AUGUSTA — Something surprising happened amid all the controversy, criticism and drama during Gov. Paul LePage’s tumultuous first year in office, political experts say.
He had a pretty good year.
“You may not necessarily agree with his style and his tactics,” said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “But if you want to just look at what he’s been able to do in terms of setting the agenda and policy changes, he’s gotten out of the gate pretty strong.”
No governor gets everything, Brewer said, and LePage has had his share of political defeats since his inauguration a year ago. He couldn’t convince the Legislature to cut Maine’s Medicaid rolls in his first year, for example, and is facing similar resistance at the start of his second year.
But with the help of a Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature and a knack for dominating media coverage and controlling the agenda, LePage built a strong list of accomplishments, experts say. They include tax cuts, health insurance reforms and welfare reforms.
“I do think he’s been incredibly effective,” Brewer said.
Whether LePage’s style and tactics continue to serve him as well over the rest of his term is less assured, experts say.
He has made little apparent effort to win over the 61 percent of Maine voters who chose other candidates in the 2009 election. And his hard-charging, abrasive approach — especially in the first months — may not help Republicans keep control of the Legislature next fall, some say.
“My sense is he’s managed to alienate members of his own (party) as well as Democrats. In the long haul, that’s not a good thing,” said Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. “He might very well have determined that what he wants to do is move particular pieces of legislation now and not worry so much about the long haul.”
Whatever LePage has been thinking, he’s clearly not what Maine is used to in the Blaine House.
“He’s not your typical politician,” Brewer said. “This is really a 180-degree turn from what we’ve seen in Maine politics.”
That difference was obvious from the start, when LePage told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to “kiss my butt” in response to its criticism of him for declining an invitation to a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Portland.
Soon after, he ordered the removal of a mural from the Department of Labor based on an anonymous complaint that it was anti-employer. Critics began calling him a bully and buffoon, while many core supporters cheered him on.
The governor declined to be interviewed for this article, and spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett cited frustration with negative daily newspaper coverage.
Dominating the headlines may have helped LePage overall, but the early dramas were distracting, experts said.
“I think his rhetoric initially was getting him into trouble. I think that was more settling into the job,” said Kenneth Palmer, political science professor emeritus at the University of Maine.
That was clear when a group of Republican legislators publicly rebuked the governor in April.
Palmer said he expects “things will go a little smoother next year.”
He also said LePage actually stirred up less controversy in his first year than some other conservative, tea party-backed governors who are trying to shake up the status quo in their states.
“It was contentious in Maine, but if you look at Wisconsin, it wasn’t anywhere close,” Palmer said.
LePage has clearly shown he’s not afraid to offend legislators to get what he wants. Which party they belong to doesn’t seem to matter much.
He vetoed 12 bills — mostly ones with Democratic sponsors — in his first year, more than any of the past three governors. His predecessor, John Baldacci, vetoed three bills in his first year, according to the Legislative Law Library.
He also quietly threatened to veto many bipartisan bills to force legislators to make what were sometimes minor changes in language.
Republicans in the Legislature were taken aback when LePage’s office started calling to say that the governor was refusing to sign seemingly inoffensive bills dealing with low-profile issues such as dance halls and edible mushrooms. Even though administration officials had already vetted them, lawmakers were asked to recall proposed laws and change something, often a new fee that LePage felt was too high.
“He studies every piece of legislation that comes through. He’s a stickler for reading everything,” said Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale.
In one case, for example, LePage wanted a bill changed so that a new relicensing fee for retired dentists would be reduced from $250 to $75. LePage took the stand after calling a member of his Cabinet to find out what it would actually cost to process a license application.
House Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, had the job of explaining the recalls to Republican committee chairs.
“I had some very upset chairmen who felt they had done their work and the governor wasn’t respecting them,” Cushing said. “The governor, first and foremost, is not a politician … who holds his finger up to get a sense where the public and Legislature is at.”
Courtney said the governor’s ability to shake things up made for an interesting year.
“His style is certainly rough and tumble, but that’s OK (because) the Legislature balances that out with a little more thoughtful deliberation,” he said.
“I’m not sure he knew how successful he was. He’s accustomed to the business world, where, if you don’t get everything you ask for, you’re not successful. He got a lot of what he asked for.”
Democrats, on the other hand, point out that LePage also didn’t get a lot of things, in spite of his legislative majority.
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, called LePage’s first year a roller coaster.
“What we found with this governor is he brings in an extreme position, it comes to the Legislature, where cooler heads prevail, and we end up agreeing to something,” Cain said. “Just when you think you’re working well together, another outrageous turn comes along.”
Cain said she’s confident voters also are unhappy with LePage’s style and political priorities. Democrats have done well in special elections during the past year, and Mainers in November overwhelming rejected a LePage-supported effort to eliminate same-day voter registration.
That’s why she is hopeful that LePage’s control of the agenda, and his majority in the Legislature, won’t last, she said. “I think we’ll earn back the confidence of Maine voters next fall.”
Cain does not dispute Le-Page’s ability to dominate the news during the past year, for better or worse. But that’s not necessarily good leadership, she said.
“There’s a lot of good work going on here that is not going to make the headlines, but every time the governor says something extreme, he’ll make the headlines,” she said.
The headlines about LePage also have been the source of a yearlong battle with the media.
LePage did grant some short interviews last week with weekly newspapers, wire services and television stations, and he spoke a little bit about his first year.
“While we did not get nearly everything we asked for, we got an awful lot done the first year,” LePage told Don Carrigan, a reporter for WCSH-TV (Channel 6).
When asked about the perception that he’s frustrated with the pace of government, Le-Page said, “I’m a good actor, I’ll leave it at that. … I know how to push hard.”
And he promised more of the same in year two.
“I pushed hard, and I’ll push even harder this time,” he said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: