Editor’s note: This story is part of a series examining Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy as his tenure comes to a close, including his impact on the economy, the social safety net and more. You can read the rest of the series here.
AUGUSTA, Maine — The story of Gov. Paul LePage is familiar: He rose from childhood poverty and abuse to eight years in the Blaine House and may be the most polarizing politician in the state’s history, challenging the gentility that Maine politics was known for before him.
LePage, who will leave office on Jan. 2, may best be remembered for outbursts and a record-setting number of vetoes that made his legacy as much or more about what he blocked than what he got passed, though he leaves Maine in better financial shape than he found it.
He was swept into office in 2010 alongside fellow Republicans who won simultaneous control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time since the 1960s. LePage won re-election in 2014, but his party lost full control for his last six years and he was term-limited amid Democrats’ mirroring 2018 wave year.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a LePage foe and a Democrat, will take his office. The outgoing governor, 70, is known for a contentious relationship with Maine newspapers and, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview for this report.
“I’ll tell you, they can handle some of the bad comments that people make, and they’ll forgive you if they know you’re reliable, consistent and honest,” LePage told The Howie Carr Show on Monday, defining his philosophy on public opinion. “That’s all they want.”
For LePage, politics was intensely personal. He attracted voters who felt disenfranchised, creating a loyal base just big enough to keep him in power for eight years amid criticism from a larger group of opponents who failed to find the means to oust him. Almost everything that his backers and detractors say about him is true — at least some of the time.
LePage’s political rise came at a time when figures like him were en vogue. The governor’s rise requires the context of the era. In 2009, there was a recession. Then-Gov. John Baldacci and fellow Democrats in the Legislature were chasing budget shortfalls. The Tea Party movement sprang up to oppose then-President Barack Obama.
The LePage campaign had come a long way by the June 2010 primaries to succeed Baldacci. In fall 2009, Cary Weston, a Bangor marketer, was called to a meeting in Waterville to meet with the “kitchen Cabinet” for LePage, then the city’s mayor, after his September entry into the race.
Weston remembers drawing a map of Maine on an easel and asking what the campaign’s “ground game” was. Blank stares ensued from the crowd of LePage friends who made up the nascent campaign but had varying political backgrounds.
“I know a guy in Brunswick,” one of them said.
LePage courted Tea Partiers, giving off-the-cuff, anti-establishment speeches. He urged conservatives to “take our government back.” He assailed “career-minded politicians.” He didn’t believe in “handouts.” His Dickensian life story — growing up in Lewiston as one of 18 children and leaving home at 11 after being abused by his father — lended viscerality to his views.
Four of the seven Republicans running were of the moderate sort that Maine long favored. Businessman Les Otten looked like the favorite for much of the race, spending $2.6 million of his own money, more than 10 times what LePage would spend.
A week before the primary, Brent Littlefield, LePage’s strategist, said he was convinced the mayor would win because of grassroots work and not being under “sustained attack,” even as LePage barely registered in polls. Two in the last weeks before the primary pegged his support around 10 percent.
It ended up being a rout. LePage won 39 percent of votes, with Otten the runner-up at 17 percent. When asked last week if there was a moment when he knew Republicans weren’t buying his brand, Otten responded tersely: “Yeah, the vote count.”
“We were under the radar screen,” LePage told a crowd in Bangor after his primary win. “It took them three months to even call me a ‘dark horse.’ ”
In the general election, his two chief opponents were anti-LePages. Then-Senate President Libby Mitchell, a Democrat, had spent nearly three decades in Augusta. Independent Eliot Cutler was a wealthy lawyer who had worked for the late U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie.
The race was dominated by a wild final month. LePage blew up at reporters asking about tax payments on a Florida home. He said he would tell Obama to “go to hell” while discussing commercial fishing regulations and jokingly threatened to punch a reporter.
LePage led almost every poll, but Cutler surged to overtake Mitchell in polls in the last week. The day before the election, he ended a bus tour at a rally in Portland with former independent Gov. Angus King. Ted O’Meara, who ran Cutler’s campaign, said it was “absolutely electric” and “when we really knew we had something going.”
But LePage survived, edging Cutler with 38 percent of votes, winning by less than 2 percentage points. Republican legislative majorities swept in with him. The outcome would lead to a change in priorities and nudge Cutler into another campaign.
LePage’s policy legacy revolves around long-term fiscal reforms, but his first term was often overshadowed by fights. After LePage’s narrow election in 2010, his agenda seemed to be a straightforward conservative roadmap. In his 2011 inaugural address, two focuses included making “every effort to move people from dependency to self-sufficiency” and reducing regulations on businesses.
