WATERVILLE — An appearance by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage at Colby College was met with a mixed response from those in attendance Wednesday night.

LePage, who was Waterville’s mayor from 2004-2011, was invited to campus by the Colby College Republicans to give a talk bearing the name of his old campaign slogan, “People Before Politics.” About 50 students protested the event by silently holding signs — mostly with controversial quotes that have been attributed to LePage — in the atrium of the Diamond Building, where the event was held, as well as around the perimeter of Ostrove Auditorium while he spoke.

During an approximately 20-minute speech and wide-ranging 40-minute question-and-answer period, the politician teased a run for governor in 2022.

“The deal I made with my wife is very simple,” he said. “If I buy her a pickup truck and I learn to like country western, she won’t stand in my way (applause). I have bought her the pickup truck and I’m starting to listen to country western.”

The comment drew some applause and an audible, “Oh, boy.”

After the event, leaders of the Colby College Republicans said they faced pressure from faculty members and other students to cancel the event earlier this week.

“I think (LePage’s visit) definitely strengthened the support system Colby has in place for events like this,” said Meredith Allen, a junior and co-president of the Colby College Republicans. “There were a lot of flaws in the system that we were able to work out given the situation, (such as) faculty and students encouraging us to cancel the event and being able to build a framework to respond to potential disruptions of the event because Colby is trying to be supportive of free expression. I think it was a good showing of how both sides can express their views civilly, and we’re looking forward to having more of that in the future.”

There were at least two security guards and a sheriff’s deputy on duty at the event, which nearly filled the mid-sized auditorium.

Before and after the speech, student protesters said they took issue with a range of LePage’s stances and the values that he espouses.

“He practically embodies everything we strive to avoid here,” said Cam Woods, a junior and member of the Colby Democrats who protested the event Wednesday. “He’s spoken of racist views, of using violence as a means of political action, of blowing up the newspapers and my (protest) sign specifically references something he said about black people coming up on the highway and killing Mainers. This racism is deeply embedded in his policies and it’s been really harmful to this state. At Colby, we want to make it very clear that that is not what we stand for at all. We are trying to build a community of inclusion and dialogue where we feel like he is really dividing people and shutting down conversations with his racism.”

LePage started his speech by saying he is a product of the environment he grew up in, which included physical abuse by his family, sexual abuse from the church, and periods of time where he lived in cars, cellars, hallways and surfed the couches of his peers as a pre-teen. He criticized the media numerous times for portraying him in ways he said were inaccurate.

In a heated back-and-forth about his views on asylum seekers, LePage said that he opposed the practice because unlike legal immigrants to the country, asylum seekers are not required to be medically cleared before leaving their country; that 30% of asylum seekers are politically oppressed or fleeing for their lives, while the majority are not; and that “when you open your border and you don’t check anybody you inherit things you don’t want,” which he said included perpetrators of domestic violence, human traffickers, drugs and gangs.

He made numerous references to taking a young Jamaican man in and helping him obtain legal status in the United States over the course of 11 years, calling that act proof that he is not against people coming into the country, but that he is against people coming into the country illegally.

“I don’t make the law but I follow the law — we all have to follow it because if not, it becomes the wild west,” he said.

LePage said that despite helping Waterville build a $10 million rainy day fund and reducing the tax rate from 29 mills per $1,000 of valuation to 21 mills, among other things as mayor, he is regularly misunderstood.

“I knew what needed to be done and I did it,” he said at one point. “I did it for Waterville and I did it to the state. I look at myself and (think it’s ) like Picasso: they won’t appreciate you ’til you’re dead. Because that’s the way it works.”

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