Like Donald Trump, Maine Governor Paul LePage has so far escaped career-shattering fallout out from repeated incendiary remarks. But the two-term Republican may have finally gone too far. On August 25, LePage left a profanity-riddled voice mail for Democratic State Representative Drew Gattine, whom LePage maintained had called him a racist after the governor said that he kept a binder of the mostly black and Hispanic alleged drug dealers. (Gattine explained that he said that LePage’s “racially charged comments” were not helping matters.) LePage later compounded his troubles, saying he wished he could challenge Gattine to a duel and calling people of color “the enemy” in the illegal drug trade. He even carried his drug-dealers tirade into a regional energy conference attended by the five other New England governors and the premiers of Canada’s five eastern provinces.
The governor’s latest round of invectives has sparked a political crisis in Maine. Republican House and Senate leaders met with him to discuss the incidents, and, true to form, LePage has apologized. But while Democrats want him gone, Republicans are at odds over next steps. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette appears content to soldier on with LePage, while Senate President Mike Thibodeau wants “an acceptable plan for corrective action” laid out. Even with pressure building for resignation, censure, or even a second impeachment attempt, LePage is not backing down. Earlier this summer, The American Prospect looked closely at the unpredictable LePage. This profile originally posted on July 18.
Anthony Marple, director of Maine’s $2.6 billion Medicaid program, was called into an abrupt meeting just a week after Governor Paul LePage took office in January 2011. There, Marple was fired and ordered to leave immediately. He asked to send out a few emails cancelling some speaking engagements. Sorry, he was told, his state email account had already been closed.
Marple was a widely respected public official. His sin? The day before his firing, he had testified before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that Medicaid spending from the state’s general fund had been virtually flat or decreasing in each of the years since 2006, despite increasing enrollments due to the recession. This contradicted LePage’s campaign narrative of runaway state spending by the “bloated establishment in Augusta." So Marple had to go.
Marple’s ouster was doubly surprising, because he had been working with legislators of both parties to create a Medicaid managed care program that stood to save the state millions of dollars—very much in line with LePage’s own fiscal goals. But some health-industry lobbyists opposed the idea, which was likely to squeeze their profits. To succeed Marple, LePage promoted a MaineCare program management director whose new boss, Mary Mayhew, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, was a lobbyist, and former Maine Hospital Association vice president for state and federal government relations, policy development, and advocacy.
Other Republican governors have cut budgets and services, demonized holdover public officials, and given tax breaks to the rich. What makes LePage an outlier, even among current GOP governors, is the combination of his personal slash-and-burn style, off-with-their-heads retribution against perceived enemies, and policy incoherence that often undermines the goals he professes and harms the constituents he purports to serve. In this respect, LePage is a state-level preview of Donald Trump.
“Just think of Paul LePage on steroids with a big bank account and then you’ve got Donald Trump,” Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said to cheers at the 2016 Maine Democratic Convention in Portland in May. “I shudder for my country. The Trump-LePage method of government is intentional stalemate, paralysis, and oligarchy.”
Maine is a microcosm of the havoc that a right-wing populist can wreak on a state. For the past six years, to the delight of Tea Party activists who helped put him in office, he has tacked hard right, dramatically slashing income taxes and aid to cities and towns, removing thousands of people from public assistance, and picking fights with state lawmakers in both parties.
Where moderate conservatives used coded language to castigate minorities, immigrants, and others, LePage’s rants about everyone from President Barack Obama to Maine icons like writer Stephen King get ugly fast. Many Mainers are tired of LePage. But big, enthusiastic crowds still cheer on the governor as they did when LePage attended a June rally for the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
LePage’s personal vindictiveness is legendary—more Trump. Over the next several months following Marple’s abrupt dismissal, MaineCare’s medical director got fired by phone while on vacation. The heads of the child and family services, adult mental health services, adult cognitive and physical disabilities, and elder service departments, as well as several other senior officials, all lost their jobs. A similar purge took place at the Department of Environmental Protection, where an industry lobbyist moved into the top slot.
