WATERVILLE — As Election Day looms closer, one thing remains constant: In every reported poll, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage leads the other four candidates in the race for Maine governor.

Though this doesn’t guarantee a victory, it might be a good time to consider what a LePage administration in Augusta might look like.

Will the new governor storm out of his own press conferences as he once did during the campaign? Will his bluster – some might call it a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach – work with the Legislature and with the many special interest groups in the state capital?

It’s not hard to find those who predict rough sailing.

“He has a sort of slash-and-burn mentality to state government and I’m not sure that’s going to work too well,” said John Piotti, Democratic House majority leader.

“Disastrous,” is how the leader of state employee union foresees the prospect.

Not so fast, say those who’ve worked with him in Waterville. Many of these people – and most are Democrats – give him rave reviews.

In the six years since he became mayor, LePage has vocally and firmly expressed his opinion, unafraid to direct sharp questions and comments at city officials, councilors and others. LePage says he’s issued 13 vetoes with only two being later overridden by the Waterville City Council, which currently includes six Democrats and one Democrat-turned-independent.

“I think that Paul, despite him being a Republican and I’m a Democrat, has been good for the city because he really has acted as a check against our tendency to want to do things and, in the course, spend money,” said John O’Donnell, a Democrat on the council.

LePage, elected to the City Council in 1998 after becoming outraged that the council wanted to sell valuable city property for only $1, said he later ran for mayor because he became tired of seeing annual, automatic increases in city spending. He started serving as mayor in 2004.

“Nobody would look at efficiency or the delivery of services,” LePage recalled recently. “Every year taxes would go up, but there was never any explanation of why.”

LePage also thought the city’s form of government was “broken,” and he got his way by pushing for a change in the city charter. The change, which took effect in 2005, reduced the mayor’s powers from “strong” to “weak,” transferring management and budget responsibilities to a full-time city manager.

Under LePage, city jobs were evaluated, employees were cross-trained and the number of employees was reduced from 130 to the present 109, according to his records.
During that time, the city’s tax rate dropped from $27.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $24.15, and the city’s spending remained relatively constant except for spikes for one-time capital expenditures or increases in wages and utility costs, LePage said.

At least one city councilor takes issue with LePage’s contention that the city has not cut “a single service” during LePage’s time as mayor. Councilor Thomas Longstaff doesn’t see how that’s possible because the “number of city employees has been drastically reduced.”

Councilor Charles Stubbert, a Democrat, called LePage a “guiding light.” He added that LePage used his veto threats judiciously with the result being, “we’ve reduced discretionary spending.”

“Some people look at leadership with a “D” or an “R” in front of it and sometimes he falls into that also,” said Councilor Dana Sennett, a Democrat. “But, overall that’s not the case. We don’t think of party affiliation; it’s what’s best for the city. And Paul’s been at the right place for the right time for the city of Waterville.”

Working with Democrats is something he also will have to do in Augusta.

Kevin Raye, Republican leader in the Senate, says his time as Waterville mayor likely prepared LePage well for what he will encounter on the larger stage.

“Obviously more people are involved, but I don’t think that will have an impact on his ability to work with us. He has an ability to communicate, much in the way President (Ronald) Reagan did at the national level,” Raye said. “Paul has a very clear vision of what he wants to do for Maine.”

He foresees LePage using the “bully pulpit” to swing public opinion if legislators are reluctant to adopt his plans for Maine.

But is it as simple as taking the governing style honed in Waterville and moving it down the road to the Legislature?

“It’s not like the City Council,” said Pam Trinward, a Democrat who represents Waterville in the State House. “So I think there will be a big learning curve and I hope he’d figure out a way to work with the Legislature.”

LePage would likely delegate most decisions to his high-level staff members while he focuses on areas most important to him, such as welfare reform and state regulations, said Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Polity Center, a conservative think tank.

Bragdon was a Republican representative during the Angus King administration and has worked for the policy center during the John Baldacci era. Bragdon says LePage will likely emulate King more than Baldacci who, he says, has a more hands-off approach.

That’s what worries Christopher Quint, executive director of the 12,000-member Maine State Employees Association, which has endorsed Democrat Libby Mitchell for governor. Quint says he expects an adversarial relationship as a new contract is negotiated to replace one that expires June 30.

“He would just simply cut with a hatchet with no regard for who is being served by those services, who’s being taken care of,” said Quint. He predicted it may be the first time since the late 1970s that state employees would have to decide whether to work without a contract.

Donald Dufour, a former Waterville city councilor, ran against LePage in the 2005 mayoral race and lost 1,919-1,399. He described LePage as “very forward” because LePage would say so he if disagreed with you.“Some people say he’s abrasive and sometimes he is; he’s very focused on his agenda,” Dufour said. “He’s a very likable fellow, but also one that likes to have his own way.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Scott Monroe can be contacted at 861-9239 or at: [email protected]