This article is a preview of the Summer 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Liesha Petrovich kept tropical-fish antibiotics on hand just in case. You could get them online and they were much cheaper than the prescription medicines her family might need but couldn’t afford. Two years ago, she stumbled walking and broke her foot. A black-belt karate teacher who co-owns a dojo with her husband in the western Maine town of Norway, Petrovich had broken her foot once before and she decided to power through: Her daughter turned 18 shortly before the injury, leaving her and her husband without the Medicaid coverage that the family had relied on since the older of her two children was born. So instead of racking up thousands of dollars in emergency room bills, she ordered a walking cast from Amazon.
But her worries multiplied as the kids neared age 21, the cutoff for their own Medicaid coverage. Her daughter was addicted to opioids, had ended up in rehab, and had other mental-health issues. Then there was her husband’s diabetes and her own fears about Lyme disease, the deer tick–borne illness prevalent in Maine. Petrovich looked into Affordable Care Act plans, but an “affordable” plan of about $600 per month in premium costs with a deductible around $3,000 was both too expensive and inadequate.
Like tens of thousands of Mainers, Petrovich could have qualified for health care under Medicaid expansion. But Governor Paul LePage vowed not to implement it. State legislators passed multiple expansion bills. LePage vetoed them and Republicans sustained his vetoes. When voters overwhelmingly passed expansion via a referendum in 2017, he ignored the result.
Maine’s health-care crisis—the inability of low-income and poor Mainers to get health coverage and a severely underfunded public-health sector—was the defining issue in last year’s governor’s race. Attorney General Janet Mills, the Democratic candidate, promised to implement Medicaid expansion on her first day in office; Republican businessman Shawn Moody vowed more LePagism.
Governor Mills signed the Medicaid expansion executive order on January 3.
Petrovich got her health-care coverage back in March after voters decisively repudiated the LePage clone. She sometimes uses a cane now since her untreated foot did not heal properly, and she has an appointment to see a specialist. “When you don’t have health care, you just do a lot of crazy things,” Petrovich says. “I’m sure I’m not the only one.”
For the first time since 2008, the Democrats have a trifecta in Augusta, capturing the governor’s office, the state Senate, and a larger majority in the House of Representatives. In January, a record number of women lawmakers took seats.
Although the prospect of significant Democratic gains was attractive, getting rid of LePage was the prime motivation for many voters. A palpable sense of relief has enveloped the state: Nearly everyone I interviewed invoked respiration metaphors like “a breath of fresh air” to explain the collective mindset.
As Maine exhales and state leaders begin picking up the pieces of government that LePage and his Republican enablers took a chainsaw to, perhaps Maine can provide clues to how America can return to something like normal after four years of Donald Trump, a man like LePage exquisitely unfit to lead.
PAUL LEPAGE PROPELLED Maine, a state known for its live-and-let-live ethos, into a very dark place—one that left the rest of the country wondering how such a nasty piece of work got elected. Long before Donald Trump appeared on the national political scene, Paul LePage’s outrageousness served up material for headline writers and late-night talk show hosts.
In LePage World, drug dealers with B-movie names were going to descend on Maine to “impregnate” “young white girls.” He didn’t stop there: “Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers,” he once said. LePage compared the IRS to the Holocaust, and talked about bringing back the guillotine for public executions. He proudly pointed out that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”
As the rest of the country guffawed, LePage unspooled a much more sinister project back home. The loose talk that characterized his public statements masked his considerable skill, like Trump’s, in implementing the far-right public-policy playbook—with a big assist from the foot soldiers of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch brothers–funded organization that helps conservative state lawmakers craft policy.
LePage destroyed the institutional capacity of Maine state government to do its job. The recovery from this epic maladministration will take years. With a Republican legislature backing him during his first two years in office, LePage passed income tax cuts for the state’s wealthiest residents, effectively slashing revenues available for municipal services, education, and other areas. The Maine Center for Economic Policy estimates that the LePage-era income tax cuts will cost the state $860 million in revenues during the fiscal 2020-2021 budget cycle. He prohibited department heads from testifying before legislative committees, which forced lawmakers to try to obtain financial information from low-level agency employees or to have a LePage-friendly Republican ally ask for the data in order to craft state budgets, according to Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby. LePage vetoed climate change planning strategies and had no use for renewable energy, imposing a moratorium on commercial turbine projects and dismantling the state’s net metering program.
