Drew Gattine’s career in politics started with a voice mail.

It was the early 2000s, and the voice on the answering machine was Westbrook City Council President Brendan Rielly.

Gattine and his wife, Elizabeth, had appeared before the City Council to voice their concern about a zoning issue, and the young couple’s respectful and constructive manner had impressed Rielly.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m calling for both of you. Would either one of you want to run for council?’ ” Rielly recalled.

“Drew called me back.”

Fifteen years later, after rising from the Westbrook City Council to the state Legislature, a different voice mail message would make Gattine one of Maine’s most famous politicians.

That 34-second recording left on his cellphone Aug. 25 by Gov. Paul LePage set off a firestorm of national media attention, calls for the governor’s resignation and damage control efforts by Maine’s Republican Party that could shape the state’s political landscape in November.

Rep. Drew Gattine is one of Maine's most famous politicians because of a voice mail left by Gov. Paul LePage. "I'd much rather be talking about helping seniors, putting food on the table for people, helping people get health care ... And that's not what we're talking about anymore," he said.

Rep. Drew Gattine is one of Maine’s most famous politicians because of a voice mail left by Gov. Paul LePage. “I’d much rather be talking about helping seniors, putting food on the table for people, helping people get health care … And that’s not what we’re talking about anymore,” he said. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

In the eye of the storm is the 53-year-old state representative from Westbrook, who says he never asked to be there and whose colleagues say they never expected to become the governor’s target.

“This is not a story about me,” Gattine said. “That voice mail could have been, in the right circumstances, left on the voice mail of any other legislator or any other person.”

The voice mail incident is not an isolated conflict between Gattine and the governor. As the Democratic House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, Gattine has been vocal about his disagreement with the LePage administration and Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. But colleagues on both sides of the aisle describe him as critical rather than combative.

“Representative Gattine has a firm sense of belief, and he works very hard to see that those beliefs are carried out in the policies that we have,” said Rep. Deb Sanderson, a Chelsea Republican who sits on the committee with Gattine. “I disagree with him on some of those, so I work very hard to bring it to where I feel it is more appropriate.

“Do we argue, get into tiffs? No. We’re colleagues first, and we’re respectful of each other, and that’s the way it should be.”

DOWN ON THE FARM

The son of an auto mechanic and a secretary, Gattine grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, and earned his bachelor’s degree at Colgate University. He met his wife while they were both law students at Columbia University. Looking to leave the urban life of New York City, the pair bought an 1870s farmhouse in Westbrook in 1991. They have two children, a twin boy and girl, who are now juniors in college.

Gattine starts each day by feeding the family’s six goats, his dog Auggie and his horse Virgil, a literary reference in homage to Gattine’s classics major in college. He used to ride more, but now he doesn’t have as much free time. With round glasses and long graying hair, Gattine is amiable but direct.

Drew Gattine's horse, Virgil, answers his affectionate call with enthusiasm.

Drew Gattine’s horse, Virgil, answers his affectionate call with enthusiasm. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

After moving to Maine, Gattine started working for the Attorney General’s Office on health care issues. He was an assistant attorney general and provided legal representation and advice to the two state departments that were combined to create the Department of Health and Human Services.

“That was really the beginning of my career in health care,” Gattine said. “That’s when I really first worked with the (Department of Health and Human Services) for the first time, and that’s when I got to develop an understanding and a point of view about the inner workings of the department.”

In 1998, Gattine left the AG’s Office for a startup that helps governments detect fraud, waste and abuse in public health care programs. He left briefly to work for a company that contracted with the state of Maine to implement an online platform for the state’s Medicaid program, but went back to his previous employer when he decided to run for the House.

“There’s a lot of reasons why I think we need to be doing more to make sure people have access to health care,” he said. “The obvious reason is we want people to be healthy, and because there’s opportunity here to do it in an affordable way. There are economic reasons to want to do that, too.”

When Gattine joined the City Council in the early 2000s, he had a particular interest in zoning regulations and growth. For example, Gattine helped craft the tax increment financing district that encompasses the headquarters for Idexx Laboratories off Eisenhower Drive in Westbrook.

“He wanted to make sure that, as a city, we appreciated what Westbrook had to offer and didn’t simply say ‘yes’ to the first person that came through the door,” said Rielly, who is now a close friend of Gattine.

IMMERSED IN COMMUNITY

As a legislator, Gattine has remained active in Westbrook. His twins attended Westbrook High School, where Rielly said Gattine was always in the audience for their tennis matches and jazz band concerts. He is the chairman of the Westbrook Democratic Committee and a regular at community events, like an annual 5K run to remember another city councilor’s deceased son.

