After Pushing the Tea Party Agenda, Maine Governor Paul LePage Faces a Fierce Backlash

After Pushing the Tea Party Agenda, Maine Governor Paul LePage Faces a Fierce Backlash

After Pushing the Tea Party Agenda, Maine Governor Paul LePage Faces a Fierce Backlash

The fight to counter LePage’s extremism is gaining support not only among progressives in the state but within the Republican Party too.


In an old log cabin on Main Street in the picturesque little town of Yarmouth, Maine, Cumberland County Tea Party members meet on Sunday afternoons to discuss their political grievances. On this Sunday in early June, a relatively small group is sitting in a circle on yellow metal chairs with vinyl seat cushions. Overlooking the gathering is a huge mounted moose head, complete with a glorious set of antlers, looking somewhat confused by the spectacle.

“I’d love to see a member of the Muslim community come and explain Sharia law to us,” says a bald man with a clipped mustache. “What makes someone come to the Great Satan and then want Sharia law? That’s my question.” A member who is involved with ACT! For America, a group that aims to educate citizens about the dangers of radical Islam, launches a diatribe against a local museum that invited an Al Jazeera employee to speak at a fundraiser. A third chimes in with a grand theory: “There’s a symbiosis between the left and Islamists. They both want big government. They’re anticapitalist and anti-West. They have a common agenda.”

Huh? It’s no wonder the moose looks confused. The stew of paranoia, conspiracy and blind irrationality is enough to make any reasonable mammal do a double-take.

In normal times, these people would be fodder either for comedy routines or earnest sociological studies. They would, above all, be subterranean. But these aren’t normal times. Angry, embittered, fearful of the lack of jobs and the ongoing flood of foreclosures, Tea Partiers across Maine were instrumental in pushing the Republican Party rightward in the midterm primaries and then pushing the state as a whole rightward this past November, when they helped elect Governor Paul LePage, a loudmouth ex-mayor of the gritty central Maine town of Waterville.

In doing so, they unleashed a firestorm. Within weeks of his inauguration, the governor had served up a smorgasbord of right-wing proposals: rollbacks of environmental regulations and welfare programs, an assault on public workers’ and women’s rights, even a campaign to remove a mural depicting the state’s labor history.

Other Tea Party governors came out swinging with similarly aggressive agendas; and like LePage, they too have rapidly engendered backlashes of varying degrees. But unlike in, say, Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker’s bare-knuckle attack on collective bargaining brought forth a massive outpouring of progressive energy, in Maine the push to counter LePage’s brand of Tea Party extremism is gaining support not only among progressives but within the Republican Party itself.

* * *

LePage wasn’t cut from the same cloth as most Republicans in this avowedly moderate state. Temperamentally, the governor is as far from the genteel Yankee Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as one can imagine. Both women—following in the tradition of longtime Maine legislator Margaret Chase Smith, a prominent and highly regarded Rockefeller Republican—market themselves as consensus builders, reliable bridges between increasingly polarized and partisan Congressional blocs. Over the years, this centrist stance has played well in a state that doesn’t normally tilt toward extremes. Mainers pride themselves on their common sense, and a disproportionately large part of the electorate not only registers as independent but votes for independent candidates. LePage, by contrast, is both down-the-line conservative and flamingly confrontational.

The oldest of eighteen children, LePage ran away from home at 11, fleeing a childhood filled with poverty, violence and abuse. After living for a time on the street, he was taken in by a local family and managed to graduate from high school, then college and business school. While many of his siblings remained stuck on welfare, he improbably emerged as a successful businessman in Waterville, running a small discount chain named Marden’s, and later became the town’s chief executive.

Ever since his early days in office, LePage has proven to be a bully and a blusterer. As mayor he swore copiously and was rumored to drink too much. While running for governor he threatened to “punch out” a journalist he didn’t like. Eventually, he refused to grant any access to the media, a policy he maintains to this day. “The job of the governor is to get Maine prosperous again,” said his press officer, Adrienne Bennett, in response to a request to interview LePage for this article. “And he’s doing that. But he isn’t doing media. He’s doing bill signings and things of that nature.”

