Though it has been only a matter of weeks since Paul LePage became Maine’s 74th governor, he has begun to redefine the role and scope of state government.

Unfortunately, one impetuous and unacceptable remark directed toward the leadership of the NAACP has overshadowed an otherwise strong start. He needs to apologize, show more restraint and get back on message. There is work to do, and the drama surrounding non-core issues is a distraction from financial and regulatory policy.

In contrast to his one-liner, I loved his inaugural speech. Listeners and viewers were not treated to high rhetoric or polished delivery. They instead heard a clear and unvarnished message of defined change, principled direction and pragmatic execution.

“Profit is good,” said Le- Page, explaining that it makes everything else we do possible – our homes, our schools, our government, our nonprofit organizations. For people who believe more in the power of free enterprise than in prescriptive government, the governor’s first address was like breathing pure oxygen.

He left no doubt that he believes in the power of the private sector and personal responsibility to meet our most basic needs.

If government can complement the free market, more working-age people and businesses will be able to provide for themselves rather than rely on taxpayers for support. For him, it is more than a theory. He has successfully run large, complex organizations.

Consider this: LePage arrived from Marden’s retail stores with more management experience than any newly minted governor in the last 60 years. In 1959, Robert Haskell, president of Bangor Hydroelectric Co., served the last five days of Edmund Muskie’s unexpired term. No other governor since Haskell had led such a large, employee-intensive enterprise before taking office.

Though LePage is a zealous advocate for individual responsibility, his inaugural remarks were not without compassion for those who are struggling.

His approach to serving those in need, however, is to set new expectations of the social contract between the community and the people receiving social services.

He expects those who are able-bodied to succeed and become independent of public support. His expectations would seem harsh had he not walked in their shoes for most of his youth; impoverished, abused and neglected, he worked his way up the ladder of success. His leadership will mean tough love for Maine.

Clues to there being a new sheriff in town can be seen in his first budget – the spending plan that he submitted to see the state through the rest of this fiscal year.

If adopted by the Legislature, it will make long overdue payments to Maine’s hospitals. These are reimbursements that have been reduced or delayed for years.

Having the state pay its bills may help save hundreds of health care jobs. It also sends the message that Maine will have an honest balance sheet.

LePage also wants Maine to conform to the federal tax code, which will result in a $4.5 million tax cut for Maine people. The change also will make the state less of a tax outlier in the nation and an easier place to live and do business.

LePage also reversed a Baldacci executive order and now allows state officials to inquire about legal residency for those who seek social benefits.

Though this is a controversial political gesture, for there are no hard figures to determine the scope of welfare fraud or abuse, LePage is putting his stake in the ground that he expects fair play.

Another executive order continued a hiring freeze. It leaves vacant about 250 positions, many of which have remained unfilled for quite some time.

Though the state employees union is fearful that the workloads of remaining employees will increase to the point that service could be compromised, the new administration seems ready to operate with fewer people.

That’s no reflection on our valued state employees; it’s simply a matter of productivity. We’ll know soon enough if it doesn’t work, by the level of customer satisfaction.

Governing is more than management or wielding one’s authority, however. LePage must engage the hearts and minds of a broad spectrum of citizens to create public support and achieve success. He also needs to inspire the bureaucracy with clearly communicated objectives, recognition and empathy.

I recently heard a comment that most people look to the past as a measure of their happiness because they can’t imagine what a brighter future might look like.

The governor needs to show us why his changes will be worth the effort. However, allowing his own behavior or outside interests to undermine his moral authority or distract our elected leaders from solving the big issues that face Maine will compromise the economic agenda he was elected to implement.

We have every right to expect exemplary behavior. After all, his success will be our success – as will his failure be ours as well.

What do you think, and what are you going to do about it? 

Tony Payne is a lifelong resident of Maine who is active in business, civic and political affairs. He may be reached at: [email protected]