Scene 1

Location: Dining room, Blaine House, the governor’s mansion.

When: May 2013

Present: Gov. Paul LePage, First Lady Ann LePage, Communications Director Peter Steele and a reporter with a recording device.

ANN (to her husband): One thing — you’ve never forgotten where you come from, ever. 

ANN (to the reporter): That’s my job — to make sure he doesn’t.

LEPAGE: And she does a very good job of it, really. She’s like I am, we’re both from the same type of environment. It’s about people and some are disadvantaged, some are not; some are very elitist, some are spoiled — which I have a problem with a lot of them. But it is where we come from and our kids, our kids are both, all five of them, have had a great education. All of them got a master’s degree except for one. All very well educated, all did very very well in school, but they’re not elitist, they’re really down to earth every day people, except for one who likes to think she’s better than she is. I have a daughter, Lisa, I love her, but she likes to sign her name and she puts Lisa LePage, MBA. So I get an honorary doctorate, so now when I sign my name, I’m putting Ph.D.”

LePage threw his head back and laughed. At himself, about his daughter — and in the process told a lot about who he is and how he comes at his job, at his world.

In the world he came from — small town politics and running discount department stores selling salvage — there were not many elites, not many people putting on airs, a venial sin to working-class success stories.

But even in a small state like Maine, politicians play politics. The good ones can put on airs — and take them off as easily.  They angle, they cajole, they cut deals. They say one thing one day, another the next. That’s how they get things done. “Politics is the art of compromise” is as anathema to LePage as Barack Obama is (“I think Barack Obama is every bit as bad as Richard Nixon and some ways even worse.”) 

Goldthwait, the former independent legislator, said LePage has gone “way beyond the bounds” of the commonly accepted way of doing business at the Statehouse.

To the regulars “he wasn’t playing fair because he was breaking all these rules of protocol and courtesy and everything else. To the people not in that inner circle, they loved it because nobody extends to them that courtesy and fair play.”

His economic adviser, John Butera, one of the Waterville pals he brought with him to the State House, said, “He doesn’t care if anyone likes him.”

It was pointed out to him that a lot people say that when they’re under attack.

“I know,” he said. “But he really doesn’t care if anyone likes him.”

LePage did not disagree: “I want them (legislators) to respect that I’m trying to do the best I can … If I wanted to be liked, I’d get another dog. If I want to get loved, I’ll go home.”

Eves, the speaker of the house, is one of the two Democratic legislative leaders LePage has to work with in the second two years of his four-term term. The results of that relationship are perhaps best expressed by the number of bills LePage vetoed this year: a record 83.

Eves, a family therapist, likened LePage to a teenager whose “parents”– Republicans in the Legislature — “are complicit in this behavior. They enable him. When he sees he can get away with it, he keeps doing it.”

While Eves has run the House, state Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland has led the other chamber as senate president. 

LePage called Eves a “smart young guy who is inexperienced” and quickly added a less flattering take on Alfond, who he has known from Alfond’s youthful years growing up in the Waterville area, the grandson and an heir of up-from-the-bootstraps multi-millionaire Harold Alfond, who died in 2007. Alfond owned Dexter shoes, a business he famously sold to billionaire investor Warren Buffett, and was Maine’s best-known philanthropist. 

As figures in Waterville, LePage knew the grandfather and his sons as well, and spoke highly of all of them. Not so the grandson.

“I can’t say anything good about Justin … Harold Alfond, I think was a great guy. Justin’s dad (Bill), I love to pieces, I think he’s a great guy,” LePage said. But, of the 38-year-old Justin he said,  “Not very bright, and very, uh, well, here’s how I’ll characterize Justin Alfond: Spoiled brat. Both in his personal life and his politics. Justin is very fortunate that his father and his grandfather were born ahead of him.”

Repeated requests to speak to Alfond never resulted in an interview. 

But when he speaks publicly of LePage, it is often to attack the governor where he wants to be seen as strongest — as a friend of business.

For example, regarding the Statoil deal, Alfond told the AP: “What we have seen once again is how far this governor is willing to go to stop you dead in your tracks if he is against you. And it doesn’t matter if you are an individual or a company that wants to invest millions of dollars.” 

To LePage, Alfond is the poster boy of those “elites” that he teases his daughter about being — the subset of Mainers who turn their noses up at LePage’s tea party policies and crude remarks.

Rick Bennett is the former Republican president of the Senate and is seen as a moderate member of his party. He took over as state party chairman this summer. The “discomfort,” he said, between LePage and so-called “elites” goes both ways.

“They are the people who are doing fine and they find him a bit off-putting … they like Maine the way it is,” he said. “There’s a lot of entrenchment from the people who have it good.”