It was quickly clear that LePage, the longtime executive, had little patience for the legislative process. As Democrats were criticizing him 100 days into his new administration, he said lawmakers — most of whom were Republicans — “haven’t done a damn thing.”
Legislative Republicans were already saying that LePage was distracting from their agenda. He said in January that the NAACP could be told to “kiss my butt” if upset over his decisions not to meet with the group. He said in February that the worst health consequence from a chemical added to plastics was that some women could grow “little beards.” He abruptly ordered the removal of a pro-labor mural from a state office building, setting off a furor on the left.
Republicans worked with Democrats to pass a two-year budget including the largest income tax cut in Maine history and reducing public pension debt by $1.7 billion. A compromise regulatory reform bill was passed, but he signed the budget while saying it “fell short.”
Kevin Raye, a moderate Republican from Perry who was the Senate president at the time, said LePage was “a successful governor overall, but his legacy is marred by his temperament.”
“By nature, if the governor got 85 percent of something he wanted on an issue, he was solely focused on the 15 percent he didn’t get,” Raye said.
Democrats won back the Legislature after a 2012 campaign focused on LePage in Obama’s re-election year. The next year, LePage passed one of the biggest bills of his tenure when he leveraged a renegotiated liquor contract to pay back $484 million in debt to Maine hospitals but only after a walked-back threat to veto any bill until lawmakers approved his plan.
In 2013, LePage vetoed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act for the first of five times in his tenure, but the Legislature passed a two-year budget over a veto. He issued a record number of vetoes during that session and his record will stand at 643 after this year.
Republicans invariably say a lot was accomplished in LePage’s first term, but they also will often say more could have been done. The governor’s loyalists think Republicans didn’t rally enough around him, muddling the party’s message.
“If they had been smart, they would have assessed him, figured out what he needed in order to be successful and then formed teams in the House and the Senate to make sure that they got there,” Mary Adams, a Republican activist from Garland, said. “They didn’t do that, did they?”
The governor’s 2014 re-election race took shape early. Then-U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, floated a run in March 2013 and made it official in August. Cutler was in again by June of that year. There was intrigue behind the scenes.
O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager, said the independent explored running as a Democrat and met with Michaud early in the year to deliver a message: I’ll run even if you’re running, and if you run neither of us will win. It was prescient.
LePage won his re-election bid in another three-way race, but legislative relations got worse. The governor made welfare his top talking point approaching 2014 after pushing through some cuts, including a time limit on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, reducing the rolls from 25,000 children in early 2011 to 8,100 last month. (The share of Maine children in poverty rose between 2011 and 2014, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, but the Department of Health and Human Services shed chronic shortfalls by 2015.)
Michaud consolidated left-of-center voters, but it was a slog with Cutler poking Michaud from the left on pieces of his legislative history, including mixed-choice stances on abortion. LePage won with 48 percent of votes to Michaud’s 43 percent and Cutler’s 8 percent despite the Democrat and allies outspending LePage by $4 million.
Six days before Election Day, Cutler said victory was a “long shot,” but he only urged supporters to “vote their consciences” and didn’t leave the race. Matt McTighe, Michaud’s campaign manager, attributed the loss to many factors, including Republicans’ wave year in 2014.
But he also said Michaud “had to run a primary through November” against Cutler and the Democrat didn’t have “the one-on-one, head-to-head matchup that I think most Maine voters were concerned about.” O’Meara rejected the “spoiler” notion, saying he wasn’t convinced Michaud could have beaten LePage alone.
Jason Savage, a longtime LePage ally and executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said LePage benefited from his “bonafide set of accomplishments.” The party also touted an amped-up voter identification program.
Whatever the reasons for his convincing re-election, the governor was buoyed by it. He embarked on his most sustained push for any two-year budget proposal in 2015. This one included a $300 million tax cut by reducing income taxes and broadening the sales tax base.
Former state Sen. Roger Katz, a moderate who often warred with LePage, remembered the governor pitching the proposal that January in a meeting with Senate Republicans with one key message: You’re either with me or against me — and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, told him that commitment couldn’t come so quickly.
LePage hit the road for town-hall meetings, but many Republicans were skeptical of the tax shift. The process climaxed in June, when LePage’s political organization placed robocalls to voters in Republican legislative leaders’ districts blaming them for working with “liberal Democrats” to craft a budget.
The Legislature ended up passing a budget over LePage’s veto 13 hours before a shutdown, but the government shut down two years later in 2017 after the budget process broke down with Senate Republicans and Democrats on a side and LePage and House Republicans on another.
Minority House Republicans used LePage’s veto power to force the shutdown and all sides struck a deal after three days to get rid of the lodging tax that conservatives wanted out in exchange for concessions to Democrats.
