From the streets to the governor’s mansion, Paul LePage embraces fiscal conservatism for survival

During the 2010 Maine gubernatorial election, Republican candidate Paul LePage told a local news outlet: “I’m more of a street fighter than an angry person. And when I go through the halls in Augusta, I’m going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

Six months after going from a small-town mayor to the governor’s mansion on a wave of anti-establishment fervor, LePage hasn’t pulled any punches.

The 62-year-old chief executive has rolled back business regulations, trimmed Maine’s welfare system, signed the biggest tax cuts in state history and annoyed just about every interest group along the way.

His first act as governor was an executive order ending Maine’s status as a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants. He also laughingly told the NAACP to “kiss my butt.”

Then there was the time when he removed a mural, depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement, from the lobby of the state department of labor, sparking protests from unions and art groups.

And the time, during his campaign, when he told an audience that when he became governor they could expect to see the newspaper headline: “LePage tells Obama to go to hell.”

Reading the news stories and seeing pictures of LePage — he’s bull-necked and has a mean-looking glower — one might think he’s some sort of angry partisan.

Sitting on a couch at the Capitol Hill Club lounge in D.C. for an interview with The Daily Caller, LePage was content to crack jokes and eat handfuls of popcorn rather than slam his shoe on the table. One gets the impression Paul LePage just says what Paul LePage thinks, for better or worse.

“There are two things that are important to me as an individual: honesty and integrity,” he said. “You don’t have to like what I say. You don’t have to agree with me. But whatever I say, I believe.”

Barry Hobbins, a Democratic state senator who has worked with six different governors, said LePage reminded him of another unconventional Maine politician — Jim Longley, the state’s first independent governor, elected in 1974.

“LePage isn’t an establishment Republican,” Hobbins said. “He’s not a pedigree. He’s tough as nails, and he can be gruff and rough. But he’s the governor. I’ve told my liberal and progressive friends we have to work with him.”

Of course, all politicians like to frame themselves as “not your average politician” — the straight-shooter, the maverick — but LePage’s bluntness seems less an affectation than a byproduct of his time in local politics and the private sector, and of his hardscrabble upbringing.

LePage was the oldest of 18 children in a dysfunctional family. At age 11, his father put him in the hospital with a broken nose and a dislocated jaw. When his dad showed up to the hospital, he flipped LePage a 50-cent piece and told him to say he’d fallen down the stairs.

Instead, LePage decided he’d had enough. He slipped out of the hospital and lived on the streets of Lewiston, Maine, for two years, sleeping where he could — cars, stairwells, hallways, even a brothel.

He’s kept that 50-cent piece in his pocket every day since 1960 as a reminder of where he came from. For LePage, fiscal conservatism wasn’t so much a political philosophy as a survival strategy.

“From then on, a dollar always meant something to me,” he said. “I had to save to get by. As governor I don’t feel I have the authority to raise taxes just because I feel [like] it.”