Paul LePage has a funny way of campaigning. The 65-year-old Republican governor is touring the distribution center for Renys, a Maine-based department store chain, in Newcastle with the company’s president and scion, John Reny. The barrel-chested LePage is wearing dark slacks and a loud, fluorescent yellow golf shirt. He looks like a big highlighter pen.
LePage chats with Reny about Christmas season sales projections and plans for new stores. Before he was governor, LePage helped run a competitor to Renys, another local retail chain called Marden’s. Dozens of workers (and potential voters) buzz throughout the Renys warehouse, loading and unloading pallets, operating forklifts, checking off order lists. LePage smiles at them, sometimes even says hello. But there’s no speech about the beginning of the turnaround in long-suffering Maine. No assurances that in a second term LePage would keep working to bring more companies to the state and remain a bulwark against tax increases. No questions about what’s on the minds of these hardworking Mainers. Instead, he spends nearly an hour with their boss, talking shop. It’s kind of unusual.
Then again, LePage’s whole life is kind of unusual. He was born in Lewiston, the oldest of 18 (that’s not a typo), to French-Canadian parents. His father, a drunk with a third-grade education, would abuse LePage and his siblings. In 1959, when LePage was just 11 years old, one beating put him in the hospital. His father gave him a 50-cent piece and told him to tell the doctors he fell. LePage says he pocketed the coin, walked out of the hospital, and never went home again.
For several years, LePage lived on the streets of Lewiston and did odd jobs for money, including shining shoes at a strip club. Working in a restaurant as a teenager, he met the late Peter Snowe, a Republican state legislator and the first husband of future U.S. senator Olympia Snowe, who took an interest in the young LePage. Snowe convinced administrators at Husson College in Bangor to let LePage take the entrance exam in French after he failed it in English. At Husson, LePage improved his English and graduated with a business degree, later earning an MBA at the University of Maine. He went on to work in the lumber and paper industries, then as a business consultant, before taking on the job at Marden’s. He also served on the city council and as mayor of his adopted hometown of Waterville before running for governor in 2010.
Now, LePage is in a close race for reelection, and Democrats in Maine are champing at the bit. In their view, he’s an accidental governor. Four years ago, LePage won a seven-way primary to face the Democratic nominee, state senate president Libby Mitchell. Throughout the year, LePage held a small lead in nearly every poll, thanks to the independent bid of environmental lawyer Eliot Cutler, who cut into Mitchell’s voter pool. By November, support for Mitchell had all but collapsed, and Cutler ended up a close second, losing to the Republican by just 10,000 votes. LePage became governor with 38 percent of the vote.
This time, Democrats have a stronger candidate in Mike Michaud (pronounced “me-shoo”), the likable and openly gay congressman from the state’s more rural, conservative district. Michaud has a small, 2-point lead over LePage in the polls, while Cutler, running again as an independent, is at 15 percent.
LePage’s numbers as governor, meanwhile, are middling at best, with one poll in July showing 52 percent disapprove of his job performance. While the Republican touts himself as an effective executive, recently his agenda’s been stymied in Augusta. After two years of complete GOP control of the state government, Democrats retook the legislature in 2012. That same year, Barack Obama won the state by more than 15 points, and like the rest of New England, Maine looks increasingly Democratic. And then there’s the Democrats’ ace in the hole: Paul LePage is crazy.
That’s the perception, at least. An article in Politico called him “America’s craziest governor,” and not without evidence. During the 2010 campaign, he told supporters the type of headlines they could expect if they elected him: “Governor LePage Tells President Obama to Go to Hell.” In his first year in office, LePage said the leaders of the Maine NAACP could “kiss my butt.” And he once said the assistant majority leader in the state senate, a Democrat, had “no brains,” a “black heart,” and is “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”