LEWISTON — They may have gone head to head at times, but for the most part Mayor Robert Macdonald and Gov. Paul LePage see eye to eye.
That’s why Macdonald, a rough and tumble former policeman and detective with a knack for saying things equally as impolitic as LePage does, said Wednesday he was “101 percent” backing the Republican governor’s effort to win a second term.
Key to his support, Macdonald said, are LePage’s views on welfare and welfare reform with a focus on getting those on government aid into the workforce.
“The No. 1 thing in Lewiston that continues to keep us back is the welfare,” Macdonald said.
He said LePage has made efforts in the city, including using $10,000 of his contingency fund in partnership with former Democratic state Sen. Ethan Strimmling’s nonprofit Learning Works, to help teach English to immigrants.
“Don’t tell me he can’t reach across the aisle,” Macdonald said. His attempts to get help from the federal government for English instruction for immigrants fell on deaf ears in Washington, Macdonald said.
“I might as well talk to the wall over there,” Macdonald said.
Macdonald said most of the city’s immigrants want to work, but many need to first improve or learn English-language skills.
Macdonald also said he backs LePage’s stance against allowing cities to pay General Assistance benefits to undocumented immigrants despite resistance from the Maine Municipal Association and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. MMA and Mills have said it’s not only impractical for city officials to act as immigration agents, it may also be unconstitutional.
Macdonald also praised LePage’s response to a series of arson fires in downtown Lewiston in April and May 2013 that left dozens homeless.
LePage donated money from the governor’s contingency account by giving to the Salvation Army, Macdonald said, adding that it was LePage’s decision to send state prisoners to help clean up debris in the aftermath.
Macdonald said earlier that he did disagree with LePage’s decision to reduce the amount of sales tax revenue-sharing to towns and cities as a means of balancing the state budget. He also said LePage, a former mayor of Waterville, understood that conflict.
“But he’s got a different role to play as governor and I understand where he is coming from and he understands I’ve got to stand up for my city, too, because we do need that money,” Macdonald said.
LePage is running against independent Eliot Cutler and Democratic challenger Mike Michaud, Maine’s 2nd District U.S. representative.
Also endorsing LePage for a second term Wednesday was Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte. LaBonte joined LePage’s paid staff in June as director of the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management.
LaBonte said he too had “a little bit of bumping of heads in the press” with LePage over a series of job-creation workshops in 2011 that city officials were not invited to attend. When LePage first ran for office in 2010, LaBonte was a public supporter of Cutler, who lost to LePage by about 2 percent of the vote.
LaBonte said he and his new boss were past all that now.
“It’s been fun to watch how our relationship has evolved as I’ve gotten to know the man called Paul LePage,” LaBonte said. LaBonte said he first ran for mayor for many of the reasons LePage wanted to be governor and wants to be re-elected.
“I’ve watched kids come into the second and third generation of poverty and I was tired of it,” LaBonte said. “And I knew I needed to get into the arena if I was going help fight for change and what I’ve come to learn that’s the same passion but at a much higher level that I find in Gov. LePage. He gives a damn and he’s willing to fight to get what’s best for the people of Maine.”
LaBonte said LePage’s efforts to lower the state’s high energy costs were key to helping the Twin Cities’ still-vibrant manufacturing sector keep going. LaBonte said LePage understands that lower-cost energy is key to keeping some of the best-paying employers in the region going and growing.
LePage, a Lewiston native, joined Macdonald and LaBonte at a news conference at DaVinci’s Eatery on Wednesday morning.
“Being endorsed by my hometown Lewiston and Auburn is a really, really prideful and humbling experience for me,” LePage said. His life story of growing up on the city streets as he escaped an abusive father as a boy is well-known. He said he never imagined he would be standing in front of television cameras and reporters being endorsed by both cities’ mayors.
“I more imagined I would be standing in front of you with numbers on my chest,” LePage said. He said it was the good people of Lewiston and Auburn who took him in and helped him lift himself from poverty that made the difference. His life experience, he said, has informed his view on welfare reform.
When he helped with the English program, he met with many of the immigrants and being a native French speaker, discussed with them in French what they wanted, LePage said.
“What I learned from some of those folks is, ‘Look, we don’t want the welfare; we want the opportunity,'” LePage said. “‘It’s not the welfare we want. We want to be able to learn the English language. We want to be contributing to society; we are very independent.'”
Michaud has been endorsed by Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and will soon announce the support of hundreds of other municipal officials from around Maine, according to David Farmer, a spokesman for the campaign.
Cutler was endorsed Wednesday by the Bangor Daily News editorial board.
“Cutler appears a long shot to win this election, but he is the best candidate running. He would bring needed dignity and a reasonable, business-like approach to the governor’s office,” according to the BDN endorsement.
Neither the Sun Journal nor the Portland Press Herald, owned by separate companies, will offer endorsements in the 2014 election campaigns.