LePage, however, often miscalculated. Republicans in the legislature who had a history of supporting environmental-protection measures going back to the 1970s banded together with Democrats to defeat more than 100 bills, such as a 2018 proposal that would have prohibited municipalities from banning or curbing pesticides. The plan appeared to have originated with ALEC. Overall, LePage vetoed more than 600 bills, more than all Maine governors together since World War I.
LePage liked to boast about the state’s budget surplus, but it’s easy to have extra money on hand if you fire department heads, shut down agencies like the state planning office that handled economic analysis and technical assistance for the governor’s office and municipalities, cut back others, and refuse to replace the chaos-weary state workers who quit, taking their institutional memories with them. The hundreds of vacancies left phones unanswered at state unemployment offices and other agencies. By 2017, LePage’s perpetual feuding with state lawmakers over taxes led to a three-day government shutdown before the Fourth of July.
However, LePage saved his most destructive impulses for the public-health sector, where he wreaked the most havoc on Mainers, many of them white and poor LePage voters. In his final year in office, LePage announced that he preferred jail time to expanding Medicaid. After the election, he continued to claim that the state did not have the money to fund the program and threatened to appeal (even though he was weeks away from being out of office) when a state superior court judge ruled that he had to file an implementation plan.
His cabinet officials were unremarkable cronies, ALEC connections, or private-sector officials. The most notorious of these disruptors was Mary Mayhew, a former Maine Hospital Association lobbyist, who presided over the evisceration of the state Department of Health and Human Services for most of LePage’s tenure. There were debilitating reductions to the numbers of public nurses who provide preventive care to vulnerable parents and infants and handle responses to disease outbreaks. Thousands of childless adults and parents lost their eligibility for MaineCare, the state Medicaid program. Senior citizens and people with disabilities faced higher prescription drug co-pays.
Maine landed in the top ten states for opioid overdoses, due in large part to LePage’s opposition to measures designed to fight the opioid crisis, like over-the-counter distribution of naloxone. (A consequence of the failure to expand Medicaid was that many people who would have been eligible for drug treatment wouldn’t get it.) Maternal mortality rates jumped (which some Republican lawmakers disputed) and Maine had the second-highest rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome (exposure to drugs in utero) in the country. Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2015, the number of children suffering from deep poverty skyrocketed. Petrovich, the karate teacher, also works with after-school programs. She often sends kids home with food, something she never did before LePage moved into the governor’s mansion in Augusta.
After a scandal-plagued tenure that included allegations of destroying records for public grant programs and a brief stint in Washington overseeing the national Medicaid program, Mayhew now heads up Florida’s Medicaid program, the Agency for Health Care Administration.
MILLS WON THE six-candidate Democratic gubernatorial primary, the first time any state used ranked-choice voting (RCV), after four rounds of tallying votes over the course of a week. RCV (which only applies to the gubernatorial primaries, not the general election) helped ease the way for Mills, but was not a huge factor since she was the clear favorite going into the race and her opponents never gained any real traction. Under the Maine constitution, a candidate for governor can win with just a plurality of the popular vote, and independents can often serve as spoilers, factors which contributed to both LePage victories. In 2010, LePage won in a five-candidate field with less than 40 percent of the vote. He won a second term in 2014 in a three-person field, with less than 50 percent. RCV has emerged as a solution to the perils of Maine’s plurality dynamics in certain races.
Mills, a moderate Democrat, went on to garner the most votes for governor in Maine history. Born and raised in Farmington, a town in the mountain region north and west of Portland on the New Hampshire border where she still lives, Mills, a member of a well-known Republican political clan, was the first woman to serve as a district attorney in New England and as Maine attorney general.
As AG, Mills checked LePage’s excesses, cementing her reputation as someone willing and able to deal with difficult people. The former governor was obsessed, as Trump is, with testing the limits of the executive branch powers. If Mills didn’t agree with the legal underpinning of an issue he wanted to fight in the courts, she refused to argue the case, forcing him to dip into other state funds if he wanted to proceed. When he tried to deny state funding for her office, she threatened to sue him.