LePage has not stopped at firing government officials. He’s even used his clout to prevent political adversaries from getting private employment. In March 2015, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, who was term-limited, applied for a full-time, $120,000 position as the president of Good Will-Hinckley, an educational private nonprofit for nontraditional Maine students. The 126-year-old organization runs Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a public charter high school, and other programs in the town of Fairfield in south-central Maine. A member of Eves’s House staff headed the charter high school’s board, which raised some eyebrows. But the board unanimously agreed to hire Eves, who is a human services professional.
LePage resolved to block the appointment. “Although he is employed as a family therapist, I have seen first hand that his skills in conflict resolution leadership negotiation and reconciliation are sadly deficient,” he wrote in a letter to the nonprofit board. LePage, a charter school supporter, was also upset that Eves, a charter school opponent, was in the mix at all.
Shortly afterward, the governor delivered the coup de grace: a threat to withhold $530,000 in state funding, which would have jeopardized another $2 million in foundation monies, unless Good-Will Hinckley withdrew their job offer. The board capitulated. Eves filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Portland, arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated. A federal judge ruled that LePage had immunity. The case is on appeal.
Then-Maine Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves speak to reporters after a June 2013 vote to override Governor LePage's veto of the state budget.
In 2013, LePage barred former State Senator Troy Jackson from press conferences and ceremonial events at the state house. After Jackson gave the Democratic response to his budget proposal, LePage told reporters, “Senator Jackson claims to be for the people, but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” LePage added, “People like Troy Jackson, they ought to go back in the woods and cut trees and let somebody with a brain come down here and do some work.”
“I have had better men than the governor say worse things about me,” Jackson says. “That’s the way it is when you’re a working-class person: You’ve always got these people in power saying shit.”
ASKING LEPAGE TO EXPLAIN HIS decision not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act is like listening to a student serve up a dizzying array of figures, assertions, and corrections, to bolster an untenable position. In a telephone interview, he says that because Maine expanded its Medicaid rolls in the early 2000s, the state is not currently eligible for the 90 percent to 100 percent of matching federal funds that other states receive. The federal government would only pay 60 percent of the Medicaid costs, and the state 40 percent, if Maine opted into expansion, he insists.
What LePage does not say is that while Maine would also receive a reduced federal match for some Medicaid recipients, the state would receive a 100 percent match (90 percent in later years) for other new enrollees. An April 2015 Maine Health Access Foundation report found that Maine would see total net estimated savings of $26.7 million if the state opted into the program.
LePage’s decision to opt out has sparked almost universal criticism, but he brushes it off. “There are givers and there are takers …” the governor begins. The reporter interrupts, suggesting that Medicaid is not a spa treatment but a roster of basic health options for people who don’t have any others.
Maine is the only state in the country that failed to increase the percentage of people that have health insurance since Obamacare passed in 2010, according to a 2015 Maine Center for Economic Policy report: About 134,000 people did not have access to health insurance. The state also lost out on thousands of health care–sector jobs.
According a 2014 HealthAffairs Blog report, more than 34,000 additional people could have been insured if Maine had expanded Medicaid coverage. The study estimated that since 2014 between 31 and 157 deaths could be linked to the failure to expand Medicaid.
LePage continues to slash other benefits. In June, the governor threatened to end Maine’s administration of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps), since the federal government would not allow Maine to prohibit recipients from buying sugar-sweetened beverages and candy. “The Obama administration goes to great lengths to police the menus of K-12 cafeterias, but looks the other way as billions of dollars finance a steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew,” LePage wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
If LePage carries out his threat, more than 195,000 people would lose food stamps. Last year, federal officials complained that Maine had the country’s worst processing times for food stamps and had to speed things up or lose some federal dollars. Moreover, LePage officials had also implemented new rules that denied food stamps to nearly 9,000 childless adults who have $5,000 or more in cash and other assets, like boats or motorcycles.
The Bangor Daily News recently reported that Maine had accumulated $110 million in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF): State officials did not spend the money on children and families as specified under federal law. Instead, they shifted some of the funding to programs for the elderly and disabled. The number of families receiving these dollars also declined as new state eligibility changes forced thousands of people off the program Meanwhile, one in four Maine children goes hungry.
