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.”
Unsurprisingly, his tenure in office has been a field day for the Maine media, but if you ask LePage, newspapers are just out to get him. Actually, you don’t even have to ask. As we eat lunch at the Blaine House, the governor’s residence across the street from the state capitol, I begin with a perfunctory question about the campaign. But LePage is suddenly off on a tear about the newspapers. Since the day he was elected governor, the papers have been on a “mission” against him. He tells me that buying a newspaper in Maine is “paying someone to lie to you.” Newspaper distribution is down 38 percent from 2011, he claims.
“I win another term, and they’re out of business!” he adds, his gravelly New England accent modulating into a pinched giggle.
His fixation on newspapers borders on obsession. Just a few weeks back, LePage told a group of fellow Republicans in Auburn that the continued existence of the state’s several broadsheets is “the worst part of my life.” Last year, while visiting a defense contractor in North Berwick, LePage was trying out a fighter plane simulator when someone in the crowd asked what he’d like to do. “I want to find the Portland Press Herald building and blow it up,” LePage said. Asked again if he had any targets, the governor doubled down: “The Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News.”
Despite the seemingly endless string of off-color jokes and gaffes, LePage isn’t on his way to a landslide defeat at the polls. When asked if his blunt speaking style hurts his political success, he admits that he could “say things a little differently,” but thinks that Mainers respect his straightforwardness and honesty. “They can get a smooth-talking, politically correct politician who tells you what you want to hear,” he says. “Or they can listen to me, put up with a few cringes at times, but at the end of the day, I will not lie.”
LePage says he rather likes Michaud, his Democratic opponent, and thinks Cutler is very smart. “But this isn’t a contest about like,” he says. “This is a contest about performance.”
How’s Maine performing under Paul LePage? Unemployment has dropped considerably, from 8 percent in 2010 to around 5.5 percent today. After inheriting a budget deficit from his Democratic predecessor, LePage can now point to more than $93 million in the state’s cash reserves, though that’s partially thanks to a sales tax increase he opposed. And in 2011, LePage pushed through what he calls the “largest tax cut” in state history, dropping the top income tax rate by more than a half percent and eliminating payments for thousands of lower-income Mainers.
In 2002, Maine expanded its Medicaid program, years before “Obamacare” had even been coined. By 2010, nearly 30 percent of Mainers were enrolled in Medicaid. The toll on Maine’s 39 hospitals was severe. By the time LePage took office, the state and federal government together owed more than half a billion dollars in unpaid Medicaid reimbursements. Paying off the hospital debt was one of LePage’s major campaign promises, and by 2013, both Maine and the federal government had fulfilled their obligations. “We paid that off without raising taxes,” LePage says. Liberals howled when LePage vetoed efforts to expand Medicaid again under Obamacare—he already has more vetoes than any other governor in Maine history—but the Republican hasn’t budged.
LePage calls himself a “numbers guy,” but at one point in our interview, he gets almost poetic, reminiscing about traveling up and down the Maine coast when his kids were young. The coast is a point of pride for lifelong Mainers like LePage. It’s the source of the state’s lobster and shipbuilding industries. It’s a fine example of America’s natural beauty. Some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful people have built magnificent mansions along Maine’s rocky, picturesque shore.
“I’d like to see more Mainers own some of these properties,” says LePage. “That’s my mission. Making Maine more prosperous.” That’s not too crazy, is it?
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.