LePage delighted in his allies’ move to hold firm, saying once they did it’s “over for the majority.” Ken Fredette, who was the House minority leader, said there was no need for a tax increase given Maine’s good financial standing, but most lawmakers thought the fight was unnecessary.
“He has mastered the art of obstruction, but he hasn’t learned the art of governing,” Katz said of LePage.
LePage likens himself to President Donald Trump. Though they’re different men, they have stylistic similarities and have rallied their bases — and Democrats.
The Maine governor endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential run in June 2015, eight months before the state’s caucuses. However, Christie didn’t make it that far and they moved their endorsements in February to Donald Trump, the front-running billionaire.
Was LePage’s heart in it or was he politicking? The New York Times reported that a week earlier, he urged fellow Republican governors to condemn Trump. LePage told The Howie Carr Show that there was a plan for both to endorse former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but he was gone six days before their Trump endorsement.
Regardless, he stumped for him actively in Maine, where Trump campaigned five times and won the 2nd District. LePage and Trump have drawn easy comparisons to each other for inflammatory remarks. Both have warred with journalists. One of LePage’s veto letters slammed newspapers for “unabashed liberal bias” and “third-rate reporting.”
LePage’s most famous controversy came in August 2016 when he wrongly said more than 90 percent of drug dealers arrested in Maine had been black and Hispanic. After he thought a Democratic legislator called him racist in response, LePage left him an obscene voicemail, leading to calls from Democrats for him to resign and a legislative deadlock on whether or not to censure him.
LePage has a history of fabulism on issues big and small. He left a voicemail for Republican senators falsely saying he would leave town during the shutdown, called the media “vile” for reporting rumors of it and later said it was done so they would return his call. During the 2010 campaign, he said the state counted buffaloes and black flies and taxed bull semen. (The state never found a record of counting them and semen is tax-exempt.)
Despite it all, LePage retained unwavering support among his loyal base of Republicans. A 2017 poll said he had 79 percent approval with his party in Maine, though he has lacked wide popularity, hovering between 31 percent and 47 percent approval in his tenure, according to polling from Critical Insights.
In fall 2018, he was at 40 percent. Morning Consult surveyed the approval ratings of all governors and senators around the same time and in Maine, only 6 percent were undecided on LePage — a lower share than any governor or senator.
LePage always commanded center stage in Augusta, figuring prominently in the 2018 campaign to replace him. Mills, the attorney general who battled often with the governor in Augusta, won a tight eight-way Democratic primary in June and businessman Shawn Moody, who hired many of LePage’s top aides, easily won the Republican primary.
Ironically, LePage may have helped Mills get the nomination. The 70-year-old had a centrist record as a legislator and was often hit from her left during the primary.
“Whatever issue we needed to be talking about and needed to be winning progressives over on, we were usually able to find an area where LePage was trying to do something that progressives hated and where Janet was on the other side,” Michael Ambler, who managed Mills’ campaign during the primary, said.
Mills beat Moody by 8 percentage points and Democrats won the Senate majority and widened their edge in the House, although Mills outspent Moody by $1.2 million and Democrats in all state races benefited from $9.7 million in outside money to Republicans’ $3.6 million and more than $20 million was spent in Maine’s 2nd District.
One prominent Republican who lost was former Assistant Senate Majority Leader Amy Volk of Scarborough, who fell to Sen. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham. She said voters in her swing suburban district were turned off by Trump and LePage, hearing a “fair or unfair perception” for eight years of “an angry man” running the state and two years of one running the country.
“I think there’s a disproportionate amount of attention that has been placed on rhetoric as opposed to achievements,” Volk said. “I think if we looked at achievements alone, it could have been a different outcome.”
However, Moody noted factors beyond the state election, saying he saw voters who were “more anti-Republican” than they were against particular Maine Republicans. Fredette said the result can’t be divorced from a “green wave” — Democrats’ outspending of Republicans.
But it all goes to LePage’s legacy. Mills promises to implement Medicaid expansion and re-establish normal relations with the Legislature, though she hasn’t been criticizing the governor lately and will benefit from a record state cash position and a record-low stretch of unemployment. How will LePage be remembered? It largely depends on your politics.
Former House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, said “nationally embarrassing remarks, disregard for both the law and will of the voters, and political obstructionism.” Savage said the pendulum will swing and LePage will prove that “Maine voters like liberalism in theory, but they will embrace conservatism in practice.”
Either way, LePage made it from the streets of Lewiston to the Blaine House. He was a once-in-a-lifetime figure who went out as he came in, including when a reporter texted him on Tuesday night to ask if he had anything to say for this article in his own words.
“Nothing to say — for eight years what I had to say was never to your liking so you wrote opinion pieces so why change now,” he responded eight minutes later. “What the BDN says or does is not anything I would ever read.”
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