Gov. Paul LePage owned Maine politics in 2011. 

If intrigue and controversy are the metric for memorable, it would seem hard to top the governor’s first year in the Blaine House. Comments like “kiss my butt,” “little beards,” “the idiots” and many others are notorious enough to stand without context.

The governor’s verbal mishaps affected his administration’s optics, angered fellow Republicans, attracted national media attention and enabled opposition groups to emblazon his quips on bumper stickers, coffee mugs and T-shirts.

It also allowed Democrats to quickly rally after suffering widespread electoral defeats in 2010. The governor was the source — at times the substance — of the opposition.

LePage’s impolitic exposed him to all sorts of unflattering labels — fool, liar, aspiring autocrat. But none of that stopped him from getting things done.

With a big assist from the Republican-controlled Legislature, LePage accomplished much in 2011: The biggest tax cuts in Maine history, a massive overhaul of the health insurance system, charter schools legislation, regulatory reform and an ongoing consolidation of state government.

The governor’s opponents question the wisdom, breadth and sometimes the origin of such policy initiatives. That’s to be expected. There are fundamental policy differences between Republicans and Democrats; the differences between Democrats and LePage, who represents the right wing of his party, are even greater.

But to LePage’s supporters, the governor seems to have fulfilled, if not exceeded, expectations. His gruff personality is a justifiable trade-off for a governor who can advance change. They wanted a mover, a shaker in the Blaine House. LePage has given them earthquakes.

LePage has deployed the considerable power of his office to pursue his agenda at full throttle. He works late and often. He is a hands-on governor.

He appears to have little regard for the politics of the job, the photo ops, the public appearances, the coalition-building with lawmakers — the stuff other governors did to buffer tough, unpopular policy decisions and boost their public image.

LePage has governed without the pretext of collaboration with his opponents. Earlier last year, he told the Capitol News Service that the reason he didn’t attend a National Governors Association conference was because the events were “too bipartisan.” Nothing got done, he said.

It’s hard to imagine recent Maine governors saying that — even if they believed it.

At times, LePage’s disdain for opposing views extends to members of his own party. Some of his clashes with Republican lawmakers occurred behind closed doors (e.g., his near veto of the second supplemental budget; a confrontation with GOP members of the Energy Committee after it rejected one of his bills).

Other disputes took place out in the open. Well out in the open.

The biennial budget typically isn’t addressed until the end of the session after bills with fiscal notes are considered. However, by last April, LePage had grown tired of what he viewed as the Legislature’s dithering.

After returning from Jamaica — a vacation the governor said he took because the Legislature hadn’t given him anything to do — LePage said Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature hadn’t done “a damn thing.”

“In the last 60 days I’ve been relegated to selling newspapers,” LePage told a gathering in Lewiston.

The governor’s comments prompted a sharp rebuke from typically understated House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. The incident capped a rocky start between LePage and GOP lawmakers, eight of whom wrote an op-ed urging the governor to tone down the combative rhetoric, saying “government by disrespect should have no place in Augusta.”

The letter’s overt message was that the governor’s methods were subverting the GOP agenda. But operatives in both parties talked about another effect: LePage was hurting the GOP’s chances of holding the legislative majority in 2012.

Tension between LePage and Republican lawmakers seems to have diminished amid the administration’s revamped communications strategy. In return, GOP lawmakers did most of LePage’s bidding the rest of the session, often running point on key initiatives.

The session ended with LePage appearing firmly in charge, Republicans loyally stacked behind him.

This year, an election year, will probably alter that dynamic.

LePage’s tolerance for the legislative process will be tested in 2012, just as it was in the final weeks of 2011. But his sway over lawmakers will be different this year as lawmakers weigh fealty to the governor against self-preservation.

The first test will be in LePage’s proposed MaineCare cuts.

Republicans are already taking considerable heat from constituents affected by the plan. These constituents, many of them elderly, vote.

The administration plans to join a coordinated effort among Republican governors to argue the federal health care law is restricting states’ ability to manage their Medicaid budgets.

But that could be a risky bet for Republicans. The Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate remains unpopular, but recent polling shows favorable views of the other provisions that include expanded coverage for the elderly through Medicare.

The guess here is that Republicans will ratify enough of LePage’s proposal to meet the one-time overruns in the budget shortfall while addressing a few structural problems. 

That won’t likely satisfy LePage, but the GOP’s decision will probably help preserve its control of the state Senate.

But it won’t save the House.

In fact, Republicans may lose control of the House no matter what happens. Few, if any, predicted the GOP would take the chamber after the 2010 wave election when Republicans won seats usually held by Democrats.

In addition to a political correction, two other factors could come into play.

Democrats will campaign hard against GOP lawmakers closely aligned with LePage and the tea party. They’ll also attempt to use the Republicans’ recent health care overhaul to make inroads in rural Maine, where some residents and small businesses could see spikes in insurance costs this year.

How will LePage govern if Democrats regain power in the House, or even the entire Legislature?

That’s the million-dollar question.

Observers often note LePage’s apparent disdain for compromise and dissenting voices within his own party. Some wonder if he’s willing, even able, to work with his opponents. Others are convinced his tolerance for the job is such that he won’t run in 2014.

There won’t be any predictions about his future here. However, it’s safe to say that LePage will be no different in 2012 than he was last year: a polarizing change agent who will continue to demand attention and headlines.

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