LePage prides himself on getting “able-bodied” people off welfare and pursuing other strategies to root out waste, fraud, and abuse in state and federal programs. However, a federal study found that of 3,600 cases of possible Medicaid fraud examined by state investigators over the past three years, only 16 cases have been turned over to the state attorney general for further action.
Jill Duson, a Portland city councilor and the city’s first African American mayor, headed the Maine Bureau for Rehabilitation Services for six years until she lost her job in 2011 when the governor decided not to reappoint certain categories of bureaucrats. “Government maintains the safety net for people who are down on their luck,” says Duson whose family was on welfare when she was a child. “I reject this need to paint people with this broad brush as though they are all ne’er-do-wells who don’t want to work and are lying around eating bonbons and watching soap operas.”
According to Duson, the LePage administration began to push for more cuts that state lawmakers started resisting. So administration officials turned to rule changes that did not require legislative approval, such as revamping eligibility requirements for certain services like home day care for disabled people. Legislators responded by crafting new rules to prevent LePage’s changes from taking effect.
University of Maine in Farmington students Allyson Hammond and Nickolas Bray hold up anti-LePage signs during the dedication of the Theodora Kalikow Education Center in Farmington, Maine, for which Governor LePage was a featured speaker. The governor cut short an address at the university after being confronted by the two students holding signs critical of him, and called the students "idiots."
Lewiston pharmacist Abdifatah Ahmed, a Somali immigrant, says that LePage “selectively targeted” immigrants by removing people from the state health insurance system without notice. Some individuals did not know that they had lost health-care coverage until they tried to fill a prescription or visit a doctor, according to Ahmed.
LePage denies targeting immigrants. He claims that the problem is asylum seekers who tap into services that they are not eligible for. “You’ve got to do the homework,” he says. “People come up from Texas, from Alabama … Georgia … New Jersey, New York. They are just on the verge of being deported and come in [and] claim political asylum because our safety net is very, very liberal.”
The governor’s poor health and human-services record extends to public health crises like the opioid epidemic. Maine has had one of the highest increases in the rate of drug overdose deaths in the U.S., nearly 30 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
W.C. Fields is credited with the observation that if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. In the midst a serious public health crisis, LePage has urged Mainers to shoot drug dealers, suggested guillotining convicted traffickers, and complained that drug dealers from New York and Connecticut with racially suggestive names like “D-Money, Smoothie, and Shifty” come to Maine to sell heroin and get white girls pregnant before they head home. He has claimed that remarks like these are designed to force lawmakers and federal officials to act.
Yet LePage’s most irresponsible public remarks on the public health crisis came at a Lewiston town hall forum in May. He announced that a student at Portland’s Deering High School had overdosed on opioids, been revived with overdose antidote naloxone, and sent back to class—three times in one week.
His comments, which sent Portland residents and state lawmakers into an uproar, occurred shortly after state lawmakers had overturned the governor’s veto of a bill designed to increase the availability of the overdose antidote naloxone. “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose,” LePage wrote is his veto message. The controversy festered until the Portland police chief found out that the incident did not involve a student and happened at another location with “Deering” in the name.
LePage says that he had “misunderstood” and apologized. “The point is I have corrected that,” he says. When he is so inclined, apologizing is something that LePage does regularly.
THE ELDEST OF 18 CHILDREN of French Canadian parents, LePage fled an abusive father at age 11 and ended up homeless on the streets of Lewiston, a south-central Maine city. He overcame his stark childhood, thanks to a succession of mentors who took him in and steered him through high school and college.
LePage, 67, and his wife, Ann, have five grown children. In a rarity for a state first lady, she recently took up a serving job in Boothbay Harbor, where they own a home, to save money to buy a car. Her husband earns $70,000 annually, the lowest salary of any governor in the country.
Portland Press Herald columnist Alan Caron, a Franco-American who was also raised in poverty, wrote in February, that even if they become successful, some people who grow up in dire straits never get over it. “In a few rare instances, the two qualities of success and rage combine in one person who should never have access to power. That, to me, is the Paul LePage story.”
LePage first got elected in a classic Maine five-way race in 2010, the year of Obama’s first midterm election and a generally terrible year for Democrats. Mostly, however, LePage benefited from a quirk of Maine politics. A high proportion of Maine voters, 36.7 percent, are unenrolled. Unlike in most states, independent candidates have a real shot at winning in Maine. Multi-candidate races are a regular feature of Maine gubernatorial elections, which do not have runoffs, so a plurality of the vote is all it takes to win.