Scene 2

Location: The law office of Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, overlooking the Kennebec River in downtown Augusta. The former high school basketball player has photos and clippings about the Boston Celtics hanging on the walls.

Time: Summer, 2013

Reporter: If you were LePage’s chief of staff, what would you have done differently?

Katz: Be careful what you say and reach out to the other side … I view the Democrats in the Legislature as my opponents, not my enemies. He was able to find common ground with Emily Cain on the issue of domestic violence. There are a lot of things like that … just a number of areas where you can bring coalitions together around a single issue and actually get something done.”

The 66-year-old Katz represents the other side of the GOP from LePage and the tea party — once called Rockefeller Republicans and now sometimes RINOs, Republicans in Name Only.

Katz, though, sees himself as a true Republican, just like his father, Bennett Katz, a former president of the Maine Senate, known as a gentle soul and a gentleman.

His supports LePage’s fiscal policies and he admires his determination: “He’s been like a dog with a bone … getting us a government we can afford.”

But the governor’s mouth has been too much for Katz. 

He published an op-ed, endorsed by some fellow moderate Republicans, after the governor called those who protested his removal of a pro-labor mural from the state department of labor “idiots.”

“By demeaning others, the governor also discourages people from taking part in debating the issues of the day — worrying if not only their ideas, but they themselves as people, will be the subject of scorn,” Katz wrote.

But he also recognizes they had much different home lives.

“If I had been brought up the way he was, the hardscrabble way, I would have been either dead or in jail,” said Katz.

Katz came into the Legislature with LePage three years ago along with enough other Republicans to take over both branches of the government from their long Democratic and independent control.

The Republicans came with a mission — to put their philosophy of government ahead of the other side’s. Their bywords were personal responsibility, accountability, lower taxes, fiscal prudence, private enterprise. 

While liberals and progressives saw Maine being ranked at or near the top of “welfare states” as a sign of its decency, Republicans of all stripes said the state were trying to throw a champagne party on a beer budget.

And while the moderates in the party might have hoped Mills had been chosen to carry their banner in the election, in 2010 the right was well-organized and the political winds favored them. And LePage — by policy and by style — fit their bill perfectly.

LePage, Katz said, “came in with a formidable zeal to reverse 30 years of liberal Democratic direction and put us on a better track… myself I was proud to vote for him.”

“I’m like Chris Christie,” LePage said, referring the New Jersey governor and a popular figure with fiscal conservatives.  “He’s blunt, and I’m considered over the top.”

But it’s that very style that now threatens the hopes of Republicans and conservative independents to finish the job of righting the state’s liberal tilt.

Al Diamon is the iconoclastic columnist who has been skewering Maine politicians for more than 20 years. He called LePage a “boob” whose comments remind him of something you’d say after having “three or four beers in a bar.”

(Although Diamon was not suggesting LePage has a drinking problem, LePage himself said he has heard people are saying that about him. Interviewed in his office on a Thursday, he said the last drink he had was the previous Monday, said he never drinks at the Blaine House unless it is a “glass of wine with my wife” and has a beer after his weekly round of golf at the Waterville Country Club.)

Diamon also said LePage is one pol who has delivered what he said he would — at least so far.

“It’s not only what the public wanted, it’s exactly what he promised … He didn’t lie and he didn’t change course, and he deserves credit for that,” Diamon said.

But because of his lack of political skills, he can’t and likely won’t get much more accomplished, Diamon said:  “He’s his own worst enemy because style overcomes the substance… He’s stubborn, stubborn.”

Not only, he and others said, do LePage’s antics distract from his accomplishments, it reflects badly on all Republicans.

His “allies in the Legislature are being tarred with the same brush,” Diamon said, so they distance themselves from him because they “need cover back home.”

Without that cover, they may not get reelected and if they don’t get reelected — and after two years of LePage enough did not that the R’s lost the House and Senate to the D’s — there goes their opportunity to fix the state the way they want it fixed.

“It’s a tragedy,” Katz said.

Mills calls LePage’s tenure a time of “lost opportunities,” citing a series of fiscal initiatives such as deeper tax reform that were lost “because style matters … Reagan had style and he got all kinds of things done.”

Cutler said LePage’s actions have done the opposite of advancing a new conservative agenda: ”The Democrats are emboldened politically by LePage’s actions.” 

Caron says style is half of the problem. The other is that LePage hasn’t articulated a long-range plan for the state.

“If he has …  a philosophy, it’s laissez faire. It’s a lot of action on government and let the private sector do it all from there,” Caron said. “The problem is we’re competing in a world where that’s not the way our competitors are operating at all. That’s not the way China is operating or Massachusetts.”

Dan Demeritt was LePage’s campaign spokesman and had the same job for a short time after LePage was in office.

