AP NEWS

Maine governor’s success sometimes overshadowed by mouth

December 23, 2018

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Vowing to work to the last minute, Republican Gov. Paul LePage is too busy to ponder his fulfilled campaign promises or his abrasive style: “Let history determine who I was,” he told The Associated Press during a brief hallway exchange at the Statehouse.

The 70-year-old firebrand governor, who liked to say “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” leaves the state in better fiscal shape than he found it, but his wins were sometimes overshadowed by aggressive remarks.

LePage, who declined several requests for formal interviews, ran for office as a businessman who could turn around struggling companies and worked to instill fiscal prudence in a state hit hard by the recession. Once elected, he survived an impeachment effort and accusations of blackmail for threatening to withhold state funding to block a Democratic opponent’s job offer.

In 2016, he promised to seek “spiritual guidance” after a profanity-laden voicemail was made public.

But he told Maine Public recently he doesn’t regret getting angry.

“I react to battles and I’m a counter-puncher,” said LePage, who survived childhood abuse and homelessness. “When I was on the streets at 11 years old, I got beat up and I got pushed around and I got kicked around. It got under my skin and it becomes part of you. I learned one thing very early on in life: if you turn the other cheek, it hurts.”

Democratic leaders and liberal groups looking to steer Maine away from LePage-era divisive politics say the governor has only himself to blame for unfiltered attacks against perceived enemies, including drug dealers he accused of impregnating “young white” girls or “illegal” immigrants he claimed spread disease.

Eliza Townsend, executive director of Maine Women’s Lobby, which works on behalf of issues impacting women, said LePage unleashed a relentless stream of bigoted, “anti-immigrant rhetoric” that stigmatized communities, wasted time and embarrassed Maine nationally.

“We’ve been a laughingstock,” she said.

Republicans, weathering losses after winning majorities for the first time in years alongside LePage in 2010, say LePage battled an establishment biased against a Tea Party-era governor who took on politically correct elites. LePage has threatened a 2022 run against Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills, who vows to roll out voter-approved Medicaid expansion long blocked by LePage.

“He gets carried away sometimes, because he really cares, he’s got his heart into it,” said Jim LaBrecque, a refrigeration technician who informally advises LePage on energy issues. “In order for you to help anybody in the state, you have to be in a good financial state.”

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BETTER FINANCES, RURAL POVERTY

Anti-tax groups and GOP officials praise LePage’s fiscal focus: from the largest income tax cut in state history in 2011 to repaying massive debt to hospitals that was hurting Maine’s economy. LePage’s reforms cut $1.7 billion in pension debt, while Maine’s rainy day fund ballooned.

The aging state’s economy has overall “greatly improved” since LePage took office and faced a state still reeling from the 2008 recession that shuttered paper mills, according to University of Maine economics professor James Breece. He said there’s no “clear way” to say how much of such growth is thanks to LePage’s policies alone.

“I think governors can try to maneuver on the edges but basically we flow with the tide,” Breece said.

Unemployment was 3.4 percent in October, down from 8.1 percent in January 2011. Private sector-jobs are up, but? Maine only projects creating fewer than 100 net jobs through 2026.

LePage’s anti-red tape efforts helped small business, said Cynthia Fisher, of Bar Harbor Foods, a specialty foods company.

“A lot of businesses had left over the years,” she said. “We felt like he was working every day to create a business-friendly state.”

But Mills and Democratic leaders say LePage didn’t do enough to help still-struggling rural counties prosper, pointing to Census figures showing higher rates of poverty and food insecurity in such communities. They vow to address still-high property taxes, the aging workforce that is shrinking and a drug overdose epidemic that’s claimed at least 1,900 lives since 2011.

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WELFARE REFORM

LePage pushed for drug-testing certain welfare recipients and a new welfare fraud unit. But few recipients were ever drug-tested, and LePage’s fraud allegations haven’t always led to charges.

He blocked Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, limited federal cash assistance to five years, rolled back aid for non-citizens and required many government assistance recipients to work.

One in five Mainers are now on Medicaid, according to state figures, down from over one in four in 2013 when Maine ranked fourth in the nation for Medicaid enrollment. Fewer than 5,000 Maine families receive federal cash assistance, down from over 14,000 in 2010.

His administration boasted figures showing one-third of 1,800 people kicked off cash assistance in 2012 reported earning wages four years later. But policy analyst Joby Thoyalil, of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income Mainers, said the LePage administration didn’t do enough to get people working.

LePage ruled thousands of childless adults ineligible for Medicaid, including 54-year-old caretaker Terry Shuford, of Brewer. She said LePage’s policy leaves her looking to relatives for help. “There’s supposed to be programs that are able to help me but when they don’t, where else do you go?” she said.

LePage has said he focused on the “truly needy,” including seniors facing foreclosure and people with intellectual disabilities still languishing on waitlists for in-home services.

“He’s a champion in our minds,” said Patrick Caskin, of Litchfield, who said LePage helped advocate for his 25-year-old daughter Katie who suffers from schizophrenia.

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DIVISIVE TONE

LePage has blamed his failures on southern Maine liberals, or fellow Republicans who didn’t toe the line.

“Over the course of his eight years, the more frustrated he got, the more divisive he got,” said former Democratic minority leader Emily Cain.

LePage vetoed more bills than all governors combined since 1917. Voters, annoyed by his red pen, took to the polls to raise the minimum wage and expand Medicaid themselves.

Despite headline-grabbing remarks, he won 2014 re-election with more votes than any previous governor. Mills broke that record this year.

“He’s sort of an abrasive guy, but I’ve never seen anybody work harder in that office,” said Jack Wibby, of Maine Taxpayers United, whose volunteers went door-to-door for LePage’s 2010 campaign.

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