To many people in Maine, the governor, Paul LePage, is an embarrassment.
“He makes us look like idiots,” says Terri, a retiree who stops for an interview next to her maroon pickup outside Cabela’s, the sporting goods chain known for its deals on hunting equipment.
Justin Alfond, the Democratic president of the Maine senate, tells me in a Portland coffeehouse that doubles as his office: “You can’t have the top leader of a state be a bully.”
But that’s what Maine has.
LePage told the Portland NAACP to “kiss my ass” when the civil rights group invited him to speak soon after his election in 2010. Far from showing concern following a meeting with three unemployed people in December—a meeting he had arranged after they showed up in the capitol for a rally—he called the encounter “bullshit.” When his office issued an ill-advised press release deriding Social Security and Medicare as “welfare,” he blamed the “liberal media” for spreading “false information.”
In another typical bullying tactic, LePage barred state employees from testifying to the legislature. “That’s their job,” says one labor activist, adding that they are supposed to provide information “so legislators can make intelligent decisions.”
His latest controversy is much more troubling.
LePage met in 2013 with the Constitutional Coalition, a conspiratorial group from the northern part of the state whose members identify with the “sovereign citizen movement,” as Portlander Mike Tipping revealed in a shocking new book, As Maine Went. The sovereign citizen movement warns darkly of a U.N. takeover of Maine’s north woods, believes the state and federal governments are illegitimate, and considers all lawyers to be communists. The FBI has deemed it a terrorist threat.
LePage met with them not once but eight times from February into September, even while refusing to meet with Democratic leaders in the statehouse. During those meetings, these rightwing activists charged these same Democratic leaders, House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate President Alfond, with treason, suggesting they should receive the ultimate punishment, death.
Instead of reporting the threat, LePage brokered a meeting between these far rightwingers and the county sheriff overseeing the state capitol, whose help they wanted in going after the two legislators.
“The sovereign citizen movement is a threat to our family, our wives,” says Alfond. “This has been really, really hard on us, to know there are people out there
. . .” His voice trails, and then he continues: “This group uses violence and the threat of violence to get their agenda done. To me, the fact that the governor of our state is spending sixteen-plus hours with a group that the FBI and police of our state have deemed an active terrorist group just shows what our governor thinks, what’s a priority for him.”
LePage squeaked into office in the Tea Party sweep of 2010, winning the governorship with only 38 percent of the vote in a three-person race with independent Eliot Cutler trailing two points behind. The Democratic candidate had completely tanked.
LePage’s reelection this year, in another three-way race, is considered a tossup by the Cook Political Report.
Cutler is once again running as an independent to defeat LePage, while Representative Mike Michaud, a former millworker who represents the largely rural Second Congressional District, is running on the Democratic line. So far, Michaud, a French-speaking descendant of Canadian immigrants like LePage, is slightly ahead of LePage in the polls. Cutler, a former aide to Senator Edmund Muskie who became a corporate lawyer, is languishing in the 15 percent range.
Three-way races aren’t unusual in Maine, where 37 percent of registered voters refuse to affiliate with any political party. But there is an ugly partisan feel in independent-minded Maine right now. LePage regularly stops talking with journalists and newspapers he derides as liberal. Progressives watch in horror as the governor deftly deploys his incumbent’s advantage to influence the conversation, most recently by scapegoating asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” who should not receive welfare support.
In this hardscrabble state, running against welfare is popular, even though a huge proportion of the population benefits from food stamps. LePage already enacted a lot of his welfare reform agenda during his first two years in office when the Republicans were in charge of the legislature, including a five-year term limit for cash assistance, a waiting period for legal noncitizens to get benefits, and limiting Medicaid eligibility, pushing thousands out of the program.
More recently, LePage used his veto to beat back the new legislature’s vote to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. But he keeps finding new corners of the welfare system to scapegoat.
LePage does believe in government for corporations, however.