Maine voter Michael Hein holds a sign at a March 5, 2016, Republican caucus, showing his desire to see Governor LePage chosen to be Donald Trump's running mate.
In 2010, LePage won nearly 38 percent of the vote in a five-way race that featured one Democrat and three independents. (No Maine governor has been elected to his first term by a majority of votes in the last 40 years, according to the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which aims to institute a runoff system for state and federal officeholders. That question goes before voters in November.)
In 2014, Michael Michaud, a Democratic U.S. representative and former paper mill worker who represented the rural Second Congressional District (northern Maine), and independent Elliot Cutler, an attorney and businessman who came in second to LePage in 2010, ran against LePage. Cutler resisted calls to exit a second race he couldn’t win.
In another echo of Trump, even though LePage was well to the right of many Maine Republicans, GOP elites got in line. In 2010 and 2014, the moderate “ladies of Maine,” U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (who retired in 2013), endorsed LePage and raised money for him. Despite many unpopular policies, LePage also managed to keep the loyalty of most GOP state legislators.
The Democrats miscalculated LePage’s electoral strength, believing that he had an electoral ceiling of 40 percent, roughly matching his 2010 numbers. The party also came up short on understanding voters’ economic insecurities and in getting out the vote. In 2014, LePage got more than 295,000 votes, 48 percent of all ballots cast, the most for any Maine gubernatorial candidate in history.
To appreciate LePage’s appeal, it helps to understand Maine’s economy and political geography. To oversimplify, Maine divides very roughly into two zones. Portland, plus a coastal and a few university towns, forms the core of liberal Maine. Sparsely populated northern Maine, comprising the vast majority of the state’s land mass, tends to be culturally conservative but sometimes economically populist. Progressives can get elected statewide, but so can conservatives.
LePage scratched the veneer off Maine pragmatism by tapping into regional and socioeconomic resentments. The everywhere-else-versus-the-south divide is real: Portland and the south may be the economic engines of Maine, but rural interests drive state politics.
Social issues like marriage equality, integrating immigrants, and improving public assistance services that have energized many southern Mainers have less resonance in rural areas. LePage took Maine class warfare to new heights, dialing up the tensions between the conservative, poorer rural regions, especially in the north, that have been hardest hit by the decline of manufacturing and the wealthier, southern and coastal areas, including greater Portland.
LePage knocks Portland and southern Maine as “northern Massachusetts”—that is, a region full of rich people, socialists, immigrants, welfare recipients, and other unappealing types found in or near urban areas. (The moniker is no compliment, given New England’s love-hate relationship with the Bay State.)
The resentment that gets stoked against immigrants, asylum seekers, and welfare recipients, is fueled in part by the belief that these groups are mostly people of color, even though 95 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million people (and nearly 80 percent of Portland’s 67,000 people) are white. African Americans are a scant 1.2 percent of the population; foreign-born people make up another 3.5 percent.
LePage won the northern Maine counties big, ranging from nearly 11 percentage points over Michaud in Penobscot County to 23 percentage points in Piscataquis County, the state’s least populous place.
But the governor also improved significantly on his numbers in southern Maine. Well-to-do Portland suburban towns went strongly for LePage. An analysis of the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial races by the Maine People’s Alliance found that LePage’s vote totals increased by nearly 50 percent from 2010 to 2014 in Portland suburbs like Scarborough (median household income: $78,359). In Gorham (median income household income: $74,563), another Portland suburb, LePage’s vote totals increased by an astounding 84 percent. LePage also improved his vote totals by nearly 50 percent in Lewiston (median household income: $36,969).
Trump’s primary victories gave him de facto control of the Republican Party—as LePage’s did with the Maine GOP. Both LePage and Trump have flummoxed the American intelligentsia with nonsensical solutions to major policy challenges; they have demonized swaths of people by stoking their supporters’ fears and prejudices. They are impervious to the fallout because neither man sees a serious downside to having the news media distribute their talking points for free. If anything, Mainers understand better than anyone else that LePage’s success in Maine means that it is possible for Donald Trump to be elected president of the United States.
MAINE'S DEPRESSED ECONOMY WOULD be a challenge for any governor, and LePage is widely criticized for both unrealistic schemes and bungled opportunities. Most of the state is far from the major transportation routes into Boston, the region’s economic hub. Maine has the highest median age in the United States (43.5 years) and the highest percentage of residents 65 and older (nearly 20 percent). Jobs are scarce, so many young people leave.
In 2011, LePage signed the largest tax cut in Maine history, most of which went to the well-off. The cut deprived localities of funds they needed for development, and failed to attract new investment. The much-touted benefits for moderate-income taxpayers proved illusory. With no viable plan to replace the lost tax revenues, the governor moved in 2013 to eliminate state aid to cities and towns, known in Maine as revenue-sharing.
Under Maine law, 5 percent of sales and income tax revenues go to municipalities. Since the recession, aid to cities and towns had taken hits as governors steered that money to the state’s general fund to make up losses from his tax cut. The Legislature acquiesced on some cuts, but staved off LePage’s harsh proposal.
The result was both cuts in services and other increased taxes. Several Republican mayors, including one of his staunchest allies, Robert Macdonald of Lewiston, called him out on the decision. Localities sought to make up the losses with municipal property tax hikes, hitting the very people the income tax cuts were supposed to help—moderate-income taxpayers. “For most people like myself making who are making $10,000, $20,000 to $30,000 a year, the $15 to $16 I got back didn’t help me when I paid my [property tax increase] bill of $100 to $200,” says Jackson, the former Democratic state senator, a logger who lives in Allagash, near the Canadian border.
Governor LePage delivers his inauguration address in Augusta, Maine, on January 7, 2015.
The Pine Tree State is 90 percent forest, the highest percentage in the United States. “If we can’t make a living off the land, our forests will struggle,” LePage says. “We are not Microsoft and Facebook; we don’t attract those people—they go to Massachusetts.”
But in the past several years, five of the state’s eleven major paper mills have closed, with the loss of more than 1,500 jobs. “In rural Maine, it is still the Great Recession, if not a little worse, because of the mill closures,” says Ben Chin, political engagement director for the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive advocacy group based in Lewiston.
With consumption down and manufacturing going elsewhere, the paper industry is in freefall. But not according to LePage. “These are all industries that are growing,” he says. “Tissues have not gone away, napkins have not gone away,” LePage says. “Nobody wants plastic, so they are going back to the old days of wax paper.”
Major controversy surrounds a proposal for a “North Woods” national park which could inject some new tourist dollars into the state. (Tourism, one of Maine’s largest industries, had a record-setting year in 2015, with $5.6 billion in spending.) But LePage and other opponents believe that federal regulations that come with the national park designation would intrude on residents’ lives, bringing traffic and other impacts the region could not handle.
Neighboring states like Massachusetts that have lost manufacturing jobs have established programs to provide grants, tax incentives, and other assistance to former mill cities and other distressed areas. Maine has no comparable framework. There have been no moves in that direction under LePage, leaving the Maine congressional delegation to plead for and get what amounts to a multi-agency, U.S. Department of Commerce–led economic-development SWAT team to parachute in and come up with a viable way forward for the state forest-products sector.
Lewiston, the second-largest city in Maine, about 45 minutes north of Portland, has been doing better than many places. The former textile mill city of about 36,500 people has assets in health care (two major hospitals), higher education (Bates College), and back-office operations (L.L. Bean and TD Bank). But where Lewiston was once able to fund future improvements through its slice of revenue-sharing, its current borrowing strategies focus on basic maintenance needs like roads and new fire and police vehicles. In fiscal 2016, Lewiston should have received $6.3 million in statutory state aid; the city actually received $2.6 million, a roughly 60 percent cut.
A good chunk of the city’s million and a half square feet of mill space is underutilized. Lisbon Street, in the city center, is mostly deserted on weekday afternoons, with an adult bookstore and a few shops that meet the needs of central and east African immigrants on one end, and a yoga studio and cafes at the other, with a few dusty, vacant storefronts in between. Rental housing in the city center and the adjoining neighborhoods is dilapidated, and the city has yet to capitalize on attracting Portlanders, especially those residents facing rising rents in a booming city. “People don’t want to live here,” says Chin of the Maine People’s Alliance.
