AUGUSTA — About 30 minutes before Gov. Paul LePage delivered his State of the State address to the Legislature, Bethel Republican state Rep. Jarrod Crockett stopped on the staircase above the governor’s office to offer a prediction.
“The re-election campaign begins tonight,” Crockett said.
In the literal sense, the governor’s re-election bid began more than a year ago when his supporters reconstituted LePage’s 2010 campaign apparatus. While many have wondered whether LePage would have the appetite for a second term, the governor on Tuesday delivered further evidence — in tone, rhetoric and substance — that a run in 2014 is more likely than not.
In some ways his hour-long address to the Legislature rehashed the talking points that helped catapult him to the Blaine House in 2010.
In other cases, policies he discussed Tuesday are backed by interests that have already donated to his re-election committee.
The governor’s message also comes as the Maine Republican Party has made personnel moves to reaffirm its support for a governor whose policies and public remarks have at times alienated fellow Republicans.
His campaign committee has also stepped up its efforts. On Tuesday it launched a 700-word broadside against an undeclared opponent, former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.
Baldacci was not mentioned during the address, but the problems LePage said his predecessor left behind were.
The governor said “hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid bills to Maine’s hospitals” were stacked on his desk when he took office in 2011.
“My predecessor left no plan to pay them, just IOUs,” LePage said.
LePage’s plan to pay $484 million in delayed Medicaid reimbursement payments to Maine’s hospitals is one of his priorities and he urged the Democratic-led Legislature to pass it. It also repeats a theme from the 2010 campaign, when he made the hospital debt a campaign issue. This aligned him with a powerful interest group with the built-in constituencies of major employers, influential governing boards and deep community connections.
The Maine Hospital Association’s political action committee made no direct donations to LePage in 2010. But it has since donated $2,000.
Groups that hope the governor will successfully change the state’s energy policies have also contributed to LePage’s re-election committee.
On Tuesday, the governor expanded on his call to expand natural gas in Maine. He noted that Gov. John Baldacci passed a law that expedited permitting for wind power projects and “I’m going to do the same natural gas infrastructure.”
This dovetails with moves by the previous Legislature to increase expansion, which has been traditionally stunted by the high cost of building pipelines.
LePage did not offer specifics on his plan, but it appears likely that creating incentives for distributors will be included.
The governor has held several meetings with natural gas and energy companies over the past year, including Central Maine Power and Summit Utilities Inc., a Colorado-based natural gas company that installs distribution systems for homes and large businesses. How those companies fit into the governor’s energy plan is not yet clear, but Central Maine Power CEO Sara Burns has donated $1,000 to LePage’s re-election committee and Summit has contributed $500.
The governor’s energy message had a two-pronged effect. It struck a populist note with struggling Maine families who he said pay an average of $3,000 per year to fill their oil tanks while also paying high electricity costs. The energy message also hit back against one of the governor’s chief nemeses, the wind industry.
The latter, characterized by LePage as “well-dressed lobbyists,” has succeeded in campaigning to defeat LePage’s previous energy proposals.
LePage on Tuesday vowed a renewed effort to expose the wind industry as a special interest group lining its pockets “at the expense of Maine’s families.”
LePage also criticized the “union bosses” he says are blocking his education reforms. The governor has had repeated battles with the Maine Education Association, the union representing the state’s public school teachers. The group also played a part in the 2012 election that stripped LePage of his Republican majorities in the Legislature. The organization figures to be a factor in 2014, too.
On Tuesday, the governor attempted to divide the union from its members, saying in unscripted remarks that union greed was depriving teachers of higher incomes.
Confrontation with potential opponents made up a significant portion of the governor’s speech. But he also attempted to mix humor and introspection with calls for action.
He joked about his reputation for appearing angry, saying it was a symptom of his passion for education. Education, along with “a lot of luck and some good friends,” he said, lifted him out of poverty and “a life in prison or life on the streets.” Education, he said, saved his life.
Circling back to his compelling personal story marked another return to the 2010 campaign, during which he spoke frequently about how his early life of poverty shaped his ambition.
LePage said it never occurred to him when he was a homeless youth that he could be a “successful businessman, a mayor or even a governor.” Going off script, he added, that he only wanted to be a truck driver for the Pepsi Cola Co.
The remark drew laughter from the crowd, as did the governor’s quip that he was working on appearing more passionate and less angry.
There may be some who doubt that LePage can change his demeanor, but after Tuesday, it’s unlikely that many will doubt he will run for re-election in 2014.
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: email@example.com