Paul LePage is a motivated man.
It began with a youth spent homeless and briefly on the streets until, as he says, he broke free from the “shackles of economic slavery” that he calls welfare. It continued as he succeeded in business, most recently as general manager of Marden’s Surplus and Salvage chain.
Now, he’s motivated on a grander scale: bringing fiscal conservatism to all of Maine as its governor.
So far, his message seems to be resonating with voters.
Early polls show him leading the race for governor. Voters, the poll suggests, are most concerned about jobs and the sour economy. LePage’s vows to cut spending and ease the way for business expansion and job creation may be striking a chord with those likely to vote.
That message, along with his life story and resume, seem to have appeal for Maine voters; it propelled him to an unexpected landslide primary victory in June.
What’s going on here? Aren’t Mainers supposed to favor moderate Republicans?
LePage, the soon-to-be 62-year-old mayor of Waterville, may be breaking the mold.
While opponents try to paint him as a social extremist, LePage focused on pocketbook issues in a recent interview with RedState.com, a conservative political website. He espoused sentiments associated with the tea party movement, the ever-growing political movement that seeks to lower taxes, lower the nation’s debt and adheres to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
“I am a very strong believer in the Constitution and the state constitution and I intend to govern to what our Founding Fathers left us,” said LePage. “We ignore it just about every day of the year, both coming down from Washington and certainly coming out of our Legislature — we ignore what we say we’re governed by and we need to go back to a representative republic.”
LePage did not make himself available to be interviewed for this profile, but did provide e-mail answers to questions.
To make his case that he knows how to reduce government spending and effectively manage taxpayer resources, he points to his tenure as mayor of Waterville, which began in 2004. He says the city has lowered taxes 13 percent, increased its rainy day fund from $1 million to $10 million and improved its bond rating, all without cutting services.
He says the fact he did so as a Republican with a city council controlled by Democrats is evidence he could manage the same way with the Legislature.
A recent example of LePage’s conservative leadership came in August, when city officials were discussing plans for a new snow dump site. Bids to build a new site came in about $100,000 higher than expected, but the Waterville city engineer said he could trim costs by including less paving.
LePage questioned why paving was necessary at all, considering the current dump site was unpaved. When told that snowblowers could more easily lose pins, which would cost money to repair and slow down snow removal, the mayor wasn’t impressed.
“You’re talking $100,000 — for a pin,” he said, according to a Morning Sentinel account of the meeting. “I think we ought to be a little more efficient than that, somehow.”
At LePage’s insistence, the public works director said an unpaved site would probably be sufficient.
Some may find it hard to argue over what expenses are necessary with a man who got by for a couple of years on the streets of Lewiston, homeless before he was even a teenager.
LePage, who grew up speaking French as his first language in Lewiston’s “Little Canada,” left his family at age 11, after receiving a beating from his alcoholic father, a carpenter. He was the second oldest of 18 children.
He got by doing any and all jobs he could find, including shining the shoes of sailors frequenting the Hotel Holly in Lewiston, a strip club that was also known for its prostitutes. The young LePage was able to take shelter there some nights, he said in an interview with the Kennebec Journal earlier this year, thanks to the charity of some of the working girls.
In fact, when LePage eventually made it to college, some of the ladies of the night from his past sent money to help him get by.
“One sent me $5 every month,” he said, chuckling, in an interview earlier this year.
Eventually, a pair of Lewiston families took LePage in.
Eddy and Pauline Collins, who owned the restaurant Theriault’s, let LePage live with their family and work in the cafe.
“We considered him a son, that’s how close we were,” Collins said in a recent interview.
LePage also was taken in by Bruce Myrick, a delivery truck driver he was helping out.
“He was just a good, hardworking kid that would do whatever you told him,” Myrick said in a recent interview.
But LePage has said Peter Snowe, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s first husband, made it possible for him to leave the streets behind.
“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 said at a tea party rally in Stillwater in January. “That gentleman took me off the streets, helped me get into college.”
LePage has said Snowe, who later died in a car accident, convinced Husson College to let him take his SAT test in French, which resulted in him scoring well enough to get in.
“I wanted more out of life and I feared incarceration,” LePage said in an e-mail. “I realized I would have to be smarter to earn my way in life. Peter Snowe was a mentor, along with Bruce Myrick and Pauline Collins.”
At Husson, LePage thrived, joining a fraternity, student government and playing intramural sports like volleyball. During his senior year, he was class president and editor of the student newspaper, according to the yearbook. He graduated in 1971 with a degree in business and earned his MBA from the University of Maine at Orono in 1975.
In 1972, LePage got a job in New Brunswick, working for Arthurette Lumber. When his marriage to a Canadian woman ended in 1979, he moved back to Maine to work for Scott Paper in Winslow. After a few years, he began his own business consulting company, LePage & Kasevich Inc. From 1983 until 1996, when he began working at Marden’s, LePage helped struggling companies turn things around.
LePage said one of the most important lessons he learned as a business consultant was to listen to workers.
“Most solutions to problems come from those on the front line,” he said in an e-mail.
In 1991, his problem-solving skills were on display when he served as the court-appointed president and CEO of Wilner Wood Products of South Paris, according to a Lewiston Sun Journal story.
The company, which made furniture, was fighting to survive Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was faced with crippling worker’s compensation insurance costs.
“At this stage of the game, Worker’s Compensation premiums is the one thing that might prevent Wilner from succeeding out of Chapter 11,” said LePage, according to the Sun Journal.
After personally reviewing the worker’s compensation claims for the company’s previous four years, LePage found that two-thirds of the accidents were to eyes, so he required employees to wear protective glasses.
“That eliminated that problem,” he said.
Then he implemented an eight-minute stretching routine, designed by the Norway-based Work Safe. When some workers tried to boycott because they said the idea was silly, they were told they had no choice, and LePage achieved a 100 percent participation rate, according to the Sun Journal archive.
The experience also might have soured LePage to Maine government. Though the system was later reformed, LePage said at the time the workers compensation program was “absolutely out of control.”
LePage has worn the mantle of government reformer before and would like to do so again.
In 1998, while serving on the Waterville City Council, he helped lead the successful effort to recall then-Mayor Ruth Joseph, a Democrat, from office.
According to accounts in the Bangor Daily News archives, LePage and fellow Councilor Paul Poulin conducted a 10-month investigation of Joseph, finding “18 ‘questionable management practices’ and 11 possible violations either of city ordinances or the city charter.”
Joseph denied any wrongdoing, but was voted out of office by the people of Waterville.
LePage’s plans for Maine include education, welfare and government reforms.
But his calls for transparency in government conduct have been marred of late — he walked out of his own news conference, refusing to answer questions about his wife’s residency status, after it was reported she claimed homestead tax exemptions in both Maine and Florida.
Florida authorities are now investigating Ann LePage’s residency claim.
Despite the adversity LePage has faced in life and in politics, he has stayed focused.
Voters don’t have to worry about him giving up when things get tough, said Charlie Gaunce, a longtime friend from Waterville and president of Central Maine Motors.
“He’s a person that will get the job done and he’ll stick with it,” said Gaunce. “He’ll be very fair in doing it, but he will do what’s necessary. He’s had to survive on the streets and he’s a street fighter.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: