WATERVILLE — Republican Mayor Paul LePage isn’t afraid to go directly to voters if Waterville’s Democratic-controlled City Council disagrees with him.

He threatens to veto budgets and knows how to use the bully pulpit.

However, he also answers letters from elementary schoolchildren, and speaks quietly when recalling his own difficult childhood.

The fiery Lewiston native who sometimes waves a copy of the U.S. Constitution in the air during speeches is hoping his tenure as Waterville mayor and his business experience managing Marden’s will convince voters he’s ready for the next step — becoming Maine’s governor.

“Lowering taxes is always great,” he said during an interview in his Waterville office. “If you can make government work and you can take less money from the people, that’s a high for me. It’s really a high to do more with less.”

That philosophy is similar to what LePage, 61, does as part of his day job as general manager of Marden’s, the Maine department store where seconds and salvage goods cost less.

“It’s sort of like Mickey (Marden),” he said. “He sort of rubbed off on me. It was never about money; it was always about the challenge of improving something.”

LePage is one of seven Republicans vying for the party’s nomination June 8. He’s one of only two currently elected officials in the GOP race, which has attracted a big field because of Republican fervor to recapture the Blaine House after a 16-year absence.

At the recent GOP convention, LePage boasted a large and loud contingent of supporters, some of whom worked to replace the party’s traditional platform with anti-government reforms popular in the tea party movement.

As a Republican mayor with a Democratic council, in a heavily Democratic city, he’s learned how to work with others when he can, but he doesn’t hesitate to go to the press with his ideas to gain public support.

“We have a very large populace of people who are underemployed, who live in tenement housing, and who are struggling to make it,” he said. “From my perspective, as mayor, if we can deliver the services as cheaply as possible, it will put more money in people’s pockets.”

LePage understands the struggle of being poor.

Just before his 12th birthday, LePage — the oldest boy in a family of 18 children — left home. In a video on his website, he talks about how his father offered him a 50-cent piece if he told doctors at the hospital he had fallen down the stairs.

LePage knew he had to get out.

“For the first year and a half, I was living anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “With friends, in hallways, cellars, garages, and I am probably the only 11-year-old who used to stay overnight at The (Hotel) Holly in Lewiston.”

What was that?

“A strip joint,” he said, adding that he would sneak upstairs in the winter months to find empty rooms where he could sleep.

He worked as much as he could, delivering newspapers, washing dishes, shining shoes and waiting on tables. At age 13, he started living with two families in Lewiston, splitting his week three days at one place, four days at another.

He wanted to join the Marines, but one of the men who helped raise him told him to stay in school. He went on to graduate from Lewiston High School in 1967. With French as his native language, however, his English skills were so poor he had a hard time getting into college.

LePage said that’s when U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s first husband, Peter Snowe, asked what was then called Husson College to administer an achievement test in French.

He graduated from Husson in 1971 and went on to get his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Maine in 1975.

After Husson, he married a woman from Canada and moved there to work in the forest industry. He started in accounting and worked his way up to general manager.

When his marriage ended in 1979, he moved to the Waterville area to work at Scott Paper in Winslow. In 1983, he started a consulting company where he worked with many Maine small businesses. For 16 years, he tried to help failing companies succeed and to help others get through government red tape to get projects moving again.

In 1996, he took a job at Marden’s for what was supposed to be one year, but the company asked him to stay on. As general manager, he oversees everything but buying the items offered in the stores.

His political career started in 1998, when he decided to run for Waterville City Council because the city was considering selling the riverfront for $1.

“I didn’t think that was appropriate,” he said.

Then, in 2003, he ran for mayor and won — a position he continues to juggle today with his job at Marden’s and his run for governor.

When it comes to his priorities at the state level, LePage said he would start with education and human services, which consume 80 percent of the budget.

He’s a big supporter of charter schools, and he wants to make it easier for parents who want to home-school their children. He believes charter schools would bring competition to public schools.

LePage wants to do a major overhaul of the state’s human services.

“I am a product of the system,” he said. “It is the most dehumanizing system known to man.”

He’s proposing a five- to seven-year lifetime limit on benefits, and wants to require residency to be established for a period of time before anyone can get help from the state.

Also, he wants to tier the benefits, so as people make more money or get workplace help, they can scale down gradually.

“You create self-reliance, responsibility and accountability for your family,” he said. “You don’t force people to go underground and work under the table. You encourage them to earn more.”

He wants to require people to work to get general assistance — either by continuing their schooling or volunteering in the community.

As an example, he points to the High Hopes Clubhouse, which helps people with mental illness live independently and find jobs. It’s a program he’s been involved with for 10 years, and he wants to take it statewide.

LePage has five children — two from his first marriage and three from his second. He and his wife, Ann, are empty-nesters now.

In his spare time, LePage likes to make furniture, golf and read. He likes to read about presidents and world leaders.

His top three presidents? Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and William McKinley. He admires them for their leadership and their politics.

LePage says he gets his strength as mayor from the people, an approach he would take as governor.

“If you have a good case, and you do your homework, you really do get work done,” he said. “I don’t care if they are Democrat, Republican, Green or orange; you can get the job done. It’s all about common sense and getting the job done and staying away from political drama.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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