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.”
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 T-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.
The picture also includes the stubborn former business consultant who has made foundational changes in the state’s fiscal status; the populist who reflects the pent-up frustration of working people with what they see as Maine’s profligate spending; the easily-frustrated CEO with little patience for the slow grind of the legislative process.
And perhaps most telling: the anti-politician with his disdain for the sometime necessary tact required of political leaders, whose attitude may well be getting in the way of fulfilling more of his agenda.
“I’m a lightning rod,” LePage said in one of the interviews. He attracts — perhaps even courts — extreme reactions. He’s been called everything from a bully to a moron by his detractors. Those closest to him see a personable, self-deprecating man who reads every bill, study and document on his desk.
The middle ground on LePage is a slim sandbar in the torrent of opinions, but among those few who stand there is Jill Goldthwait, a former independent state senator from Bar Harbor.
“I’m sure that I don’t know any others (politicians) that are as fearless about political fallout” from their comments and positions as LePage, she said. His “single-mindedness has served him well,” she said, but when his comments turn crude “it interferes with his ability to accomplish his agenda.”
To Tony Payne, a self-described fiscal conservative and the one-time head of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a pro-business group, LePage “has moved the dial on policy more than anyone in my lifetime, as no governor has, on more fronts – simultaneously.”
Karen Heck, who succeeded LePage as mayor of Waterville, represents those disgusted with him. She said the governor’s well-publicized comments show a lack of self-control that damages the state’s image to potential new businesses — his supposed calling card.
Citing what she called LePage’s “toxic” childhood, Heck said, “He’s a scared little boy who wishes his mother could have protected him and his father loved him” and learned to survive by being “the biggest, baddest person around.”
But LePage doesn’t see himself that way.
“People think I’m a bully, but it’s just that I get a little offended when they get condescending,” he said. That’s when, “I get a little condescending to them.”
With the exception of his hardcore followers, there is little support for his most extreme remarks, from declaring that the president of the United States could “go to hell” to going on TV to say that a legislator who opposed his budget was “the first one to give it to the people of Maine without providing Vaseline.”
People who spend time with him say there is another LePage the public would be surprised to see: studious, respectful – but always to the point.
In her meetings with the governor, Cain said, “He’s usually very focused and determined. The governor has never been a bully to me and, quite frankly, I would not have stood for it.”
In two sit-down interviews and one car trip from Augusta to Portland and back — a total of about six hours — the LePage of the screaming headlines showed up only once. But the one time offers an explanation for all the other outbursts:
Replying to a question about working with legislators, he said: “I hate politics,” his voice rising, the “hate” coming out in bold, all caps. “I just hate having to compromise my principles.”
Continue reading Chapter 1: Why LePage was elected
Naomi Schalit contributed to this story. Disclosure: Severin Beliveau, who is quoted in this story, contributed $250 to the Center in 2013. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: email@example.com. Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org.
About the author: John Christie is the co-founder, publisher and senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. He has covered local, state and national politics as a reporter, editor and publisher at newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts and Florida and holds a BA in political science from the University of New Hampshire.