“Drew’s biggest character flaw is that he is a Mets fan,” Rielly said. “So we just try not to talk about that.”

In comments to a small group of reporters the day he left the obscenity-laced voice mail, LePage described his anger with Gattine and others. He said he was told Gattine had called him a racist. Gattine actually said the governor made racially charged comments.

“When a snot-nosed little guy from Westbrook calls me a racist, now I’d like him to come up here because, tell you right now, I wish it were 1825,” LePage said. “And we would have a duel, that’s how angry I am, and I would not put my gun in the air, I guarantee you, I would not be (Alexander) Hamilton. I would point it right between his eyes, because he is a snot-nosed little runt and he has not done a damn thing since he’s been in this Legislature to help move the state forward.”

As the House chairman of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, hasn't held back in his criticism of the LePage administration.

As the House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, hasn’t held back in his criticism of the LePage administration. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

LePage has said he didn’t previously know Gattine. But, as a leader of a key legislative committee, Gattine has clashed with the LePage administration on reforms to the state’s welfare system and problems at the Riverview Psychiatric Center, and he has fought to block Mayhew’s efforts to change eligibility requirements for a number of programs for individuals and families with developmental disabilities.

“Under a Republican administration, as the Democratic chair of this committee, I think it’s my job to state publicly, and at times very strongly, when I disagree with what the department is doing, and to say the good things I think the department is doing,” Gattine said.

The voice mail gave Gattine a lot of time in front of microphones and cameras over the past week, but he said it’s not the kind of attention he would have preferred to get.

“When I think of all the times I’ve talked to the media over the past week, I’d much rather be talking about helping seniors, putting food on the table for people, helping people get health care, trying to create an economy that works for everyone. And that’s not what we’re talking about anymore.”

Sen. Anne Haskell, a Democrat who represents part of Portland and Westbrook, sat next to Gattine in committee meetings. She knows his love of orange soda and his habit of spreading paperwork in front of him – and, inadvertently, in front of her. But she said his collection of notes and reports are a sign of his preparation for each committee meeting and floor speech.

“He was always prepared with an outline of what he was going to say,” Haskell said. “He would make sure when he got up on the floor, he was explaining the implications of the bill and how it was funded. He didn’t just stand up and rave about something.”

PRECISE AND PREPARED

He is an exacting chairman, she said, especially when staff members from the Department of Health and Human Services come before the committee.

“Because he knows the answers, he won’t let them get away,” Haskell said. “He’ll say, ‘Didn’t you do a study? Can we have that data?’ It’s not confrontational, but … he’s precise because of his deep knowledge.”

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, credited Gattine and his co-chairman, Republican Sen. Eric Brakey, for running their committee meetings even when the department has refused to participate.

“It was truly ironic, in my opinion, the one person who ends up being a victim of incivility is one of the true professionals in the Legislature,” Smith said.

Neither Brakey nor a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services responded to requests for comment about Gattine. A spokesman for the Maine House Republicans also declined to speak about Gattine.

Two Republican lawmakers who have worked closely with the Democrat described him as passionate but professional.

Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta worked with him on a proposal to expand the state’s Medicaid program and a commission studying the needs of difficult-to-place patients. He described Gattine as “polite, mild-mannered and good-humored.”

“I’ve always found that he knows how to disagree without being disagreeable,” Katz said.

Sanderson said the committee tries to strike a respectful tone for members of the Legislature and the public. The members often hear deeply personal testimony from people about disease and death, insurance and aging.

“We just don’t have time to be arguing with each other,” she said.

At the same time, Sanderson and Gattine disagree about how to move forward after a week of turmoil over the governor’s now-famous voice mail to Gattine.

While she called the governor’s comments “unfortunate,” Sanderson said his apology to the state and to Gattine was sufficient to move forward.

“He has been, I believe, very sincere in his apology,” she said. “I think right now what we need to do is remember who we work for, and that is the people of this state. … We have a job to do.”

Gattine and others, however, have called for LePage’s resignation.

“I think the governor needs to get whatever help he needs to get, but this really indicates to me that this is a person that really isn’t in control of what he’s doing and saying all the time,” Gattine said. “And we can’t have another two years of that. We have a lot of things we need to do.”

Gattine is in his second two-year term and, this fall, is running for re-election in House District 34. He is unopposed.

This story was updated at 2:48 p.m. Sept. 5 to include the correct length of state lawmakers’ terms, two years.