Governor Paul LePage is a man of contrasts. He overcame a disastrous childhood to reach the highest office in our state. He has a heart for those afflicted by domestic violence or personal limitations, but not an ounce of patience for those he suspects of working the system. He has initiated policy changes that were long overdue, but has sometimes sought to implement them in ways that seem counter-productive.
He will rip a strip off his opponents without regard to the consequences. At his press conference on May 29, he was in full take-no-prisoners mode, yet even for him, it was a stunner. The confrontational and demeaning tone he took with members of legislative leadership leaves the state without a way forward unless it is to simply go on without him.
His occasional rants are met with glee by his most devoted supporters, and with at least some degree of appreciation from those of us who are sick of politics as usual. Plain-spoken and unyielding, he is a relief from the canned, tired and duplicitous rhetoric of many elected officials.
Yet there are limits to what can be accomplished by carpet bombing, and our governor has now crossed a line. Democratic leadership took particularly heavy fire from him. The invective he leveled took a personal turn as he referred to his political opposition as “children” who, in the case of House Speaker Mark Eves, should “go back home to where he was born,” or in the case of Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, be “put in a playpen.”
Politicians, even at the less rancorous state level, are philosophical about a certain amount of this. There is a point, however, when words are spoken that preclude the ability to get face-to-face and do some serious problem-solving.
The more extreme the governor becomes, the more members of his own party begin to wince and step away. In the House, the Democrats still rule the roost, but in the Senate, there is a lot riding on some degree of success with Republicans at the helm.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette has for the most part stuck like glue to the governor. It has been a disappointment from someone who once appeared capable of more independent thinking. But maybe that is the lot of the minority leader. He has now parted ways with even his Republican colleagues in the Senate. In a dramatic break from long-standing protocol, harsh words are being exchanged publicly between the House and Senate Republican caucuses.
On the other hand, Senate President Mike Thibodeau has done pretty well at keeping his caucus in a defensible posture, accommodating both his conservatives and those Republican senators, whose ranks are beginning to increase, who are not willing to die on the governor’s sword.
Is the governor willing to push the legislative session into extra innings? The shutdown of the ‘70s is beyond almost anyone’s living memory (not yours, Representative Martin). As a simple act of self-preservation, it would be hard to find a legislator willing to stay in Augusta beyond the end of June.
As the governor takes more and more positions that are outside the bounds of what the average Mainer, without regard to party, can accept, legislative Republicans must get serious about where they are willing to compromise to bring this rodeo to a conclusion. Senate Republicans have worked responsibly with Democrats to negotiate a budget agreement; House Republicans refuse to go along.
LePage is the polar opposite of Governor Angus King. An amiable creature by nature and a superb communicator, King is a person with whom one might disagree, but he is not easy to dislike. LePage has supporters who believe in much of his policies, but who have a hard time swallowing his personal style. And in politics, style matters.
The inherent civility of most Mainers leaves them unable to rally around a leader who is incapable of civil disagreement. Where the governor could have created a movement, he has developed a following of fringe conservatives and closet supporters who do not wish to be publicly identified with a man who can be so harsh and demeaning.
The governor has tried to make his pugnacious style a point of pride, but that is shortsighted. The world may love a rebel, but love is too hot an emotion for politics. “Like” is better. And this man, who is genuinely likable on a personal level, is distasteful in public.
His latest ploy, to refuse to sign any bills sponsored by Democrats, is a case in point. If that is meant to put sufficient pressure on Democrats to cause them to cave on his income tax proposal, he has underestimated them. Likewise; his refusal to issue voter-approved bonds. Too many people have too much at stake to accept that this is a worthwhile trade-off.
The only certainty with our governor is that he is one for the ages. This is not a governor who will be forgotten. His spectacular personality assures him a place in the history books, and his term of office will be the subject of analysis and debate for decades.