Any review of Governor Paul LePage is destined to be crowded with conflicting adjectives. He has been confrontational and combative. He’s also been strategic and, in terms of his agenda, effective.
Even his supporters regret missed opportunities for achievement due to LePage’s disinclination to compromise with legislators — even those of his own party. But even his critics concede that Maine’s fiscal house is in better shape now than it was when LePage took office. Fans and detractors can agree on one point: He is a fighter.
He had to be. Born in Lewiston, LePage was one of 18 children. His father was an abuser. Of his parents and siblings, LePage was the only one to finish eighth grade. When he was 11, after a particularly brutal beating by his father, he left home and made his own way on, finding odd jobs and supportive adults. Is it any wonder he was a passionate supporter of programs and efforts to combat domestic abuse?
He worked his way up and eventually became a business leader. But the difference between being a boss giving orders and being a governor compromising with a legislature never worked for him.
In LePage’s own words, the last eight years have been an “interesting ride.”
LePage inherited a limping fiscal situation. The state wasn’t paying towns mandated levels of education support. It wasn’t paying its share of Medicaid claims to the hospitals. The state employee retirement fund was a shambles, the rainy day fund was virtually empty and Maine’s bond ratings were going backward. To many voters, a candidate with a solid business background — though he be blunt — sounded like a good idea.
The problem — often of his own making — is that a governor has to work with an elected legislature. This requires listening, respecting and, in the end, making small concessions to achieve the larger goal.
Though determined to tackle the state’s numerous issues head-on, LePage was equally determined to do it his way, dismissing legislators and dispensing gratuitous, occasionally revolting insults. His demeanor hurt long-term goals and relationships that would have assisted his efforts throughout his two terms.
And he took positions that were out-and-out regressive: signing legal briefs permitting discrimination against transgender people, seeking to deny rent and food assistance to immigrant families fleeing violence and, on the drug front, pushing for more enforcement at the expense of treatment. Nor has the hulking Department of Health and Human Services distinguished itself over the past eight years. Child protective services have been a failure. The bureaucracy has been particularly hurtful — or deaf — to the poor and vulnerable. Yes, you should pull yourself up by the bootstraps. But, as Al Franken once quipped, first you need to have boots.
The LePage legacy will be described in a number of ways, depending on who’s doing the describing. Being bull-headed is occasionally necessary to get a tough job done. Being a bull in a china shop just because one enjoys breaking things — such as traditions of respect and cooperation — is another. The assessments of the outgoing governor will range widely, but perhaps those appraisals will agree on one thing:
He was a fighter.