhaps it is because Fredette says he is a different sort of politician.
“I’m not Paul LePage,” Fredette said during an interview Wednesday. “I don’t want to be Paul LePage, and I wouldn’t govern like Paul LePage. I have to run on my own record, and that sort of is what it is. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”
Fredette, an attorney and Maine Air National Guardsman, has elicited virulent criticism from many for his tactics, which have been called obstructionism by some, and even “terrorism” earlier this year by Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon. He has been demeaned as “Little Ken” by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and had a frosty, standoffish relationship with Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport.
When protesters and advocacy groups filled the State House halls during last year’s shutdown and the waning days of this year’s session, many aimed their ire at Fredette.
Still, Fredette’s House colleagues are strongly supportive and have elected him to his leadership role three times. Timberlake called Fredette a “good leader” who has “been a true Republican for his whole life.” Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, a stalwart member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said that as minority leader, Fredette has been the face of the caucus and as such, has “taken a lot of arrows for expressing our caucus’ views.”
However, neither has endorsed Fredette. Timberlake backs Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon, who he considers a close family friend, and Sanderson endorsed Mayhew last year after having worked closely with her on health policy issues. Fredette admits there are precious few House members publicly supporting his candidacy.
“This is a primary campaign, where it’s a family fight, and people oftentimes don’t want to get involved, whether it’s with money or endorsements,” Fredette said. “They sometimes want to sit on the sidelines and run it out.”
Republican Rep. Scott Strom, R-Pittsfield, whose district abuts Fredette’s Newport district, is one who offers full-fledged support.
“I know he’s not the front-runner at this point, but I think he is the one guy who from day one after the election is most prepared to be governor,” Strom said.
It may be a surprise to some that Fredette is framing himself as a collaborator who would emphasize upfront negotiations with Democrats as governor. The first major task for whoever is elected will be proposing a two-year state budget about two months after the election, and Fredette said he’d use that time “building consensus.”
“You need to understand what are the priorities of the people on the other side of the aisle,” he said. “That’s a way that you avoid a high degree of conflict at the end of the process.”
That statement doesn’t ring true for Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who was a House Republican under Fredette’s leadership before being elected to the Senate in 2016. Maker and Fredette have publicly clashed on various issues, most notably funding for the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, which LePage abruptly closed in February. Fredette and most of the other House Republicans have blocked attempts to revive it. But Maker’s criticism of Fredette goes past that one issue.
“Unfortunately with Rep. Fredette, any time you hear him speak, he’s talking about one party,” Maker, who supports Mason, said. “He’s not talking about, ‘We need to work this out with the other side.’ We need to elect someone who is more inclusive.”
Fredette admits he and his caucus have “gone to the mat” or used “nontraditional tactics” in pursuit of their goals, but he said it was a matter of using the minority status Republicans have had in the House since 2013 to its highest potential.
“You have to recognize your leverage points as the minority party,” he said. “You’d better understand the rules because if you don’t, you’re going to get run over.”
Among accomplishments he shares responsibility for are lowering income taxes, paying off debt to hospitals and making the state’s retirement system sustainable. He has often complained that even under LePage, the state budget has grown too much for his taste but wouldn’t say whether he’d propose a smaller budget.
“In order to be an effective leader, you need to set priorities,” he said. “You can achieve an income tax reduction while taking care of the needs of the most vulnerable. A successful negotiation is where both parties win.”
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