He gave a secret, no-bid $925,000 contract to an out-of-state conservative to evaluate Medicaid expansion and anti-poverty programs. It turned out the contractor plagiarized part of the draft report and relied for his conclusions on key research errors. When the Bangor Daily News exposed this scandal and public pressure mounted, LePage was finally forced to cancel the contract after paying out nearly half a million dollars.
Even liberal Republicans were outraged when LePage hired ALEC’s Maine co-chair—an industry lobbyist named Patricia Aho—to head the state Department of Environmental Protection. He gave her marching orders to roll back regulations and trash the new state law curbing toys and other products made of toxic plastic. Aho had represented some of their manufacturers.
Similarly, LePage’s education commissioner until last August was Stephen Bowen, who served on ALEC’s education committee while working for the rightwing Maine Heritage Policy Center. While on the committee, he helped push model legislation giving public money to “virtual” online schools. Once working for LePage, he used his position to promote two for-profits from out of state, including one, K12 Inc. of Virginia, that was exposed for fraudulently using uncertified teachers. Another virtual charter, linked to the for-profit education giant Pearson, got the go-ahead in March from the state charter commission to accept students starting in the fall.
The list of corporate cronyism and mismanagement goes on, but LePage supporters praise him as a can-do guy with a history in business. He used to manage a chain of Maine discount stores.
When he sticks his foot in his mouth, or says something abusive, some people find him refreshing.
And some people like that he cut income taxes for Maine’s top tier while slicing the state’s contribution to public workers’ pensions.
“We won’t end up like Detroit,” says Steve Robinson, the young communications director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which is funded, in part, by the Koch donor network. “His tax reform took 7,000 low-income Mainers off the tax rolls.” LePage’s support, he says, “comes from him doing what he said he was going to do.”
But not everyone in the Maine GOP is happy with LePage. Seven members of the state Republican Party left in August 2013 after feeling aced out by rule changes and miffed by a LePage veto of legislation curbing drones. Regular party leaders deep-sixed platform planks carved by tea partiers that included resistance to the United Nations, which they depict as one-world government, eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, and deriding the global warming “myth.”
The Republican Party brought Senator Rand Paul up to its 2014 convention to try to heal some wounds, though his endorsement of Susan Collins led some libertarians and tea partiers to deride him as a sellout. When a tea partier promoted a contested primary this spring for the state senate seat against a liberal Republican who supported Medicaid expansion, LePage supported the incumbent and called off the challenger, who was one of his allies.
Ted O’Meara, the campaign manager of LePage’s independent challenger, Cutler, led the Maine GOP more than twenty years ago. “Maine was known for having a liberal Republican Party, and there was this quick shift,” he tells me in Cutler’s Portland campaign office. “It was amazing how quickly it shifted.”
More than a year ago, O’Meara went to register to vote in a new district and decided to leave the party. “I said, ‘I can’t do it again.’ It’s not the Republican Party I knew,” he explains. He says LePage has been “so controversial, so polarizing.”
But other Republicans are mobilizing. They like his insistence on shrinking the government, cutting the welfare and Medicaid rolls, reducing taxes, and rolling back regulations they see as harmful to business. They also cheer his effort to make Maine an anti-union “right-to-work” state, even though he hasn’t won that battle yet. And they don’t go for the environmentalism of both Cutler, who helped write the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, and Michaud, who first got involved in politics campaigning to clean up the river polluted by his own mill.
At the moment, there is a huge gender gap in the race, with women backing Michaud in high numbers. Men lean toward LePage. Michaud may have a problem with straight, blue-collar men because he came out as gay last year, one year after Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage.
But young people may put Michaud over the top, as he is receiving 46 percent of the support of eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds—double the support they give Cutler, and almost triple the support they give LePage.
“We all worked really hard to come back to Maine after college because of the tight-knit communities and people taking care of one another,” says Lizzy Reinholt, a young woman who commutes two hours from her central Maine home to serve as Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman. “LePage represents the opposite: every man for himself.”
Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist based in New York. Her article “The Tea Party Moment,” written with Chip Berlet, recently appeared in Understanding the Tea Party Movement, edited by Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer.