AUGUSTA, Maine — On paper, Paul LePage’s résumé reads like the answer to Republican prayers. A son of laborers, LePage learned English as a second language and fled an abusive father and a family of 17 brothers and sisters. He wound up living on the streets as a child. He worked his way through school with manufacturing jobs and became a self-made businessman, small-town mayor, a husband, father and fiscally conservative governor.
The catch is that he speaks. And when he does bad things often happen. Earlier this month, he allegedly told a group of Republicans that President Obama “hates white people,” once again putting picturesque Maine in an unflattering spotlight.
“Words to me are like thunder. They make a lot of noise, but they don’t accomplish anything,” LePage said Thursday. “And that’s how I feel. And if that takes me down, it takes me down.”
Unlike Chris Christie, another rotund Republican governor from the Northeast with a reputation for a sharp tongue and short temper, LePage has suffered for his straight talk, with his reelection chances and national standing falling. Democratic and independent challengers — and even Republicans seeking a primary challenger — sense his vulnerability in the 2014 race. This week, an early poll showed LePage behind his likely Democratic opponent.
The 64-year-old descendant of French Canadians sported frameless glasses and a blue shirt and pink tie during an interview in his airy office, where busts of Ronald Reagan and a giant eraser marked “For Big Mistakes” adorned his desk. He said that if the electorate is “concerned with words over actions, I may not run.”
There’s plenty that opponents can seize on to stoke the electorate’s concerns.
In 2011, LePage told members of the NAACP to “kiss my butt.” He called lawmakers “idiots,” compared the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo, and ordered that a mural celebrating workers be peeled off a wall of the state’s Labor Department because it didn’t champion entrepreneurs. In June, he verbally shredded state Sen. Troy Jackson — a Democratic congressional candidate and frequent LePage antagonist — for Jackson’s effort to cut LePage’s pension. “Senator Jackson claims to be for the people, but he’s the first one to give it to the people of Maine without providing Vaseline,” the governor said at the time.
Jackson, who roamed the statehouse during a special session on Thursday, complained that LePage was “erratic and makes unbelievably insensitive comments all the time.” But the governor didn’t seem entirely repentant.
“When you come from the streets — okay? — you develop sort of a mechanism inside of you, which is to protect what’s yours,” LePage said. “What he didn’t realize is that I take care of my sick mother-in-law and a wife. And when he made that attack [on my pension], that was against them. You can do anything to me, but don’t touch my family.”
But it is August that has proved the most thunderous month. A few weeks ago, LePage sat in a F-35 cockpit simulator for a photo op. “The demonstrator says to me, ‘Governor, what do you want to blow up this morning?’ And I said, ‘How about the [Portland] Press Herald.’ Next thing you know, they call the FBI!”
And on Aug. 12, LePage addressed about 60 Republican supporters at a fundraiser in Belgrade, a town north of Augusta. According to a report in the Press Herald, which cited anonymous sources, LePage told attendees that Obama could have been the best president ever if he had highlighted his biracial heritage, but that didn’t happen because he “hates white people.”
“I did not say it, not in the context in which it was reported,” said LePage, who has helped raise a Jamaican-born child as his own. “I never said hate.” He said that he simply stated that the president, being half black and half white, had a unique opportunity to bring people together. “But I said, ‘I guess he doesn’t like me’ ” — a gibe, he said, that they turned into, “Oh, he hates white people.”
The larger problem, he said, is the press, and specifically the Press Herald, which, like several other Maine outlets, is “essentially owned by a congresslady of the opposing party.” The papers are owned by Donald Sussman, a billionaire hedge fund manager who is married to Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat.
“That’s his way of deflection,” Pingree said. “And to me, it was sort of like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ” She said that the reporters at the Press Herald would “be insulted” if people thought she gave them marching orders and that “my husband doesn’t influence the newspaper. He just happens to own it.”
Whether it is LePage’s political clumsiness or, as he would have it, press bias, the result is that his biography is eclipsed on the national stage by his inclination toward invective. He grew up in the part of the state called Little Canada, to parents who spoke nary a word of English. LePage was the oldest of 18 children in a troubled family (“some of my brothers have been guests of the state”). His father beat him so badly that he left home at 11.
“You live in cellars, hallways, brothels, wherever it’s warm in the winter, under the stars in the summer,” he said. “I’ve had to eat cat food to survive.” He was taken in for a time as a teenager by the family of the husband of former Republican senator Olympia Snowe and got his life on track. “If you ever saw the movie ‘The Blind Side,’ you’re looking at him,” LePage said, referring to the story of a talented but wayward young future NFL player taken in by a wealthy family.
LePage became a successful businessman and turnaround consultant for Maine businesses, including one that he said is “now one of the major manufacturers of drumsticks and world-class pepper mills for some of the best chefs in the world.” He became mayor of Waterville in 2003 and then benefited from tea party support and a three-way race to win the governorship in 2010.
Now, with reelection in doubt, he is trying his best to make something positive out of all the negative coverage. “Frankly, sometimes the distractions that the press creates allow me to do the work that I need to do,” he said. “So there’s a plus side. I get cover. The sad thing is it is going to hurt during the reelection because the opposition is going to make me look like a bad guy.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the leading candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Mike Michaud, stood facing fog-shrouded Casco Bay as he waited for a ferry to Peaks Island for a meeting at an American Legion Post and a lobster bake fundraiser.
A six-term congressman and the ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee who previously served as the president of the Maine Senate, Michaud speaks haltingly, adding to the 58-year-old’s unassuming aura. Michaud, who was born into a Franco-American family, went from high school to “the college of hard knocks,” punching a clock in the Great Northern Paper mills — a life story that cuts into some of LePage’s tough-guy appeal. LePage’s associates describe Michaud as a lifelong politician and an empty suit, but he is leading in the most recent polls.
On the ferry, Michaud wore a checked Brooks Brothers shirt, khakis and customized New Balance sneakers (made in Maine) that read “Michaud 2014” on the back. He described LePage as a loose cannon who “doesn’t set Maine in a good light around the country — quite frankly, around the world.”
When Michaud walked into the American Legion, which housed an old Newport cigarette machine and tarp-covered pool table, he asked Paul Landry, a 79-year-old vet at the end of the bar, how he had been.
“Things will be better when we have a new governor,” Landry said.
In an interview, Michaud conceded that “definitely it would be easier” to have a head-to-head contest with LePage rather than a three-way race that includes Eliot Cutler, an independent. “Eliot’s going to have to come to his own conclusions, what he is going to do or not do. 2014 is a different election than 2010,” he said.
Cutler, 67, lost by less than two percentage points to LePage in 2010. He sees an opening and a chance at redemption through an independent, ideas-based candidacy. Of starkly different pedigree from the other two would-be governors — Harvard/Georgetown Law/aide to the late Sen. Edmund Muskie/official in the Carter administration — the Bangor-born environmental lawyer bristles at the notion that he could be the spoiler.
“Mike Michaud would beat Paul LePage. Eliot Cutler would beat Paul LePage,” he said, adding that three-way races are common in Maine and that the real choice for the next governor is probably “between Cutler and Michaud.”
Win or lose, one thing seems for sure for Paul LePage: He will not challenge Christie as the Republican Party’s tough-talking standard-bearer. And that’s apparently fine by him.
“I don’t want to be a star,” LePage said, exasperated. “I’m just not interested in the limelight. I just want to do a good job and see my kids stay in Maine, earn a living in Maine, raise their family in Maine so I don’t have to travel to see my grandkids.”