After November’s election, Maine Republicans had reason to feel heady. Their candidate, Tea Party-backed conservative Paul LePage, was headed to the governor’s mansion in Augusta, where the GOP had won a majority in both legislative chambers for the first time in nearly half a century.
But a hundred days into his administration, Gov. LePage has managed to alienate legislators, invigorate his opponents, and generate more negative national press attention than any Maine politician since James G. Blaine, who retired from the U.S. Senate in 1881. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he told the NAACP to “kiss my butt.” He defended a campaign to lift a ban on the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A in baby bottles by joking that the worst thing that could happen is “some women may have little beards.” Then he had a mural illustrating the history of Maine’s labor movement taken out of a Department of Labor waiting room after an anonymous letter compared it to murals in North Korea aimed at “brainwashing the masses.” The removal triggered large protests by artists and union members, and a possible federal Department of Labor fine in excess of $60,000, for breaching the terms of a grant that helped cover the mural’s purchase, and widespread editorial condemnation, with the Bangor Daily News describing the act as “straight out of Orwell’s world.”
“The governor will complete his term with a major focus on regulatory, pension, and health-care reforms, lowering taxes and energy costs, and creating jobs,” said a spokeswoman.
“Gov. LePage has spent the early days of his administration seeking out third-rail issues,” says Ron Schmidt Jr., chairman of the University of Southern Maine’s political science department. “In traditional political math, he should be trying to grow his base”—LePage won by 1 point, with 38 percent of the vote—“but things like the mural could even erode his base.”
The central question in Maine politics has been whether Republican lawmakers would stand by LePage’s more contentious proposals, such as rolling back all environmental laws to match laxer federal standards. Recently it has become clear that many of them are frustrated with the governor, and that the feeling is mutual. On Monday, eight of 20 Republican state senators criticized the governor’s often bellicose behavior in an op-ed published by the state’s largest newspaper chain. The next day, LePage’s bisphenol-A initiative was rejected 35-0 in the state senate, after a 145-3 defeat in the House.
LePage returned fire, saying lawmakers “haven’t done a damn thing” or “passed anything worthwhile,” apart from a law permitting lobstermen to stack their traps on certain wharves. “I went on vacation last week [to Jamaica] because I had nothing to do,” he told an audience Thursday. “Because I’m waiting; I’m waiting for legislation.” His remarks provoked a rebuke from Republican House Speaker Robert Nutting, who told the Lewiston Sun Journal he was “sorry that the governor still doesn’t understand the legislative process and apparently nobody on his staff has explained it to him.”
There is a consensus in Maine political circles that the governor has done himself unnecessary damage, though there is disagreement over its severity. One staff editorial writer at the state’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, declared “the LePage era is over” last week, arguing that Senate President Kevin Raye, longtime chief of staff to Maine’s moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, is now in control of the agenda. State GOP Chairman Charlie Webster, who acknowledges having friction with the governor’s political aides, if not the man himself, says he’s “frustrated” by “these other distractions that get away from the agenda.” But he argues that the real gauge of LePage’s success will come in late June, when the budget is to be passed. “I tell people they have to be patient, because we’ve had one philosophy of government for the past 25 years,” he says. “The Democrats want to tax the working class and distribute it to those who don’t work.”
“In my opinion, he’s significantly hurt his chances of getting his policy agenda enacted,” says Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “Usually, legislators appreciate it when an executive gives them political coverage to do something they might not otherwise want to do. But LePage isn’t giving them cover, he’s exposing them senselessly.”
A spokeswoman for LePage, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor does not regret initiating the mural, NAACP, or bisphenol-A episodes, and that the LePage era is far from over. “The governor will complete his term with a major focus on regulatory, pension, and health-care reforms, lowering taxes and energy costs, and creating jobs,” she said.
Democrats, meanwhile, are making political hay. “One of the reasons we haven’t been able to get persistent focus on the economy is because of the distractions and scapegoating this administration keeps falling into,” says House Democratic leader Emily Cain, whose caucus has pilloried the governor as being “too extreme” for Maine.
The coming months are expected to shed light on the biggest question in Maine politics: whether the traditionally moderate state GOP that produced Sens. Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen, Susan Collins, and Snowe has been taken over by the Tea Party activists that gave LePage the party nomination and passed a party platform calling for, among other things, vigilance against a “one world government.” “It’s between LePage Republicanism and Snowe Republicanism,” says Schmidt. “Will they find an equilibrium, or will we see a big schism in the party?”
• Jim DeFede: Trump’s Tea Party TriumphFor now, even some Tea Party activists are calling for a big-tent approach. “Maine needs real leadership, and Gov. LePage needs to remember that,” says the state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, Andrew Ian Dodge, one of Snowe’s two primary challengers thus far. “He needs to govern for all Mainers, and not just his fans.”
Colin Woodard’s fourth book, American Nations: A History of the 11 Rival Cultural Regions of North America, will be released Oct. 3 by Viking Press. An award-winning journalist, he is also author of The Republic of Pirates, The Lobster Coast, and Ocean's End. His eclectic beats include Balkan affairs, Maine culture and politics, ocean science and policy, global warming, and North American colonial history. He lives in Portland, Maine.