AUGUSTA — Joined by his family on stage, Paul Richard LePage today completed a story of personal triumph and Maine’s political transformation as he was inaugurated before a joint session of the Maine Legislature, becoming the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years.
“My pledge to Maine people is very simple: It’s going to be people ahead of politics,” LePage said to a roar of approval from more than 5,000 spectators at the Augusta Civic Center.
LePage was written off as a contender early in last year’s crowded gubernatorial race as a State House outsider, but was buoyed as a political player amid a wave of voter frustration with government status quo. He is now Maine’s first Republican governor since John McKernan left office in 1995, and the first GOP chief executive with a Republican-controlled House and Senate in nearly a half century.
The 62-year-old former Waterville mayor and favorite of many tea partiers took office with promises to put people first, shape a leaner, more focused state government, and ease regulations he believes hamper business growth and discourage job creation.
The crowd rose to its feet when LePage mentioned what he described as a “bloated” state government. “It’s time to make state government more accountable,” he said. “It’s time to deliver value to our taxpayers.”
LePage’s address, interrupted by applause more than 40 times, lasted just 24 minutes and contained no new policy announcements. The event represented a departure from past practice by being staged in the daytime with four past governors — two Democrats and one Republican and independent each — on the stage. In keeping with the mood of economic austerity, LePage decided to skip an inaugural gala in favor of a simpler, same-day reception.
His address included the story of a woman who rose from poverty with some government assistance, but mostly hard work, as an illustration of his desire to create a culture in which individuals can succeed with public assistance if needed, but without long-term dependence on social programs.
He pushed his people-first theme repeatedly.
“The word ‘people’ appears in the Maine Constitution 49 times. You cannot find a single mention of the words ‘politics,’ ‘Republican,’ ‘Democrat,’ ‘Green,’ or ‘Independent’ in 37 pages of preambles, articles and sections of our Constitution,” he said. “The framers had it right.”
LePage pledged “to listen and work constructively” with anyone bringing forth sincere solutions to the state’s problems, which include a looming revenue shortfall estimated in the $1 billion range in a state budget that’s already been whittled by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.
To bring government closer to the people, the new governor promised to reintroduce the Capitol for a Day program initiated by the last GOP governor, McKernan, in which town hall meetings are held in each of Maine’s 16 counties. “We are going to get around and learn from the people of Maine,” said LePage, who also promised to host constituent service hours to meet directly with Mainers.
Minority Democrats promised to work constructively with LePage.
“We do not expect to agree with the governor all of the time, but we do expect to agree on a thoughtful and inclusive approach to find the best solutions to the problems facing Maine people,” House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono said in a statement.
LePage’s inauguration completes a story of personal triumph that became familiar to Maine voters before his win in a seven-way GOP primary and five-way general election race.
Once a neglected and homeless youth in his hometown of Lewiston, LePage earned a master’s degree, had a successful business career and became mayor of the city of Waterville before launching what was viewed as a longshot gubernatorial bid last year. LePage, whose ancestry is French-Canadian, now becomes Maine’s first Franco-American to be popularly elected Maine governor.
The new governor shared the stage Wednesday with immediate family members, with whom he shared high-fives after the event. He was regaled with music from a marching band and a cappella group, and ushered into the civic center by a Maine Army National Guard herald shouting the traditional, “Here ye, make way, make way.”
Dignitaries from five countries – Canada, France, Germany, Pakistan and Ireland – attended, as did a man who gave the young LePage a place to live after the boy who was to become governor left home at age 11.
“We are very proud of you, Paul,” Bruce Myrick, of Sabattus, told the audience from the stage.