LEWISTON — When he was a kid, Maine’s governor spent time on the streets, homeless, not far from the spot where folks in Lewiston wanted to build a casino. Following the casino’s rejection on Tuesday’s statewide ballot, some in the former mill city feel betrayed by their native son, Gov. Paul LePage.
Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert blamed LePage in part for the defeat of a referendum seeking voter approval for a casino that a local group wanted to develop in an abandoned textile mill. Gilbert, who was spokesman for the casino group, said he faults the governor for saying days before the election that Maine doesn’t have the population base to support five casinos.
Maine now has one operating casino, in Bangor, and one under construction in Oxford. Voters rejected two referendum questions Tuesday proposing a casino in Lewiston and two racetrack casinos in southern and eastern Maine.
“It’s clearly evident I don’t care for this guy because he comes from Lewiston and has done nothing — absolutely nothing — for Lewiston. And I find that most unfortunate,” Gilbert said to glum-faced casino supporters late Tuesday night, when the vote showed more than 63 percent of voters rejecting the casino referendum.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor never took a position for or against the gambling referendums, and was speaking from a business perspective when he told a group at Colby College last week that Maine was too small for five gambling facilities.
The governor isn’t going to get in to a public give-and-take with the mayor, she said.
“The governor has said he’s not getting into a pissing match with a skunk, because if you do you come out smelling,” she said.
LePage grew up in the Little Canada section of Lewiston, where his hard-drinking, hot-tempered father worked in a textile mill.
LePage ran away when he was 11 and took to the streets, sleeping at friends’ homes, in a horse stable and even in an upstairs room at a strip joint. He was eventually taken in by some kindhearted adults, went to college and became general manager of a chain of surplus stores. A Republican, he later became mayor of Waterville and was elected governor a year ago.
Shelley Burger, 40, felt somewhat betrayed by LePage’s comments on how many casinos he thought Maine can accommodate, she said Wednesday while eating lunch at Simones Hot Dog Stand, a popular diner a few blocks from where LePage grew up.
Casinos seemed to do well in Iowa when she lived there before moving back to her native Maine several years ago, Burger said. Iowa, which has more than 15 casinos, has a population of about 3 million; Maine has 1.3 million residents.
“Saying we couldn’t support five of them, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “There are busloads of people that go to Foxwoods (casino in Connecticut) and Bangor every day.”
But Denny Paradis said Gilbert is coming across as a sore loser. He doesn’t think LePage’s comments swayed the outcome, given the wide margin of defeat..
“I think he was way out of line,” the 59-year-old Paradis said. “I’m not sure the governor carries that much weight.”
LePage’s comments certainly didn’t help the city’s cause in persuading Mainers to vote for a casino, 68-year-old Leo Bolduc said. But the governor was just speaking his mind, and he was probably correct in his assertion, said Bolduc, who supported the Lewiston casino proposal.
“He was just saying it like it was,” he said. “Five casinos in the state is too much.”
Regarding Gilbert’s assertion that LePage hasn’t done anything for Lewiston since taking office, Bennett said the governor was instrumental in having a Boston-based company set up a customer support center in Lewiston earlier this year. Carbonite Inc. expects to have more than 150 employees in Lewiston by the end of this year, and 250 by the end of 2012.
The governor also expedited state repayments of Medicaid debt to hospitals around the state, Bennett said. In Lewiston, Central Maine Medical Center has gotten more than $30 million it was due, while St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center has received more than $17 million it was owed, she said.
Residents could just as easily ask Gilbert, who was once the city’s police chief, what he’s done since becoming mayor, said 68-year-old Bernie Bilodeau.
“The mayor, what’s he done since he got off the police force?” Bilodeau asked. “He’s done his job, but nothing special.”