Until 2010 the state of Maine produced the most exquisitely moderate Republicans. Whenever Democrats needed a vote for gun control, a tax hike, or bipartisan cover for a social issue, they could dial a Maine area code and make a date with one of the ever-temperates of the Pine Tree State.
But in that year an avenging populism swept through the state. The Republican Party that used to elect Olympia Snowe and William Cohen practically burned its old platform and replaced it with another that calls for the abolition of the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve System, adhering to the principles of Austrian economics, and, rather darkly, the prosecution of those perpetrating “the global warming myth.”
At the head of this revolution is a new governor who has compared the IRS to the Gestapo, said that Obama could go to hell, and pointed to the press box during his inaugural address warning, “You’re on notice.” Paul LePage is one of the most intriguing and infuriating men in American politics. Bumptious, dogged, quick to anger, openly resentful of Maine’s political class, and witty in a down-home way, he is an authentic specimen of the movement. And his governorship is turning into a fascinating test case, revealing the limits and the possibilities of the Tea Party populism he champions.
But how did Maine get here, and how did a man like LePage get to the Blaine House?
One of LePage’s first public appearances as governor gives some clue. Shortly after taking office LePage returned to the town where he was born, Lewiston, to speak at the Franco-American Heritage center. The building used to be his childhood parish, St. Mary’s Church, a gothic fortress where the millworkers of “Little Canada” worshipped. Its interior is now converted into a museum and concert space, with the maniples encased in glass and the confessional transformed into an office.
“I have to make one confession that I never made in that old confessional,” said LePage. “Halloween was really big in Little Canada because we had these apartment buildings; candy was aplenty. When I was 12 I got lazy, so I used to hide right here down the street in the little alleys between buildings here. We used to hide there and when little kids came by we used to steal their candy.”
The crowd responded with a big disapproving “aww” and laughed.
“Isn’t that awful?” LePage said, as the laughter grew and a naughty smile crossed his face. “And now I’m governor of Maine. What do you think of that?”
Someone shouted. “Don’t steal our candy!”
“Well, I’ll tell you, now that I am governor of Maine, there is nothing left to steal,” he said.
By 2010 Maine was facing a post-crash shortfall in revenues, yawning deficits, and daunting unfunded liabilities. Long-term it faced a brain drain of its brightest young people: depopulation and decline. Amid this, LePage’s bootstrapping biography and outsized personality allowed him to win two 38 percent pluralities. The first came against seven Republican primary opponents, the next against three general-election rivals—an assortment of life-time politicos and bland moderates all around. It was as if this plurality of Mainers saw their desperate situation reflected in LePage’s early life and hoped that if he could turn his own fate around, he could do the same for Maine.
And what a life: it began in the apartment blocks of Lincoln Street in Lewiston. He was the first son of the 18 children born to his Francophone parents. The apartments his family lived in were practically in the shadows of the Bates textile mill, the state’s largest employer until the 1960s, with St. Mary’s parish at the end of the same block.
LePage’s mother, Theresa, was a devout woman who led her many children through the rosary on her knees. His father, Gerard, was a drunkard given to insane, violent fits. LePage’s brother Moe has said that as a child he refused to go to sleep before Gerard did because the old man would occasionally stuff a slipper with newspapers, douse it in kerosene, and put it under the television before lighting it on fire and quietly slipping out of the house.
Gerard broke Paul’s nose in one conflict when the future governor was just 11 years old. Paul left and never returned: he remained homeless for the next few years, spending nights with friends, in horse stables, even at a strip club, the Hotel Holly. He would work as a shoeshine boy, dishwasher, short-order cook, and bartender.
LePage credits Peter Snowe for the big turnaround in his life. He was Senator Olympia Snowe’s first husband. It was he who suggested that Paul be allowed to take the verbal portion of the SAT in his mother tongue, French. That was the difference between going to Husson College and staying in odd jobs. “If it wasn’t for Peter Snowe, seriously, I would still be in generational poverty. I would still be on the streets and I would be on welfare,” LePage told a Tea Party rally during his gubernatorial campaign.
Paul improved his English, edited the school newspaper, eventually pursued an MBA. He formed a consulting firm that carried out significant business turnarounds, and worked at Marden’s, a major Maine retailer. He joined the city council of Waterville and eventually became mayor.
By 2010, LePage was a man meeting his party and the political climate of his state at the right time. GOP House Speaker Bob Nutting also attributes the sudden success of Maine Republicans to national dynamics. “It was probably an overreach on the part of the president’s administration. We also had an active conservative Tea Party group in the state, and a better than normal candidate recruitment.”
Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster has for years been working to box in liberals as the party of Portland elites and the public sector. He has been passing out bumper stickers and plastering up billboards with the message, “Working people vote Republican” and has taken to recruiting bartenders and hairdressers as candidates. When, before the election, the legislature proposed a tax reform that would lower some tax rates but institute a new sales taxes on most services, Webster and others saw their opportunity. Anger over the tax was the impetus behind successful petition and voter-registration drives that laid the ground for the state’s Republican revolution.
LePage was a natural candidate for this backlash from Maine’s rural and lower-middle-income voters. His populist edge has always been evident in the way he governs. As mayor of Waterville he kept open hours on Saturdays to let residents complain to him, a practice he has brought to the governorship. Though he doesn’t support Ron Paul, he insisted that the national Republican Party seat Maine’s unanimously Ron Paul-supporting delegates, who, through an organizational coup, took over the state party convention. LePage occasionally let his positions become known by giving people he chatted with on Facebook permission to publicize their conversations. LePage and most of his fans acknowledge cheerfully that he is “not politically correct” and “not a normal politician.”
In many ways, LePage is what you would expect if your voluble Tea Partying-uncle went almost directly from railing at cable news to the governor’s mansion. Since taking office he’s hired his daughter as an assistant to his chief of staff. He’s removed a mural depicting the history of the labor movement from a state building, under the not-exactly-credible pretense that certain (unnamed) business owners viewed it as unwelcoming. He routinely blasts the performance of most of Maine’s public agencies. And he’s implied that Maine schools are so bad, its students so “looked down upon,” that Virginia’s College of William and Mary makes Maine students take a special test for admission. That isn’t true.
Politicians in Maine often complain about LePage’s suspicion of expertise. “He runs things on anecdotes and doesn’t tell you the source. He just takes one datapoint out of the whole if it furthers his ideological agenda,” says Justin Alfond, a Democratic state senator. Maine’s political and media class had a freak-out when Forbes ranked the state dead last for its business climate two years straight. In response to the latest 50th-in-the-nation placing, LePage gave an address in which he recounted what editors at Forbes had told him the state needed to tackle: “they said, ‘Unless you get your fiscal house in order, and you address energy, you address work force development, and you get yourself [so] that you spend within your means, you’re in the cellar.’ This mission here this year, you’re going to hear an awful lot of education, energy and the economy. Unfortunately, we’re starting out with welfare, because we’re going broke,” he told his audience.
Forbes promptly reported that LePage’s account of their conversation was entirely inaccurate. “Sorry Governor, but I didn’t say any of those things,” editor Kurt Bandenhausen wrote. “Welfare? Not even a part of the rankings. Getting your ‘fiscal house in order’ is sound government, but once again has nothing to do with our ranking of business climates.”
LePage’s populist anger isn’t just boob-baiting—it is distressingly authentic.
After Democratic state senator John Patrick sent out an e-letter to constituents criticizing the governor for cutting government spending and threatening to delay bonds, LePage sent him a note on the governor’s stationary, in large and angry handwriting:
You are a bald-faced liar and cheat! Character eludes you. It is up to the Governor’s discretion when bonds are sold, he has five years. Paul.
To another senator he wrote:
It must be election time! … As for my plan for Millinocket I am reluctant to divulge it to you as I believe you will do anything to defeat [sic]. We have attempted to implement “best practices” for two sessions but you sat on your hands criticizing everything we do and vote against everything with my name on it. Hypocit [sic] comes to mind.
Although many who have worked with him testify to a personal sweetness outside of politics, LePage wears his vengeful reputation proudly. He once took a Democratic campaign flyer picturing him under the word’s “Augusta’s Biggest Bully” and displayed it in his office tucked into the frame of a Ronald Reagan portrait.
But underneath all of the hostility to his colleagues, expert opinion, and the press, LePage has some serious accomplishments to his name. In his first year as governor LePage passed a two-year budget—with supermajorities in both chambers—that included the state’s largest ever tax cut and a lowering of the top income tax rate from 8.5 to 7.95 percent. Changes were made to Maine’s generous welfare system to bring it in line with other states, including a 5-year limit on benefits and mandatory drug tests for recipients who have been convicted of drug crimes. The budget also eliminated the provision of Maine’s state financed healthcare to non-citizens. Overnight Maine became more competitive with neighboring New Hampshire.For decades the state had been building a massive unfunded liability with its generous public pensions. In the 1990s, new groups of public employees were added to the pension plans without funding. The state also borrowed from the pension fund and postponed its debt payments. The stock market crash of 2008 wiped out another $2.1 billion. But the budget under LePage closed this unfunded liability by half, a full 16 years ahead of the date by which the state has determined it must take its unfunded liabilities down to zero. And the changes, though painful in some respects, were not nearly the shock to the system that has been delivered to states like Wisconsin and Ohio under other Republican governors. LePage can’t take all the credit; both houses of the citizen legislature play a large role. But as he did during his days as Waterville’s, he set down ambitious goals and drew deep, almost non-negotiable lines.
In a characteristically inside-out compliment, J. Scott Moody of the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center called the above reforms “not at all modest” and attributed them to LePage’s will and a political climate that overnight “pitted one interest group, public workers, against everyone else.” But Speaker Nutting emphasizes the bipartisan nature of the reforms, which has tamped down opposition and given them a more durable character.
It is hard to argue that the electoral shock of LePage and the 2010 Republicans, even with its bombast and nastygrams, is not getting something worthwhile done in Maine. The Blaine House that had for years been the home of a self-assured liberalism and a genteelly moderate Republican party was suddenly invaded by the hairdressers, bartenders and shitkickers of the Tea Party. The result is a state house that is a lot more paranoid and populist, more unmannerly and ugly. But, at last and at least, a little more frugal.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is TAC’s national correspondent.