AUGUSTA — Democrats are giving Gov. Paul LePage a grade of “incomplete” for his first 100 days in office, saying he needs to focus on jobs and the economy.
More than 80 of the 86 Democratic state legislators gathered in the State House Hall of Flags on Wednesday for a news conference in which they gently chastised the governor for his performance and rolled out their own agenda.
“House and Senate Democrats call on the governor and the majority party to stop the distractions and get back to the task at hand: job creation and economic growth,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.
Democrats said they plan to work with businesses, by creating a business council to be a sounding board for ideas and by visiting businesses in their districts.
LePage, a Republican who was mayor of Waterville, was elected in November with 38 percent of the vote in a five-way race. He was sworn in Jan. 5; today is his 100th day in office.
A former business executive, LePage has pledged to lower taxes and reduce regulations that burden businesses. But his goals have been overshadowed by his caustic comments and the continuing battle over his removal of a labor-themed mural from a wall in the Department of Labor’s headquarters.
LePage’s supporters say it’s far too early in his administration to expect major victories. They give him credit for proposing a two-year budget that seeks to reform the state pension system and lower taxes, and for producing two stopgap budgets to get the state through the rest of this fiscal year.
“He’s addressing the major structural challenges we have built up over decades,” said Christopher Hall, senior vice president of the Portland Regional Chamber.
LePage is proposing an overhaul of the retirement system, reforms to welfare and $200 million in tax cuts. To the business community, the tax cuts are the state’s version of an economic stimulus package, Hall said.
The governor is addressing regulatory reform by making recommendations to lawmakers who will hold a hearing today on L.D. 1, which Hall described as a first step toward improving Maine’s business climate.
When it comes to LePage’s string of headline-grabbing comments — which include telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt” and saying women may grow “little beards” because of a chemical additive in plastics — Hall said he’s looking forward, not backward.
“We’re ready to move on now,” he said.
Through his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, LePage declined to be interviewed about his first 100 days in office. Bennett also declined to comment.
Two weeks ago, eight Republican state senators publicly rebuked LePage for his remarks, particularly with regard to people who are upset about the governor’s mural decision.
When asked about people who said they would form a human chain to block the mural’s removal, LePage said he would “laugh at the idiots.”
In an opinion piece published April 4 in the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel, The Portland Press Herald and other Maine newspapers, the senators urged LePage to stop making such comments.
“Belittling comments, whether they come from the governor or his opponents, have no place in Maine public life,” they wrote.
The column ran while LePage was on vacation in Jamaica. The governor has kept a low profile since his return to the state April 9.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman, R-Hampden — who was not among the senators who signed the opinion piece — said the governor has adopted a new approach.
“We’ve turned the page and we’re working with him, he’s working with us,” she said.
While Democrats who gathered Wednesday avoided directly mentioning LePage’s gaffes, the Maine Democratic Party hit him hard.
“The first 100 days have been a disaster,” said party Chairman Ben Grant. “Maine people elected everybody … to help fix Maine’s ailing economy and to provide jobs for Maine people. Instead, we’re removing art from the walls, putting chemicals back into baby bottles and all kinds of nonsense issues that have nothing to do with job creation.”
The 100-day benchmark — first observed in the early 1930s, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency — has been used by political writers to gauge the effectiveness of Maine’s two most recent governors.
In April 1995, Gov. Angus King, an independent, was praised for his upbeat approach to the job but panned by others, who said he lacked a clear agenda, according to a story in the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Eight years later, Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, earned high marks for getting strong bipartisan support for his two-year budget and gaining approval for a $60 million bond in his first 100 days.
When LePage took office, Democrats handed him and the Legislature’s new Republican majority many problems that need to be fixed, said Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster.
“In 100 days, they expect us to fix what they took 35 years to destroy,” Webster said. “Maine’s a welfare state, we have a lousy business climate, we’re among the highest-taxed in the country, and they expect us to change it in 100 days.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: