October 25, 2013

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

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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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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For most of the past 30 years, Maine voters were pretty clear what they wanted in the Statehouse – Democrats, or independents with a liberal bent.

Then why did a Tea Party-favorite like LePage get more votes in the last governor’s race than a stalwart Democrat like Libby Mitchell or a classic good-government independent like Cutler?

Severin Beliveau -- the ultimate stalwart Democrat -- had an answer: LePage’s 38 percent win in the five-way race was an antidote to decades of progressive politics.

“People’s sense was we needed a correction,” said Beliveau, a partner in one of the state’s leading law firms, PretiFlaherty, whose party bona fides are as long and as impressive as his success as a lobbyist.

“He was conveying a message that was well-received” in 2010, when voters went for not only a conservative candidate for governor but elected a Republican House and Senate.

The rough-and-tough image LePage projected in the campaign was no creation of slick campaign advisers. He grew up on the streets of gritty Lewiston; ran Marden’s, a statewide discount chain, so he knew how to make a good deal; and was mayor of Waterville, where voters liked his fiscal management. He promised to cut spending, lower taxes, pay off the state’s debt and end Maine’s reputation as a welfare state.

LePage, Beliveau said, “expressed the frustration of many Americans … the fact that we’re still in a recession and had more than a dozen years of Democratic control. I think many people believed there should be a correction.”

Alan Caron is founder of GrowSmart Maine, the group responsible for the widely respected landmark study of the state by the Brookings Institution, called Charting Maine’s Future. The Waterville native is a political independent and former Democrat who holds a masters degree in public policy from Harvard.

The election of LePage, he said, represented “an eruption ready to happen.”

“He perfectly expresses the … fiscal frustration that Maine people had for a long time, bubbling under the surface, sometimes breaking through,” said Caron, now a business consultant.

“The Democrats have been and were largely tone deaf to that for a long time,” he said, leaving an opening for a champion of the smaller government who came on “with strong opinions and a loud voice.”

Garrett Martin, the executive director of the progressive think tank and lobbying group Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP), said LePage is exploiting – not truly expressing -- the frustrations of the working and middle classes.

“The LePages of the world have tapped into … the vein of discontent with ‘The look-over-there-thing.’ Look over there – that guy’s getting a better deal and he’s not working nearly as hard as you and those are guys we need to go after,” Martin said. “He’s brilliant at tapping into that discontent.”

That approach, Martin added, “distracts attention away from the fact that his policies are actually hurting people who are struggling to get by, many of whom likely voted for him in 2010.”

To Martin, LePage has harmed working people by, until recently, refusing to bond for projects that would create jobs and by opposing Medicaid expansion.

Chapter 2: The House of the Fiscally Sound

Google the name “Paul LePage” and the phrase “fiscal house in order” and you get more than 55,000 hits. Putting that house back in order was a major theme of his campaign.

When Democratic Gov. John Baldacci moved out of the Blaine House and LePage moved in, there were two potentially crushing liabilities on the state’s balance sheet: multi-million-dollar debts to the state’s pension system and to hospitals for late Medicaid payments.

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