October 25, 2013

Two sides of LePage: He sometimes offends, but his focus is unwavering

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Crema is a Portland waterfront café that boasts of coffee roasted in small batches and pastries baked from scratch with “natural, local and organic ingredients.”

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage has emerged as an anti-politician with his disdain for the sometime necessary tact required of political leaders.

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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As much as any place in liberal Portland, it is a gathering spot for a city whose voters have no use for Gov. Paul LePage. Only 19 percent of Portland voters went for LePage in the 2010 election – there was no place he did worse.

This summer, Dave Dearborn was sitting at a table in the high-ceilinged café reading a book and nursing a coffee. Now, more than two years into the Republican’s tenure, what did he think of the governor?

“He outright embarrasses us with the idiotic things he says,” Dearborn said.

He said that after he finished his coffee, he was going up to the headquarters of a different candidate for governor, Eliot Cutler.

Cutler is the independent and former Democrat who came in a close second to LePage and is hoping to do better in 2014. But he will be competing with a well-known Democrat, U. S. Rep. Mike Michaud, and LePage to be the governor.

Dearborn said LePage “plays on people’s ignorance. He has a bombastic approach to politics that appeals to people who are willfully ignorant.”

About 90 miles away sits a Maine town where LePage’s brand of politics went over better than it did in any other community of any size in the state.

In Albion, a rural town in central Maine, LePage won by a landslide, with some to spare. He got nearly 61 percent of the vote from this town of 2,000.

Locals there get their morning coffee at the Albion Corner Store at 14 Main St., where you can also all fill up your pickup and grab a slice and a Pepsi.

At lunchtime in August, men in jeans and tee-shirts and some wearing fluorescent safety vests hurried in, joked with the women behind the lunch counter, ordered something “to go” and headed back to the job site.

One of them was Brent Dow, 35, owner of a metal roofing company with four employees.

“He’s kind of like me,” Dow said, “He jokes a lot. He makes a lot of comments, but he stands by them. And some of them I agree with.”

What matters more to him, he said, was that LePage “thinks like a worker … he’s more for the working person than a person who has a state job or who found a way to stay on state benefits … He seems to go after those people.”

Parris Varney, who owns the store with his wife Kathy, echoed Dow’s assessment of the governor.

“To me, he’s not a typical politician. He’s a little rough around the edges, but he says what other people think, but they don’t say it,” he said. “He’s a regular guy.”

The customers in Crema and the Albion Corner Store may be miles apart in their views, but they have something in common: They are representative of the public debate over the governor.

Whether you are interviewing folks at coffee shops, reading letters to the editor and online comments or news coverage, most of the LePage debate has been about the sizzle, not the steak. About what he says and how he says it, not what he’s done and not done.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting has interviewed LePage three times and more than two dozen others – from voters to political insiders to LePage’s friends and enemies – to develop a fuller picture of the state’s 74th governor.

What emerged was the story of the man behind the headlines, headlines that reflect one side -- but one side only -- of the state’s chief executive.

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