Politics

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

Two families took LePage in when he was 13. One of them was the family of Peter Snowe, the first husband of future U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe. The families helped get him through high school and into college.

He was accepted by Husson University, but only after Snowe convinced the school to allow LePage, a native French speaker, to take the entrance exam in French. After graduating from Husson, he earned his M.B.A. from the University of Maine.

Much to the ire of many conservative Republicans, he is supporting the centrist Olympia Snowe in the upcoming Senate election. In typical LePage fashion, he is completely up front about why, saying their relationship “transcends politics.”

“Am I enamored by all her votes? No,” Lepage said. “But I still love the lady, and I owe them a big debt for helping get me off the streets.”

In between leaving home and graduating from college, LePage held down a long list of odd jobs.

He shined shoes, worked in a rubber factory and a meat-packing plant, drove trucks, ran errands, cleaned horse stables at a racetrack, delivered newspapers (both morning and afternoon paper routes), washed dishes, delivered groceries, edited a college newspaper and bartended.

At one point, LePage dealt cards for a group of local card sharks who paid him 25 cents a hand because they didn’t trust each other to deal. The games started at 11 p.m. and then, when the bars closed at 2 a.m., often moved to a hotel.

“Sometimes I was dealing cards for 18 to 20 hours at a time,” LePage said.

After college, LePage went into business, first in the lumber industry, then as the general manager of Marden’s Surplus and Salvage, a chain of Maine discount stores. After LePage came on in 1996, Marden’s expanded in sales and size by 100 percent.

In 1998, he decided to get involved in local politics in Waterville, a central Maine town of about 15,000 people.

“I ran because the mayor was going to sell 14 acres of riverfront property for a dollar to a relative,” LePage said. “Sort of pissed me off.”

LePage served two terms on the Waterville City Council and three terms as mayor, running as a Republican in the heavily Democrat-leaning town. He lowered taxes 6 out of his 8 years as mayor and issued 13 vetoes. But he kept getting re-elected.

“One thing I found about human nature is if you allow people to put more money in their pocket, that’s a good way to get re-elected,” LePage said.

And then came the run for governor. As an outsider with little financial backing, LePage was seen as a long-shot at best in the crowded Republican field of seven. But 2010 was a year for outsiders.

LePage pushed a platform of hard-nosed fiscal conservatism — job creation, less regulations and spending cuts. He famously pledged to put a five-year cap on welfare benefits, and told Maine residents that if they didn’t like it he’d buy them a bus ticket to Massachusetts.

Although the Maine media and his opponents blanched at his language (his political consultant Brent Littlefield said the media didn’t get LePage’s “tongue-in-cheek” style), it resonated deeply with disaffected voters, especially those who identified with the Tea Party.