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

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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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.”

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.

LePage won the Republican primary with 38 percent of the vote, despite being outspent 10 to 1 by his closest opponent. He spent just $190,000 on his primary campaign.

Littlefield said the campaign emphasized what they called “the three onlys”: LePage was the “only candidate with a dramatic personal story, the only candidate with successful business experience and the only candidate with executive experience.”

The campaign also specifically targeted Francophone voters, sending volunteers deep into rural Maine to hand-deliver large posters with a personal message from LePage.

“I told [LePage] when we started working together, I’m going to come up with a strategy, but it’s going to be so bizarre and unusual,” Littlefield said. “We’re either going to win, or we’re going to get crushed.”

LePage went on to win the general election with 38 percent of the vote in a four-way field, taking 14 of 16 counties and becoming the first Republican Maine governor elected since 1990.

For his work on the campaign, Littlefield won a Pollie Award from the American Association of Political Consultants.

It’s a long jump from mayor of Waterville to governor of the entire state, though. LePage had some trouble out of the gate — several staff problems, a minor scandal when he hired his daughter to a $41,000 per year position. The new legislature was still getting used to the new normal as well.

Hobbins said it “took a while for everyone to get their sea legs.”

Maine had not had a Republican governor since 1994, and it had not seen a Republican House since 1974. Everyone had to relearn the art of compromise, from the Republicans, who weren’t used to leading, to the Democrats, who weren’t used to being in the minority.

And there was LePage, who came in with no experience navigating the bicameral legislature. His touted tax cuts were part of a budget that needed approval from Democrats as well.

“We passed a two-thirds budget, and we were crossing our fingers that he wouldn’t veto it,” Hobbins said. “It could have been much worse, but we had a very responsible committee that worked hard and came up with a balanced approach.”

But old habits die hard. LePage scours budgets for business fees to lower and spending to cut, no matter how small.

For example, when LePage thought a $75 fee for temporary restaurant licenses was too high, he sent the entire bill that contained it back to the state legislature — House and Senate — where it had passed unanimously. The fee came back $50 lower.

He’ll talk at length about the amount of red tape he’s nixed — like a regulation prohibiting boats from putting their lobster traps on docks because the shadows cast by the cages allegedly killed seaweed. LePage commissioned a study proving the traps didn’t, in fact, kill seaweed.

Small but tangible victories for a man whose pocket has weighed heavy with a 50-cent piece since 1960.

“Most of state government is really an attitude,” LePage said. “We can do anything we want as American people if we sit down, put the plan out and move forward.”