As the competing political rhetoric flew in Augusta last week over how to repay Maine’s nearly $500 million hospital debt, Gov. LePage had an unusually thoughtful public moment.
“At the end of the day, all we have is our character,” the governor said. “And a good character is you live by what you say you are going to do and you pay your bills.”
I agree with the governor. Paying our bill to Maine’s hospitals for services long ago rendered is important both practically and symbolically, and I applaud him for advancing a proposal that would make our hospitals whole.
But I would also suggest good character isn’t limited to paying your bills and keeping your word. It’s an essential combination of deeper and more diverse personal qualities which, to the extent they exist in our leaders, also fashion the public character of our state.
As our governor, Paul LePage is the most visible and powerful embodiment of Maine’s public character. I have no reason to believe the governor is anything other than a good and decent man motivated by a sincere passion to move Maine in a better direction. But somehow that passion too often devolves into public spectacle, undermining the governor’s effectiveness and impugning Maine’s character.
Perhaps the most essential element of character is trustworthiness. Albert Einstein once said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
Yet, on several occasions, the governor has concocted untruths to validate his political agenda. On the campaign trail, LePage famously claimed Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection shut down a proposed peat-fired power plant in the 1980s by forcing the company to conduct a buffalo and black fly study. Only problem — neither ever happened.
When Forbes ranked Maine dead last on its “Best States for Business” list, the governor claimed it was because of “our welfare and our energy.” But Forbes publicly refuted the governor’s account, indicating that neither welfare spending nor energy costs were even part of their process.
When the governor stunningly opined, “I don’t care where you go in this country — if you come from Maine, you’re looked down upon,” he backed it up by saying, “If you apply to William & Mary, before they’ll look at your application, if you’re from a Maine school, you have to take a placement exam to see if you qualify.” The claim was fiction.
Another important element of character is respecting others.
Here LePage could set an important public example, most especially for children and young adults who too often see bluster, swagger and conflict celebrated in popular culture.
But instead, the governor has periodically treated his constituents to a variety of public affronts, including promises to tell President Obama to “go to hell,” suggesting the NAACP “kiss my butt” and swearing at independent lawmakers who attempted to politely discuss his biennial budget proposal.
These outbursts have occasionally thrust Maine into the national news and made us the subject of late-night satirists.
Anyone who doubts the impact these episodes have on Maine’s appeal as a place to live and do business fails to understand the reach of today’s digital media.
Collaboration and compromise are also essential elements of character that are highly prized by Maine’s voters. But here too, the governor’s public conduct disappoints.
For weeks the governor refused to even meet with Maine’s newly elected Democratic legislative leaders, feigning indignation over perceived breaches of decorum by the Democratic Party’s tracker. More recently, he threatened to hold the entire legislative process hostage until his hospital debt repayment plan was passed.
Some might see these moves as bold leadership, but in reality they undermine the governor’s ability to successfully move his policy agenda. They appeal almost exclusively to a political base that prefers conflict and righteous indignation over collaboration and principled compromise.
Finally, for the state’s most senior elected official, leadership is indispensable. Here, the governor earns a mixed mark. To his credit, the governor appears to be inching toward a pragmatic but nonetheless politically gutsy move to expand the state’s Medicaid program. If he goes there, it will be his most significant act of clear-headed, non-ideological leadership to date.
On the issue of the biennial budget, however, the governor effectively abdicated any leadership responsibility by punting hard fiscal choices to local cities and towns with his proposed elimination of municipal revenue sharing.
If, as the governor contends, there is such bloat and overspending in Maine’s budget, surely he can demonstrate the leadership to identify the necessary cuts instead of further burdening local taxpayers.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
The governor’s test continues and Maine’s character hangs in the balance.
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm. He can be contacted at: