LEWISTON — Before a crowd of hundreds at the Franco-American Heritage Center on Wednesday night, Gov. Paul LePage made a bold confession.
When he was 12 years old, a French kid living on Lincoln Street, he used to hide out in Little Canada and steal Halloween candy from children.
"Isn't that awful?" LePage said. "And now I'm governor of Maine."
LePage wasn't simply unburdening his soul or carrying on about a childhood memory. He had a point to make. The point was that the state of Maine has been deeply in debt in every budget but one since 1992.
"Now that I'm governor of Maine," he said, "there's nothing left to steal."
The governor's speech, brief but energetic, was short on politics and long on reflection. He grew up in a tall tenement with 12 apartments at 115 Lincoln St., surrounded by other children.
"There were 83 kids in that building," LePage said. "Our family led the way with 18."
They used to hang out at the park, now a fire station on Lincoln Street.
"All you had to do to get a crowd," LePage said, "was to tell all the kids that somebody had lollipops or Tootsie Rolls."
The celebration was part of "La Semaine de la Francophonie," French for Week of the Francophone. But the larger part of the event Thursday night was to welcome LePage, a Franco-American.
The crowd, a virtual who's who of local leaders, including mayors, former mayors, representatives and senators, made no bones about their pride in the fact that a hometown boy rose all the way to the Blaine House.
"Governor," Mayor Larry Gilbert said. "Welcome home."
LePage said he was surprised and thrilled to be invited. He has deep memories of his childhood in Lewiston, some good, some not so good. There was poverty and struggling all around him. For a time, he lived on the streets.
"Paul's difficult childhood is known to all of us," said Severin Beliveau, Maine's Honorary Consul General of France. "Paul recognized the value of frugality and hard work."
Not that there was much doom and gloom at the podium. The governor had them laughing 10 seconds after his speech began.
When he first arrived back in Lewiston, he came into the former St. Mary's church, a place that had been important in his youth. He climbed the stairs, turned a corner and there it was: the confessional.
"I was born here, I was baptised here, I made my first confession here," LePage said, pointing in the general direction of the confessional, "And I spent more time in there ... "
LePage spoke for roughly 10 minutes. The speech followed two hours of mingling on the lower floors of the old church. During that time, the governor worked the room, becoming the center of knots of people wherever he went. They included both Democrats and Republicans.
"It doesn't make any difference what party you belong to," said state Rep. Michel Lajoie, D-Lewiston. "It's up to us all to talk together."
Many said they came both to mingle and to hear what the governor had to say. His speeches, sometimes controversial, are almost always described as colorful.
"He's a working person," Roger Roy said. "That's the way he talks."
A string of speakers introduced LePage. Each noted, in a mixture of French and English, that the governor's background in Lewiston surely influenced his life in a way that led him to Augusta.
LePage is most commonly associated with Waterville, where he served as a city councilor and mayor before making a run at the Blaine House. But the group assembled at the Franco Center on Wednesday night won't let anybody forget where the governor really comes from.
"We're so proud to have you," said Rita Dube, executive director of the center. "A native Lewiston boy."