LePage has also made questionable decisions in the renewable-energy sector. Statoil, a Norwegian oil and gas company, left Maine in 2013 and took its proposed $120 million floating offshore wind turbine pilot project to Scotland after LePage persuaded the legislature to set aside a go-ahead from the Maine Public Utilities Commission in favor of a University of Maine–led consortium. The episode saddled Maine with a reputation for regulatory instability presided over by an unpredictable chief executive. Statoil was “a real big black eye" for the Maine economy, says Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond.
An unusual bipartisan coalition of clean energy organizations, environmental groups, and utility companies supported a proposal that would have required power companies to purchase electricity from small and commercial-sized solar-energy systems, a move that would have integrated smaller systems into the electricity grid; expanded residential, community, and commercial solar-power usage; and created more jobs. LePage vetoed the bill, arguing that it would raise electric rates. An override fell short.
The solar sector is booming in New England, but Maine is currently last in solar job creation. “[LePage] is not willing to look at renewables as part of the growth portfolio in the state, or transition workers into these jobs,” says Mark Eves, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
Maine is the only New England state, and one of just nine others nationwide, that has yet to recover the jobs it lost during the recession. There are 23,000 fewer people working today than in December 2007. LePage likes to trumpet the state’s low unemployment rate—3.5 percent in May 2016, dropping from 4.5 percent the previous May—but the low rate has been attributed to decline in the number of people in the labor force.
“I DO NOT WANT TO SEE the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear. … Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory,” said Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine in her Declaration of Conscience speech on the U.S. Senate floor in 1950. The first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate was one of the few Republicans to stand up to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy during the communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
For many, Smith is a heroine of traditional Maine political culture. The state had largely been immune to the bitter partisanship that has divided states like Wisconsin and Kansas and has brought Washington to a standstill. With LePage, the antithesis of Smith, Maine has been sucked into the maelstrom of contemporary American politics.
LePage distracted fearful, white middle- and working-class voters by giving them minorities, immigrants, asylum-seekers, drug dealers, and welfare recipients to blame for the state’s, and their own, economic misfortunes. Meanwhile, upper-middle-class and business conservatives preoccupied with improving their own lot took comfort in his promises to lower income tax rates and chip away at state regulations.
Former Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine
Today, Paul LePage is happy to hitch his star to Donald Trump’s. The symbiosis between the two men was on full display in late June when Trump held a rally in Bangor. “You know, many people say we're a lot alike,” LePage told the crowd. (But LePage, a Trump delegate, plans to skip the 2016 Republican Convention and will only attend if Trump wants him there. He took a pass in 2012, too.)
What distinguishes both LePage and Trump from moderate Republican conservatives is a coarse, hard-driving business mindset that is a temperamental mismatch with state government, and a white-hot loathing of the public sector and the people who work there. The two men share a disrespect for the separation of powers, civil rights and liberties, and other basic precepts of American government. The combination of those traits with a willingness to use gross stereotypes and jaw-dropping inanities that pit groups of Americans against each other is the surest sign yet that the Republican Party has unleashed the four horsemen that Margaret Chase Smith feared.
LePage and Trump are ready to dismantle as much of the traditional framework of government as they can get away with. LePage already has driven out many of the best and the brightest from state government and has decimated programs. There is little in LePage’s tenure as governor to suggest that he takes the long view on improving socioeconomic conditions for low- and middle-income Mainers. Trump, like LePage, floats getting rid of the government agencies like U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency among others; trots out the shibboleths of waste, fraud, and abuse in government; and sprouts nostalgia about past American greatness. But Trump, like his friend in Maine, fails to demonstrate that he knows how government is designed to work (as opposed to the private sector) or how his proposals would affect the lives of the working men and women he professes to care so much about.
LePage has waged a campaign of harassment and intimidation in the Maine legislature that has little to do with consensus-building and everything to do with LePage’s belief that Maine should be run like a business, and a cutthroat one at that, a goal that succeeded in uniting Democrats and Republicans, at least to pass budgets to keep the state running and to find common cause on some other issues. Whether Trump would work similar magic on Congress is an open question. “[LePage] gets attention, but he doesn’t get a lot of results,” says Eves. “That is the real story here of what a Trump legacy would look like.”
Both LePage and Trump toy with stereotypes that most people keep to themselves. That’s a plus for those who see politicians saying what an ordinary person won’t as being leadership. Dismissing this reporter’s suggestion that singling out certain groups of Americans is not a hallmark of leadership, LePage points to Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. “There are countries that have presidents that don’t insult them, they just kill them,” he says. “[Trump] hasn’t done that.”
LePage does not appear to believe that a president should represent all Americans anyway. “I will tell you that your president is not in tune with my culture,” LePage says, referring to President Obama. “Donald Trump is in tune with my culture; maybe not your culture.”
Embedded in the demonization campaign is a savvy media and public-relations “look-here-not-there” strategy. “When nicer doesn’t work, you have to get attention,” LePage says. “[Trump] got hundreds of millions of dollars of free press through the primaries and he is the presumptive candidate now.” A recent Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy study bears LePage out: The intense pre-primary news media coverage of Trump in the country’s eight leading news outlets alone was worth an estimated $55 million, according to the report.
Just as Trump’s daily barrages of free-form observations on the world divert attention from his inconsistent and dangerous policies, LePage’s nonstop dramas have diverted attention from Maine’s deep-seated problems. But that is not the same as being out of control. “The fact that LePage is perceived as not having skills shows how good his skills are,” says Mike Tipping, the communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance and a Bangor Daily News political columnist. “The number of issues he has flip-flopped on, the number of lies he tells on any given day, shows the political management that he has been able to do. The kind of things that blow up as issues [are ones] that rebound to his favor.” One might say the same about Trump.
“I FEEL I AM LIKE A PICASSO,” LePage tells this reporter. “The people will never appreciate me until I am dead.” (It is hard to resist thinking of a cubist Picasso painting, with its disjointed legs and arms.)
LePage ticks off several accomplishments, including the welfare-to-work strategies; paying off state Medicaid debts to hospitals; a new drug-addiction treatment facility, part of multimillion-dollar drug treatment and enforcement legislation; and interest-free and low- interest loans for students (that he worked on with one of his longtime critics, Senate Minority Leader Alfond.)
In his book, As Maine Went: Governor Paul LePage and the Tea Party Takeover of Maine, Tipping described a series of 2013 meetings that LePage held with members of a “sovereign citizens” anti-government group. The men who met with LePage wanted then–House Speaker Eves and Alfond (then the Senate president) arrested and charged with high treason. The subject of “hanging” the two men came up. (Tipping says that LePage later backtracked from a threat to sue him over the book.)
“I was blown away by the amount of time that the governor had been spending with these people,” says Alfond. “The idea that there were people out there who wanted me [hanged] and [to] essentially kill me, what do you tell your wife and your children when they are asking you about it?”
Since 2014, LePage’s popularity has plummeted. A recent Morning Consult poll ranked him as one of the least-popular governors in the country. Most Mainers today consider LePage an embarrassment. During the legislative session that ended in April, state lawmakers overrode nearly 70 percent of LePage vetoes. LePage enjoys vetoing bills so much that he named his new dog Veto.
LePage is term-limited and leaves office in 2018. His next goal is the U.S. Senate, which means he has to dislodge U.S. Senator Angus King, a well-liked independent former governor who caucuses with the Democrats. King plans to run for re-election. Imagining LePage defeating King is improbable. If Trump should be elected president, LePage would fit nicely in a Trump cabinet.
“Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be,” says the blue and white highway sign on Interstate 95 just past the Piscataqua River Bridge connecting New Hampshire to Maine. It takes on new meaning in the LePage era. A state that took pride in its pragmatic politics is now helmed by a master of right-wing populism.
“What has struck me is how widespread the embarrassment is,” says Caron, the Maine Sunday Telegram columnist. “There is almost a sense of resignation, like, OK, we have to put up with him for a couple of more years, and then we’ll go back to being Maine.”
This story has been corrected to indicate that a member of House Speaker Mark Eves’s staff chaired the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences board.