As governor, Mills has methodically eased into tackling issues that LePage left to fester. She has started to fill vacancies and raised teachers’ starting salaries to $40,000, a $10,000 increase, and, in her budget plan, slightly hiked the percentage of state revenues that are shared with municipalities, a sore point with communities since Maine has long failed to provide communities with their statutory allocations. LePage tried to zero them out altogether. Mills has signed an earned paid leave law, the first in the country to allow time off for any reason. A bill that would guarantee family and medical leave is pending in the legislature. She created a climate council to handle emissions and energy issues and has generally done more for climate (and other areas) in her first six months than Paul LePage accomplished in eight years. And as other states pass new abortion restrictions, Mills signed legislation that expands access, allowing nurse practitioners and other health-care professionals to perform procedures like medication abortion.
For her cabinet picks, Mills strove for qualifications that eluded her predecessor: demonstrable competence in public service. She tapped Jeanne Lambrew, a former Obama administration official who worked on the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, to reconstruct the state Health and Human Services agency. Eight of Mills’s 15 cabinet members are women, including the first woman to head the state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department. Her pick for the Education Department, a veteran educator, drew kudos after years of chaos—LePage went through five education commissioners, once threatening to name himself as commissioner after leaving the post vacant for several years.
Most voters were exhausted and frustrated by the clown show in Augusta and craved a return to civility that a responsible chief executive offered. In January, Mills attended the Maine NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King breakfast in Portland. In her remarks, she noted how, after a 1964 speech at Bowdoin College, Dr. King responded to a white student who asked why he should care about civil rights: “If your conscience stops at the border of Maine, you are less of a person than you should be, and you are as responsible for what happens in Birmingham as you are in Brunswick.” In 2011, when the NAACP extended an invitation to LePage, he told the group “to kiss my butt.”
Even though both LePage and Mills clashed with Maine’s Native American tribes over long-standing issues like fishing, the new governor has worked to begin to repair relations by supporting legislation to restore sustenance fishing and clean up waterways through tribal lands and to re-establish a tribal-state commission that had gone dormant. She has signed proclamations recasting Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day and banned schools and colleges from using Native American logos, mascots, or nicknames, the first state to put a ban in place.
Progressives in the legislature see a Democratic trifecta as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to require rich Mainers to take on more of the state’s tax burden. Mills has yet to exhibit any interest in doing that after pledging not to raise taxes in her first two-year budget, a major disappointment for progressives who wanted to see the LePage tax cuts repealed and new revenues redirected to education, municipal revenue sharing, and other needs. “If they don’t get reversed, we are not undoing the damage that LePage did,” says Mike Tipping of the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive social, racial, and environmental justice advocacy group. Even without a new tax plan, Mills has produced a flurry of forward-looking strategies that have people excited about her even if they express impatience on issues like taxes.
With memories of the Hillary Clinton–Bernie Sanders tensions very fresh in the run-up to the November general election, most Democratic voters understood that there was little to be gained from intraparty ideological warfare. Mills convinced Democratic voters that she could win. She appealed to traditional Democratic constituencies, bridged the state’s urban-rural divide, and took on the liberal wing of the party with a no-taxes pledge that appealed to Republicans. After the Paul LePage horrors, that was more than enough.
HAILEY BRYANT WAS energized by the prospect of electing the first woman governor. The University of Maine Orono rising senior worked on a student voter-registration drive on campus during the campaign season. Bryant, 21, saw LePage as out of touch with life in a multicultural America. She grew up in a liberal Democratic family and went to school with immigrants in Gorham, a Portland suburb (and Shawn Moody’s hometown), and was tired of the incessant screeds against immigrants. “We don’t see those things as abnormalities: They’ve been incorporated into the landscape as we’ve known it,” Bryant says.
Maine had one of the highest youth voter turnout rates in the country in 2018. A new study by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that youth voter turnout in Maine increased by nearly six percentage points, from 30.5 percent in 2014 to 36.4 percent in 2018. Robert Glover, a University of Maine professor of political science who helped coordinate campus voter mobilization and is studying the 2018 turnout, says that 2016 “jarred” students out of “assuming that a certain outcome is inevitable and that elections go forward and don’t have significant consequences.”
Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and Senator Susan Collins’s vote to confirm him also shook up Maine’s electoral dynamics. For Bryant, the vote was a serious misstep that discredited the stories of women who have experienced sexual assault, such as Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Collins’s job approval rating has sunk to 41 percent, a dip of 17 percentage points since the fall of 2017, a vulnerability that could persuade a number of prominent women, including House Speaker Sara Gideon, to take on Collins in 2020. “The Kavanaugh nomination really brought it home for folks,” says Nicole Clegg, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. “The level of political literacy of the population has changed dramatically.”
When the legislature convened after the November election, Speaker Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson decided to mix Republican and Democratic seating assignments rather than relegating members to the opposite sides of their respective chambers by party. Pointing to more unanimous votes on noncontroversial issues, Senate Majority Leader Libby says, “It’s definitely not hurting.” In the House, Gideon initially faced more pushback from both Democrats and Republicans who didn’t feel safe voicing unpopular opinions in mixed groups.
The National Institute of Civil Discourse, a nonpartisan advocacy, research, and policy center at the University of Arizona, named Maine as the state most committed to civil governance in 2016. The group had been working with lawmakers for several years throughout the LePage rancor to discuss how to debate controversial issues without name-calling, handle heated committee hearings, and use the seating changes to help create more camaraderie. Even though Republicans are on the losing side of most votes, the atmosphere is much lighter compared to the LePage years. Republican State Senator Matt Pouliot notes that the new seating has helped lawmakers get to know one another better, increased trust, and improved policy discussions. But some debates, like a recent one on banning conversion therapy for LGBT minors, can still be quite tense.
The Democratic leadership remains so committed to the Maine values of civility and bipartisanship that they are willing to forgo easy victories to avoid the appearance of forcing their agenda on the Republican minority. Under Maine’s legislative rules, the Democrats could have chosen to pass the state budget by a simple majority earlier this year; they decided not to, and will have to get a two-thirds majority to pass the spending bill. Yet in June the committee working on the next two-year spending pact passed bills with unanimous votes, including one sending more money to municipalities. (When the GOP controlled the Senate for four years and the Democrats the House, LePage could count on House Republicans to pressure enough members to switch votes to sustain his vetoes.)
Maine politics is different—so far. The tone and the tenor of public discourse turned around fast after the former governor and his cronies left Augusta. It is certainly better for the state to have rural and coastal lawmakers smiling and sharing stories about their kids, and a governor who does not leave profanity-laced messages on a lawmaker’s phone.
But the inescapable lesson of the LePage years is that treating the former governor—or current president—as an anomaly would be a dangerous miscalculation. The deep-seated racism and economic insecurity that helped speed each man’s rise to power have not been excised from American political culture. Petrovich, the karate teacher, remembers a conversation she overheard in a local convenience store the morning after Trump won. After expressing excitement about the victory, a customer opined, “Now we can get that fuckin’ nigger out of the White House.”
And Paul LePage is still around to stoke hate. The former governor may have nominally retired to Florida, but he’s morphed from a snowbird into a gadfly. Like the national GOP, which has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump, the Maine Republican Party remains enthralled by LePage. He phones into Maine talk radio programs to rattle the state’s political cage on issues like Electoral College reform. (“White people will not have anything to say; it’s only going to be the minorities that would elect,” he said in February.)But extremism may only go so far in Maine. Eleven of 16 Republican candidates who ran on a virulent anti-immigrant platform lost. “Not only were conservatives rejected, but those who had the most Trump/LePage-like bigoted, xenophobic views did the worst,” says Tipping of the Maine People’s Alliance.
Maine experienced a course correction that enabled the state leaders to move on. Voters’ interest in moving forward won out over small-minded ideologues who wanted to crater the state government but didn’t have a plan for what happens after the smoke lifts and the human wreckage appears. Whether these developments lead to better policy outcomes is an open question. Mainers wanted credible state leaders who were up to the job of trying to make government work. That may sound like the tritest of takeaways, but in Maine it’s a constant refrain.
National politics are far more complex and the appeal of far-right populism is still virulent. But as the country approaches 2020, most Americans are looking for the same blend of reform and sheer normalcy.
This post has been updated.