LEWISTON — After a $100-per-plate luncheon Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage showed fellow Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey around the Little Canada neighborhood where LePage grew up.
Christie, on his third trip to Maine in support of LePage’s re-election campaign, said the Maine governor is the kind of guy who wouldn’t forget where he came from.
“You can tell by the way Paul talks about this place how special it is to him,” Christie said. “I think that gives a window for the people of Maine as to the kind of person he is and as to the kind of leader he is.”
LePage, in a tight, three-way race against Maine’s Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, a Cape Elizabeth lawyer and businessman, said he was pleased and proud to have Christie’s support.
Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association, said earlier this year the association planned to spend whatever it took to get LePage re-elected. Christie said he would personally do everything he could to help LePage.
Christie, whom many see as a possible Republican candidate for president in 2016, has been on a multi-state sweep stumping for Republican candidates for governor in Minnesota and Florida.
On Tuesday, Christie said that of all the states he’s been to, besides New Jersey, Maine was his favorite.
While LePage and Christie have become friends and the two men exchanged a warm embrace prior to the fundraising event at the Ironhorse Court in Lewiston, which was closed to the media, they have made some different policy choices for their respective states.
Christie is one of several Republican governors who agreed to expand their states’ Medicaid programs under the federal Affordable Care Act, a move LePage has resisted by five times vetoing bills that would have accepted federal funds to expand the program here.
On Tuesday, Christie said LePage was doing what he thought was right for his state and that not all Republican governors were in lock step on expansion.
LePage also said for the first time Tuesday that he was open to a limited expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, known as MaineCare, but that he still opposed a massive enlargement of the program to sweep up between 70,000 and 100,000 more people.
Because the state had previously expanded Medicaid, prior to the ACA, it was not eligible for 100 percent reimbursement for all of the people his Democratic opponents would like to add to the program, a detail that’s often overlooked by the media, LePage said.
“We were the early expanders and we did not qualify for 100 percent reimbursement for the entire expansion,” LePage said. “I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face.”
Under the ACA, states receive 100 percent federal reimbursement for the cost of expanding their Medicaid programs for the first three years of the expansion. That rate is reduced to 90 percent over 10 years. But LePage has said those added to the state’s Medicaid rolls prior to the ACA would be reimbursed at 62 percent. It’s a touchy subject for LePage’s opponents who argue that the governor’s reluctance to expand the program is costing the state upwards of $1 million a day.
On Tuesday, Christie praised LePage’s record on job creation over his first four years and dismissed criticism that while Maine’s unemployment rate had declined during LePage’s first term, earnings, job creation, and overall economic growth in the Pine Tree State was still lagging behind the nation and most other New England states.
“The governor wants more job creation, as well,” Christie said, “but remember the mess he inherited here in Maine. He had an enormous hole to dig out of and that kind of problem is not going to be fixed in four years; it’s going to take longer to do that.”
Christie said LePage had made “enormous progress and he’s going to do even better in the next four years.”
Christie said a LePage victory was important to the Republican Governors’ Association. “We feel like Paul has really set a great stage here, not only for the people of Maine but also a great example for New England, about what can be done with common-sense conservative leadership.” So far, the association has spent about $1.3 million in support of LePage’s campaign and in opposition to Michaud’s.
LePage also gained a glowing and unexpected endorsement Tuesday from someone not nearly as famous as Christie.
During a visit to Pioneer Plastics in Auburn earlier in the day, employee Dana Bonney, who worked with LePage in the 1990s at the former Wilner Wood Products in Norway, said LePage was the best boss he ever had.
LePage was touring the Auburn plant, which manufactures specialized countertops and other laminates, because it had recently moved about 120 jobs from South Carolina to Maine. LePage has been campaigning on the fact that Maine has added about 20,000 jobs since he took office in 2011.
Getting slightly choked up, Bonney told reporters that LePage worked hard with management and employees to save the wood-products company. That effort eventually failed, but LePage was “an honest man and a man of his word,” Bonney said.
“If anyone tells you this governor doesn’t care about jobs, tell them to come see me,” Bonney said.
But not everyone in Lewiston-Auburn was happy to see LePage and Christie on Tuesday.
Jim Lysen, a volunteer with the Maine People’s Alliance, a left-leaning advocacy organization that works to help the poor and disabled, was among about a dozen people who protested Christie’s visit.
Lysen said LePage’s refusal to expand Medicaid in Maine meant 157 people in the state would lose their lives this year because they were denied the medical care they needed.
“That’s why I’m out here,” Lysen said. “Because people are dying, because we are not providing health care and it’s ideological and LePage admits it’s ideological.”
Lysen said it didn’t matter how much money Christie helped raise for LePage in Lewiston. “No amount of money is going to make a difference because LePage, his string has run out,” Lysen said.
LePage has said he believes the state must make sure it is first helping those who are most truly in need, including the elderly and the most disabled citizens, before the state expands programs for the working poor.
LePage said he was “willing and ready to go to work” to figure out a way to cover people who earned less than 100 percent of the federal poverty guideline — $11,670 per year for a single person. Those individuals are not covered and are ineligible for federal subsidies to buy insurance on the federal health care exchange because of a flaw in the ACA.
“But before I do that,” LePage said, “I would like to make sure that our elderly who have been ignored, who have been subsidizing Medicaid, our disabled and our mentally ill who frequent our jails, they get the services first before we take care of the able-bodied people who are able to work by insuring them with Medicaid.”
LePage said his goal was to do “exactly what the Democrats want to do artificially.”
“I want to grow people’s work skills so they earn enough money to be able to afford their own insurance, rather than have the government buy it for them,” LePage said.