Blunt Talk Could Hobble New Maine Governor

Maine Gov. Paul LePage after being sworn in on Jan. 5. Pat Wellenbach / AP

In office less than two weeks, Maine’s Tea Party–backed governor was making national news for all the wrong reasons, shocking many in a state with a long tradition of civil political discourse. On the Friday before Martin Luther King Day, Gov. Paul LePage told a television crew that the NAACP could “kiss my butt,” after the organization’s local representative expressed concern over his announcement that he would skip MLK events his predecessors had attended. Referring to the NAACP, he said, “I’m not going to be held hostage by special interests.” He accused the group of previously having insisted he visit only with black inmates at a planned event at the state prison. “If they want to play the race card, come to dinner and my son will talk to them,” LePage said, referring to the black Jamaican he took into his home when the youth was 17.

While the governor’s impolitic comments were bouncing from CNN to The New York Times to The Colbert Report, he and his staff offered no apologies, even after Maine reporters discovered the black prisoners story to be untrue. And he had no problem with a pro-life special-interest group, appearing at a rally in Augusta the morning following his comments.

Not much of a post-inauguration honeymoon for the governor and the people who cover him. For the mild-mannered citizens of the state, it was an eye-opening beginning. “I cannot remember a time when a politician in the state of Maine has had that much bad publicity in a single week,” says Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, the modest mill town where LePage recently was mayor. “We have a long and proud tradition of nationally respected, honorable politicians—Ed Muskie, Bill Cohen, Margaret Chase Smith, George Mitchell, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins—and these are not people who shoot their mouth off before they think or are too proud to say when they’ve done something wrong.”

Not that anyone can be too surprised. The incident fit a pattern of intemperate speech, combativeness, and false assertions LePage established on the campaign trail. He last made national headlines by promising supporters that, as governor, he’d be in the headlines telling President Obama “to go to hell.” He famously stormed out of his own press conference when a reporter grilled him on a suspected property-tax dodge, then told the reporter’s television colleagues he was “about ready to punch” him. He falsely claimed to reporters that a prominent Democratic Party official had blogged that LePage was unfit to be governor on account of being a Franco-American Catholic. On the stump, he alleged that Maine required a company he worked for to conduct “buffalo and black-fly censuses” and that it “is the only state … that charges sales tax on bull semen.” In fact, Maine specifically exempts bull semen from taxation, and records showed LePage’s company was never required to do the alleged surveys.

The latest incident has Maine’s political class wondering if the governor’s behavior will undermine his ability to push through his ambitious agenda, especially given his narrow electoral mandate: a 1 percent victory in a five-way race, and just 38 percent of the vote. LePage has promised to create jobs and meet a projected $1 billion state-budget shortfall by cutting regulations, taxes, spending, and social services—a difficult political task for anyone. Former state senator Philip Harriman, a Republican, and an analyst for the state’s NBC TV affiliates, says LePage could have trouble even though the GOP now has control of both legislative chambers for the first time in decades. “He’s going to unveil a budget in early February, and suddenly all those legislators will start feeling the bright lights from constituents concerned about the choices that will have to be made,” Harriman says. “The governor has to have a relationship with the majority of constituents in Maine, so that when he asks legislators to support him, they’ll follow.”

In a state that returned Democrats to the House by double-digit margins, LePage’s early moves suggest he has little intention of governing from the center. He has nominated an offshore-oil-drilling proponent as conservation commissioner, a land developer to head up environmental protection, and the hospital sector’s top lobbyist to oversee health and human services. (His appointment of his 22-year-old daughter to a $41,000-a-year position as assistant chief of staff has also garnered criticism.) “When your first and foremost challenge is winning over the majority of citizens in the state who did not vote for you, getting a reputation for being untrustworthy is a big problem,” says Ronald J. Schmidt, Jr., chair of the political-science department at the University of Southern Maine. “He may be appealing to his base, but his base is small.”

Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic state senator and Harriman’s colleague on TV, worries about the effect on Maine’s image. “The business community looks for a stable and welcoming place, and seeing us made fun of on late-night television isn’t going to be helpful,” he says. “They want somebody who will take responsibility, be competent, and when they say something you can take it to the bank.” Harriman agrees: “I think they’re still in campaign mode,” he says. “They’d better transition into being the chief executive, moderator, and diplomat for Maine.”

Others note a silver lining. The governor’s press secretary, Dan Demeritt, argues that the number of attention-getting comments is a good thing. He contends that the impact of LePage’s gaffes is reduced by their frequency. “People have come to expect the governor to be forthright and direct and to speak in plain terms. Since it’s nothing new, it’s not like it rises to the same level of scandal as it would the first time.” And the state’s top-ranking legislative Republican, Senate President Kevin Raye, says the governor—who ran away from an abusive home at the age of 11 and rose to become general manager of Marden’s, a scrappy surplus and salvage retailer—may be unpolished, but has a genuine and refreshing human touch in his individual interactions with legislators. “The governor is very approachable and accessible and sincere, which is refreshing and actually quite disarming,” he says. “It’s very much in his favor in terms of being able to be effective.”

If LePage does change course, Maine’s legacy of moderation could play to his advantage. “I think the people of Maine are trying to give him a chance to be successful,” says House Democratic leader Emily Cain. “But until he’s actually working on behalf of everyone in the state, he’s making it very hard for people to feel confident he can change our business climate and bring jobs and prosperity to the state.”

Colin Woodard’s fourth book, American Nations, a history of this country’s rival ethno-regional cultures, will be published in the fall by Viking Press.

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