As governor, LePage has maintained his swagger. In January he told the NAACP to kiss his butt after he refused several invitations to address the organization. And he threw red meat to his base by saying that if he was invited to the White House he would tell President Obama to go to hell. (So far, thankfully, the opportunity hasn’t arisen.)

In short, Governor LePage is, like the Tea Party that brought him to power, proudly uncouth, pugilistic, vehemently against compromise—a perfect politician for an era in which shared societal values are collapsing and a fearful, economically crippled electorate is watching America’s pre-eminence and prosperity dissipate.

Of course, the Tea Party wasn’t LePage’s only constituency. Many supporters were primarily concerned about traditional conservative grab-bag issues like estate tax exemptions, lower corporate tax rates and the national debt. Their agenda lacked empathy, but at least it was coherent. Maine Taxpayers United went all out on LePage’s behalf, as did the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank; corporate lobbyists; and law firms such as Preti Flaherty, whose lawyers would subsequently write many of the governor’s most egregious regulatory and tax proposals. (Some ex-Obamaniacs flocked to LePage’s banner too, but disgruntled Democrats were never a big constituency.)

The Maine Tea Partiers gained disproportionate power in November thanks to the state’s electoral tradition. In recent decades, gubernatorial races in Maine have been three-party affairs, with strong independent candidates occupying the middle ground and with the victorious politicians capturing not a majority but a plurality of the votes. LePage scored a victory with 38 percent; his independent opponent, Eliot Cutler, finished in second place with 37 percent, and Democrat Libby Mitchell trailed in third with a mere 19 percent. In rural and northern areas of the state, LePage won overwhelmingly.

Winning with these numbers gave LePage license to tack away from the center and toward his angry, eccentric base. LePage thus had even less incentive to moderate his inflammatory rhetoric and proposals than the other Tea Party governors, who will need large numbers of independent supporters to secure re-election. Those governors have focused their energies on a few core issues—breaking public sector unions being chief among them. Wisconsin’s Walker, to take the most notable example, ended up facing considerable pushback for his brash overreach; New Jersey’s Chris Christie seems, so far, to have been more successful. But none of them went off in as many different directions simultaneously as did LePage—and none of them fouled up so quickly or to such a broad extent.

In his first weeks in office, LePage unveiled a right-wing policy agenda with a Tea Party twist. With the comprehensive antiregulation package known as LD 1, he pledged to undo decades of workplace and environmental regulations, including one that restricted use of the cancer-causing BPA in products used by children and nursing mothers. (“The worst case is some women may have little beards,” he sneered.) Alongside efforts to enact right-to-work and antiabortion laws, LePage proposed “reforming” the state’s Medicaid system so as to remove 28,000 single adults from the program. He attempted to gut the state’s child labor and minimum wage laws, slapped a freeze on public sector pensions’ cost of living adjustments, tried to curtail access to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) welfare program and decimated funding for the state’s public schools. And like many Republican governors around the country, he declared, without presenting any evidence, that the state was beset by voter fraud. To counter this he announced he would end Maine’s thirty-year experiment with election-day voter registration and require voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. At the same time, he vowed to overturn the state’s clean-elections laws.

In March LePage pushed his legislative agenda aside in order to launch an ugly First Amendment battle. Although he claimed that creating jobs was his number-one priority, the governor fixated on an executive decision to remove a mural, commissioned for $60,000 with the mandate to celebrate labor history, from the offices of the state’s Labor Department, and to erase the name of Roosevelt-era Labor Secretary Frances Perkins from a conference room [see Rachel Heise Bolten, “Erasing Labor History,” page 22]. By painting scenes from famous strikes and workplace tragedies, the artist, Judy Taylor, had apparently been “unfair” to business interests. It was, the governor believed, akin to North Korean propaganda. On his order state officials entered the building in the middle of the night, removed the panels of the thirty-six-foot-long mural and carted them off to an undisclosed location.

“I was pretty dumbfounded,” says Taylor, who spent a year on the project, which she had wanted to “not only detail the history of labor in Maine but bring about heart, exact an emotional response from the viewer.” Clearly, she got more than she bargained for.

“The mural itself is pretty gentle,” explains Robert Shetterly, president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, as he sips a cup of coffee in one of Yarmouth’s art-filled cafes. “It’s the censorship of the ideas in the mural that is so appalling.” The removal, Shetterly says, was “mind-boggling.”

So, too, was the political calculation, as LePage quickly found himself mired in a swamp of controversy and ridicule. The removal spawned a series of roiling demonstrations; earned LePage weeks of mockery on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and The Rachel Maddow Show; and triggered a lawsuit and recall campaign. Instead of backing down, he dug in: a letter from the office of the attorney general denied Taylor’s request to inspect the work to make sure it hadn’t been damaged. In fact, Taylor was never even told where the mural was being housed.

* * *

As the mural controversy mushroomed, LePage’s political capital began to crumble. LD 1, the first major bill of the legislative session, was drastically scaled back. And his full-court press to open up wilderness areas by dismantling Maine’s four-decades-old Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) faced stiff resistance even within his own party. But none of this stopped him from pursuing a wholesale attack on Maine’s pristine natural environment.

Increasingly, LePage abandoned the “probusiness” framing of his anti-environmental posture. Even when there was no plausible business rationale or job-creation argument for opposing an environmental regulation, he still opposed it. Pushing his stance to its reductio ad absurdum, he came across as a man at war with nature, someone who believes the environment itself, not to mention its defense, is somehow un-American. He attempted to repeal Maine’s bottle redemption program and pushed to dismantle the state’s “e-waste law,” which holds electronics manufacturers financially responsible for recycling their products. When Democratic legislator Melissa Walsh Innes informed LePage that a similar e-waste program was being enacted successfully and at minimal cost in Canada, he slammed his fist on the table, she recalled, and shouted that Canada was a socialist nation—which must have been news to newly re-elected Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

For many Mainers, LePage’s anti-environmentalism came to signify his entire slash-and-burn approach to governing. “We’re in a downturn. Deregulating things to get us out of that is the wrong answer,” avers 53-year-old Harry Dwyer, who makes a living as a sustainable logger in the state’s copious forests, and who understands the need to replenish the forest rather than simply cutting it down at full speed. “Environmental regulations didn’t get us into this. It was the lack of regulations that did.”

“We couldn’t really see the regulatory advantage for Maine to get rid of environmental protections,” says conservative GOP legislator Jonathan McKane, co-chair of the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform, who describes LePage’s recommendations as “fairly extreme.”

Maine’s Republican old guard, still reeling from the mural controversy, began to conclude that the governor’s anti-environmental “fuck you” was a bridge too far. When LePage complained in mid-April that state lawmakers were moving too slowly on his agenda, Robert Nutting, the GOP speaker of the House, announced that the governor “still doesn’t understand the legislative process.” Eight Republican state senators wrote him an open letter condemning the “tone and spirit” of his rhetoric. Even traditionally conservative figures like McKane, who have long argued that Maine needs to streamline its regulatory processes in order to woo businesses, could barely conceal their distaste for the man.

“The governor himself is not a polished politician,” McKane asserts, somewhat ruefully. “He says it like it is, no matter what kind of collateral damage it causes. Most people are getting somewhat fed up with this.”

* * *

Despite his best efforts to govern from the right-wing fringe, LePage has ended up presiding over six months of legislative moderation. For the most part, state lawmakers have responded to all the governor’s crazy talk about dismantling more than a century of social legislation with temperate, well-considered measures.