He said he didn’t know LePage well when he started working for him, but it wasn’t long after that he came to appreciate LePage’s ideas and his commitment.

“I would walk in front of train for him,” he said.

He saw a refreshing leader who had “the ability to be transformational.”

But, to Demeritt, that has been lost because LePage approaches the job wrong.

“He would make a great general manager for the state of Maine,” Demeritt said, but it takes more than that to lead.

To lead, he and others observed, LePage has to “sell his ideas … go to the public and sell them.” And the anti-politician in him has not done that well enough.

Demeritt recalls that early in LePage’s tenure, they were scheduled to have a press conference on a plan to help Brunswick residents who lost money to a fuel oil business that stopped delivering.

‘We had to literally get him to take his suit jacket off the hanger and go to the press conference,” Demeritt recalled. “His attitude was the staff has done the work and they should get the credit.”

To LePage, his critics just don’t get it.

“They are missing what I’m here for, everyone missed what I’m here for. I’m not here to be a politician  — never intended … I’m a turn-around specialist. And we know what needs to happen,” he said. “We just can’t get enough people to buy in.”

Scene 3

Location: The governor’s office.

Date: Late August

Present: LePage, press aides Steele and Adrienne Bennett and a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting photographer and reporter.

Background: About a week after press reports based on anonymous sources who claimed that, at a fundraiser in Belgrade, LePage had said President Barack Obama hated white people. This latest report on top of others had that day attracted more national press coverage. LePage himself seemed to finally be accepting the reality that, as his wife said at the lunch interview, “Paul LePage has no filter.” It was time to take the advice he had been getting from back in the campaign — control his mouth.

LePage: I’ve got this big eraser for when I open my mouth (holds up foot-long rubber eraser “for Big Mistakes.”)

He said he never said Obama hates white people. He said his point was that Obama missed a chance to bring the races together. “He could have said I’m half white and half black. Instead they called him the first black president. I never said he hated white people. I said, I guess he doesn’t like me.”

But, from now on, he said, he’s going to try to keep a lid on the comments “and talk out of both sides of my mouth like a politician.”

“They (staff) gave me this,” he said, holding up a roll of duct tape, leaning back, laughing, taking pleasure in his rep for shooting before he aims.

“I have what I consider is a decent sense of humor,” he said in the Blaine House interview. “I don’t take myself very seriously and I have found, in Augusta, politics is very serious and I don’t take it seriously because I don’t like it.”

(But he added that the Vaseline comment was wrong. “It was a terrible one, and I regret it … everything else I’ve said … I still believe them.”)

Marty Linsky is a former Republican legislator in Massachusetts, a teacher of public leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard — an expert in governing.

Linsky came to LePage’s defense in a June story in the Portland Press Herald in which a member of the liberal group Moveon.org had written a letter to LePage complaining the governor wasn’t doing enough to help the victims of a Lewiston fire.

LePage replied with what he had done and added, “What have you done” — which shocked the letter-writer.

Linsky told the paper, “I think it is a good thing that people in elected office sometimes tell constituents what they believe they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.”

Linsky and others see LePage’s comments like these as not only refreshing, but deliberate.

“It’s pretty clear he enjoys the reputation and the notoriety he’s generated,” Linsky said. “It feeds his image of himself … he revels in his bluntness” because he reinforces his self-image.

Payne, the Portland businessman, said when LePage makes his extreme comments his supporters say, “Go Paul. Do it again. They’re enthralled by him.” 

Epilogue: At the end of the day …

Public officials have two jobs: run the government and get reelected.

To LePage’s legion of critics, he’s lost or losing on both counts.

Cutler said LePage’s tenure — despite some progress — adds up to “two and half years of a lost opportunity for the people of Maine.”

Eves, the Democratic speaker of the house, said voters will see that LePage “is driving businesses out of the state, denying health care to 70,000 Mainers.”

When it comes to governing, those less opposed to LePage cite the pension, hospital debt and business-friendly orientation as lasting policy improvements.

But as for everything else that has or will happen under Paul LePage, as Payne pointed out, “it’s a long horizon for history to catch up to what actually happened.”

Caron said, “The cup is half full and half empty when it comes to Paul LePage.”

‘I’m from another world” than the political one, LePage reflected. “I don’t expect to change the world, I just hope to improve the world.”

With the election one year away, voters will have some time to decide if he has improved their world.

Diamon said LePage was ill-suited for the job — “There’s no way he should be governor.” His accomplishments like fixing the pension and hospital debt “are not bread-and-butter issues to the average person.”

“I don’t see how he can recover” by the time of the election, Diamon said. 

Bennett, the head of the GOP and the man with the task of getting LePage reelected, said, “I don’t think Maine people will deny him reelection based on style points.

“At the end of the day, people generally get it,” he said.

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 protected] 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.


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