YARMOUTH — Gov. Paul LePage was asking residents of the Coastal Manor nursing home where they were from when Grace Kerzner’s response piqued his interest.
“Queens,” Kerzner said.
“I worked in Queens for two summers, back in high school,” the governor told her. “It was Astoria. You know what I used to do there?”
Then, with a hand over his mouth, the he leaned down and whispered in her ear.
Whatever it was he said, Kerzner’s reaction was immediate: Like two old pals, they broke into fits of laughter.
“Don’t tell anybody,” LePage said.
Beside Kerzner, Ethel Oddi smirked, and spoke up. “She won’t have to. I heard you.”
After his private moment with Kerzner, he hinted at an anecdote deep in his past.
“Back then, was all I had to do, I was just the driver of the station wagon,” he said, without elaborating. “It was pretty interesting. I just remember that people used to wear guns in those days. When I saw that, I said I’m going back to Maine.”
For a governor sometimes derided for his brusque, occasionally profane manner, Friday’s stop at the nursing home was neither overtly political nor devoid of the frankness for which LePage has received much attention. There were no campaign staffers. The governor made no prepared remarks. There was neither a news release nor the usual scrum of cameras – a Press Herald reporter and photographer were invited by the nursing home’s owner.
LePage’s under-the-radar campaign style was on rare display, where for half an hour, he asked questions, listened and shared tidbits from his past with the group of seniors. They and others like them will be a key voting bloc for whomever is elected to the Blaine House – LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud or independent Eliot Cutler.
Some of LePage’s comments Friday were solemn, like how his mother, a lifelong diabetic, lost her feet and her eyesight to the disease. In her later years, she played bingo by squinting at the numbers on her card, held only a few inches from her face.
The governor also relayed a now-familiar story about how, when he was a young man in Lewiston, he walked toward the motorcade of a campaigning John F. Kennedy, only to be bounced by the Secret Service.
“(Kennedy) just barely touched my fingers and the next thing I saw was sky, buildings and pavement. They just grabbed us and just chucked us,” LePage said.
He talked about Jamaica, where he has vacationed with his family for 25 years, and for a few brief moments, state politics.
Dottie Smith, who has worked at the nursing home for 40 years, lamented to LePage the tangle of rules and regulations enforced by both the federal and the state government that have made her job as a health care administrator a nightmare. Her staff is underpaid and the hours are long, Smith said. On top of it all, the government’s reimbursement rate for care is not what it should be.
“I’m trying to be very polite, very professional, and not really tell you what I’m really thinking,” Smith said. “I did write you a little letter with a few of my concerns.”
Increasing state funding for nursing homes emerged as a political issue shortly before the Legislature adjourned in May. LePage offered up a bill to disburse $5 million in emergency nursing home funding by taking money from a fund for smoking cessation programs.
But when lawmakers prepared an amended version, LePage indicated that he would sign only his original bill. The measure died, and since then, additional funding for nursing home care has been a rallying cry for Le- Page, who has laid blame for the failure to enact his measure on Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves, both Democrats.
“Let me tell you, on the reimbursement, I understand, there is money sitting not being used because the Legislature won’t vote to give you the money,” LePage told his listeners Friday. “I’d invite the speaker and the president to come in and tell (them) to give you the money that’s been found and is sitting there.”
Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, picked up on the theme Friday, announcing in a statement that the pending closure of Pittsfield Rehab and Nursing could effectively be blamed on Democrats for failing to fund nursing home care.
Democratic leaders fired back, noting that lawmakers allocated $4 million in state funds for nursing homes, which began flowing this month, with $10 million more earmarked in future years, which triggers $16 million in federal matching dollars. The Legislature also passed bills to increase the reimbursement rate for care, which had been unchanged since 2005.
Apparently unwilling to digress into the rhetoric of the “hate season,” as he calls the campaign, LePage made only a brief mention of the legislative squabble before moving on to other, more pleasant, topics.
“The problem is, you have three branches of government and they don’t always agree with each other,” he said. “It’s awful. It’s awful.”