LePage was able to eradicate the election-day voter registration law and slightly decrease the long-term value of public sector pensions, and it looks like LURC’s mandate will be weakened. He was also able to raise the estate tax exemption, but even on this issue GOP lawmakers demurred. Faced with polls showing that most voters opposed the plan, they scaled back the exemption threshold from LePage’s proposed $5 million to $2 million.

In recent months Republican legislators have veered toward the center to allow Democrats to join them in producing the two-thirds majority necessary to pass a budget. Public broadcasting and education took a hit during the budget negotiations, but to nowhere near the extent progressives feared would be the case earlier in the year, given that Republicans control both houses and the governor’s office. In fact, as the budget negotiations and other legislative votes wrapped up in mid-June, it became clear that Maine will continue to have a functioning Medicaid system; that the bulk of its environmental regulations will remain intact; that most of those on TANF will be able to receive funds for up to five years; that workers will preserve the right to organize into unions; and that women will still have access to abortion services in Maine.

For Les Fossel, a home restorer and GOP chair of the Moderate Caucus, it has all turned out surprisingly well. Sitting in the attic office of his 200-year-old farmhouse in the hamlet of Alna, surrounded by wood plank walls, encyclopedias and other reference books on New England, Fossel smiles. “There is a big difference with LePage between what he says and the actual policies he’s passed,” says the legislator. “He’s not someone addicted to middle-class etiquette. People say, ‘How can you support someone who says, “Kiss my butt”?’ Well, that’s so much better than when he used to say, ‘Kiss my ass’ or ‘Fuck you.’ If you look at political figures, they come in with one agenda and almost immediately, through force of circumstances, they have to adopt another.”

To the embarrassment of the conservative old guard, the labor mural controversy is still festering. And LePage’s push for a slew of gun-friendly legislation may not be helping to restore the party’s image, either. The effort was temporarily derailed in late May after a GOP legislator, Fred Wintle, pulled a gun on a stranger in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot and was taken to a state psychiatric hospital for observation. Wintle’s colleagues apparently thought it would be in bad taste to make it easier to carry concealed weapons in the event’s immediate aftermath. But weeks later LePage signed into law three bills expanding Mainers’ rights to do just that.

As Republicans struggle to distance themselves from the LePage agenda, Democrats, trade unions, environmental advocates, antipoverty campaigners and women’s rights groups are getting fired up. “He really woke up a lot of people,” says Jesse Graham, executive director of Maine People’s Alliance. When the governor floated LD 309, a right-to-work law, thousands of people protested at the Capitol and wrote letters to their representatives. When he pushed to limit public sector pensions, private sector union members and Democratic leaders joined the demonstrations and rallies. “It’s unconscionable,” argues Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, a local chapter of the SEIU. “These state workers were made a promise. This governor has said we’re going to break that promise.”

In recent months large unions in Maine have seen an increase both in the number of people seeking to join their ranks and in the number of members willing to get involved in political campaigns. “LePage has pretty ideal circumstances to make profound changes,” explains Hannah Pingree, the Democratic ex–speaker of the House. But despite this, she believes, “his major initiatives have been failures, and public relations–wise he’s a disaster.”

Cautiously, progressives in Maine are starting to say aloud that they think they can weather the LePage storm, that he has the makings of a one-term governor. LePage’s tenure, many argue, has demonstrated the limits of Tea Party governance, even in a state where governors are frequently elected with less than half of the vote. His rhetoric gets the adrenaline levels rising for his base but ends up alienating legislators he needs on board to further his agenda.

As a result, some liberals are hopeful that LePage will prove to be the sort of recruitment tool for local progressives that George W. Bush was for progressives at the national level during the 2008 presidential campaign (or that President Obama has become for conservatives). “Our membership is engaged,” says Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, sitting in her office just down the street from the Capitol. “We’re going to find ways to not only beat back a rollback of protections people rely on but to really frame an agenda.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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