Last week, I wrote about the opportunity we have to transform Maine’s economy from the bottom up, and the need for forward-looking leadership at all levels. That raises an awkward, though necessary, question: Are we getting that leadership from Gov. Paul LePage?
As someone who supports both growing the economy and reforming government, and who advised this administration during its transition, here’s my assessment of this governor’s leadership:
It certainly isn’t hard to find strong feelings about LePage. Many Mainers think he’s a long-overdue breath of fresh air. An equal or greater number think he’s shockingly inept. Most just shrug their shoulders in mild disbelief.
I confess to having mixed feelings about him, having grown up in a lower-income, Franco-American neighborhood in Waterville, much as LePage did in Lewiston. He’s a familiar character to me: the loud, jocular, know-it-all mon oncle who everyone knows and many learn to steer clear of.
People like LePage are bigger than life in a small community, with a combustible mixture of intelligence, unsophisticated charm and strong views. They’re often too willing to push people aside or drown them out to get their way. It doesn’t surprise me that he found his way to the top of the political ladder in Waterville. Whether that prepared him for being at the top in Augusta is another matter.
Some part of me is proud that a Franco-American from humble beginnings finally became governor in Maine. Francos are a large ethnic group in the state, comprising 24 percent of the population, and part of the heart and soul of Maine. I just wish LePage represented us in a way that made us all proud.
We haven’t had a governor quite like him in our lifetimes. James B. Longley was also a strong advocate for government reform and an impatient businessman who expected to issue orders and see change happen. But Longley wasn’t nearly as volatile as LePage has proven to be.
Democrats were giddy about facing LePage in 2010, but they were underestimating the appeal of a candidate calling for real change in Augusta. They were also clinging to the idea that governor’s races are all about two major-party candidates, as though we haven’t moved into a new era where three strong candidates are the norm.
I give LePage credit for some of the things he’s tried to do (if not how he’s done them) such as defusing the ticking time bomb under the state pension plan, cutting income taxes and getting a handle on some of the excesses in government, including at the turnpike authority. Does that mean LePage has been an effective governor? Not by a long shot, I’m afraid.
Whether in the area of government reform or rebuilding the economy, LePage has shown a striking knack for undercutting his own agenda and repeatedly shooting himself in the foot.
Even when he raises important issues, too many of his arguments seem to come straight out of wacky recipes from the far right that combine heavy doses of undercooked facts, anecdotes that are more lard than beef, and a heavy hand on the Rush Limbaugh salt shaker.
For those of us who want to see a sensible modernization of government, those traits have produced two steps back for every one forward.
On the economy, LePage’s “plain speak” has actually hurt Maine more than helped. I’m not talking about gaffes that make the late night shows, but comments that make us look bad to people who might want to visit here or start a business in Maine.
Leadership certainly requires standing up for what you believe in, but it also requires an ability to listen and to respect different views, to persuade people and to bring them together. I see little of that skill in this governor.
My biggest complaint with LePage is his lack of a vision for Maine’s future. On what’s wrong with Maine, I hear him loud and clear. But when it comes to what’s good about Maine, it’s all silence. I want to hear LePage’s positive vision for Maine. Not what he’s fighting against, but what he’s fighting for. Not what he’s angry about, but what his dreams are. Not who he’s attacking but who he’s inspiring.
Time is running out on this administration and the lost opportunities are piling up. Any positive ideas it has are being drowned out by its own negativity. That might work for organizing an insurgent campaign but it isn’t taking us to the next economy.
Alan Caron is the president of Envision Maine, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He is also a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group, and is co-authoring “Growing Maine’s Next Economy,” which will published in the fall. He can be reached at: