This time of year, I’m for more cookouts and less politics, which is exactly why I found myself last weekend on an excursion boat with part of my extended family, dodging the lobster buoys as we headed out of Boothbay Harbor for a clambake. Despite my best efforts, though, the conversation eventually turned to politics, and to Gov. LePage.
Most of my family comes from the Waterville area, where LePage served as mayor, and they’re just about as Franco-American as you get. So you’d think LePage would be a big hit with this crowd.
But you’d be wrong. Most of them were hopeful when LePage came into office three years ago. After all, how many Franco-Americans have held high office in Maine? Here’s a clue: You could count them on one hand and still have enough fingers to hold your coffee mug, and two of them are running against each other this fall.
If ever there were a natural base for LePage, it would be my family. Not that they’re politically active. They’re just normal Mainers trying to get by. But they’re the kind of people who LePage must have in November, because he can’t win with nothing but angry conservatives. He has to have frustrated working-class taxpayers, and Francos in particular.
If my family is any measure, there are some serious cracks developing in the LePage base. Those who supported him when he was first elected are mostly lukewarm now, and they’re outnumbered by people who are either disgusted or ashamed of this governor, despite his ethnicity and hometown.
Some people on the left can’t imagine why anyone except partisan Republicans could possibly support LePage, but that’s a dangerous blind spot for people who are trying to oust him.
LePage gained support and retains much of it for some very simple reasons. One is that he’s tackling issues that have been left to ripen for far too long, in government and in social programs. The other is that most of his supporters can’t yet see a viable alternative who “gets it.”
I haven’t given LePage credit for much, in these columns, but I’ll grant him this. He’s been a consistent bulldog when it comes to reducing spending in government and in welfare. He’s fired off in all directions whenever he could, which has been just about every day. Sometimes, he’s been right on the money. Other times, he’s simply shot himself in the foot.
Most people would agree that LePage is clumsy and vulgar. He’s also not overly concerned about facts. But a surprising number of people are willing to overlook those flaws for anyone who they think is speaking truth to power.
On the issue of welfare, in particular, LePage has been both single-minded and often wrong. Actual welfare abuse is lower than he suggests. Forty-seven percent of Mainers are not shiftless unemployed people, for example, and Social Security and basic health care are not forms of welfare. Part of LePage’s problem is that he too often confuses Rush Limbaugh screeds with real-world facts.
LePage’s opponents have, of course, played right into his hands. Instead of acknowledging that there are bound to be problems in systems as large as welfare, and that everyone should work together to root out those problems, they’ve too often gone into defensive denial mode. Both LePage’s anger on welfare, and his critics’ head-in-the-sand response, seem to lack basic common sense.
What I learned from growing up in poverty and in a working-class family is this: The closer you live to actual poverty and hardship, the more you see and understand that there are tons of people who’ve made playing the system a career path.
A lot of the younger members of my extended family work in retail and health care and nursing homes, and they work about as hard as anyone should have to. When they see able-bodied people gaming the system, whether through welfare, unemployment, disability or drugs, it naturally makes their blood boil.
They want action rather than excuses. People in Augusta can do all the studies they want that chirp about how the state’s programs are all great, but nothing can erase what people see with their own eyes every day.
My sense is that the candidate who says to the people in my family, and to working-class families across the state, “Yes, there are problems with spending and welfare in Maine, and I’m going to fix them faster and more humanely than LePage” is going to break off a piece of LePage’s base big enough to guarantee that the governor can’t win re-election.
Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group and president of Envision Maine. He can be contacted at: