Say you were a Mainer looking to hear from Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage this summer about his policy positions as you consider casting your vote this fall: How might you go about doing that?
Well, maybe you guessed right and assumed he’d be at the Moxie Festival or the Blueberry Festival in Wilton, but that’s just a handshake or a quick word. No, you want to hear a speech! Like politicians do. For that, you’ve got to get lucky.
While there’s no events listing on his campaign website or anything listed on his Facebook page, no listings in local newspapers thanks to campaign press releases, sometimes you might be driving along Route 27 or 17 or a handful of other local routes and see a lawn sign: Meet & Greet with Paul LePage. August 8, at 6 p.m. Mt. Vernon Community Center.
Filing in with lots of other folks — old and young (a number of children, even), pink-haired and bald, ironic mustache (probably) and serious — it is a scene as classically rural Maine as you could dream up: an old converted church, next to a pretty pocket lake, that is full of historic knick-knacks and wood paneling and a small stage, lined with folding metal chairs and chock-a-block with homemade goodies for the potluck at the back.
There is a persistent narrative that former Maine governor Paul LePage was “Trump before Trump,” emboldened by LePage’s own declaration to that effect and a 2016 New York Times piece that made the claim. Watching him speak to a room full of ardent supporters in Mt. Vernon a couple Mondays back, though, the comparison seems less than apt, like he has remained the 2014 version of himself while the world got more Trumpy.
Where Trump is always in a blue suit and a red tie, campaign gear, or maybe golfing togs, LePage looked comfortable and unremarkable amongst the crowd in a polo shirt with the 2014 Acadian World Congress logo on it and some dress slacks. Where Trump’s stump speeches are now largely bombastic nonsense and name-calling, LePage referred often to notes in front of him to quote statistics and make policy arguments.
Even if LePage played fast and loose with some facts and is prone to hyperbole, it seemed almost quaint after the four years of politics we have experienced without him.
Where Trump likes nothing more than a good “lock her up” chant, his trademark smirk on his face, LePage seemed genuinely uncomfortable with some of the crowd’s baser opinions about immigrants, stolen elections, abortion, and those suffering from substance use disorder. While there were plenty of applause lines during a 45-minute address and another 45 minutes of genuine, unfiltered Q&A, there was also plenty of grumbling, mumbling, and general unease as LePage tried to carve out his positions.
As we approach the post-Labor Day rush to the November 8 election, where LePage will face off against arch-rival and incumbent Democrat Janet Mills and relative unknown independent Sam Hunkler, his address to what amounted to a home crowd — a kid named Bill was tossed from the event by LePage campaign lead Joe Turcotte when he refused a LePage sticker and was outed — offers a glimpse into the tightrope walk he’ll traverse in appealing to the Maine public.
His proposals and ideas hinted at some of the feverish claims being made by the farthest right politicians and their supporters, but generally stopped short of their wildest fancies and put on display his talents as a politician and his enduring appeal amongst, especially, rural Maine voters.
In fact, the body of his speech largely focused on kitchen-table issues. He lambasted the state income tax, repeating his decade-old claim that “many” Mainers spend six months and a day outside the state in order to avoid paying it, and no one appeared to wonder just what income it is these folks generate with their itinerant lifestyle. How is one to argue with the idea that we want more of these rich folks to stay in Maine full-time and buy our stuff?
He accused Governor Mills of trying to “buy the election” with the $850 refund checks issued this summer, eliding the fact the supplemental budget that included the checks passed 119-16 in the House and 32-2 in the Senate (and the two “no” votes included a Democrat). How do you argue with the idea that those checks should have been put into a fund to reduce heating oil costs when you’re looking at an empty tank that needs to be filled in a couple of months?
LePage said he would have told oil companies to charge “last year’s prices” and the state would reimburse them for the gap to this year’s price when they filled up customer tanks. People liked that idea. “There’s plenty of Uncle Joe’s money,” LePage intoned to general chuckles.
Covid, too, was framed as an economic issue: LePage declared that he would reinstate every fired worker — or encourage them to be rehired, anyway — who lost their job because of the vaccination mandate. We know now, he reasoned, that vaccinated people can still pass the virus on, so what’s the point of the mandate? More important to him, though, was that these workers were not allowed to access unemployment — “These people have to be able to eat!” If they can’t get their jobs back, he’d ensure they got reimbursed for their unemployment dollars missed.
He also recalled the issue of the so-called “Ebola nurse” of 2015, when he was told by a judge he could not force Kaci Hickox to quarantine upon her return to Maine. How does one argue with the idea that if LePage couldn’t institute public health mandates, Governor Mills shouldn’t be able to either? The crowd found this a very good point, indeed.
But not everything hit. He also said a lot of stuff about wind and solar being expensive, needing to “take the emotion” out of the discussion around energy use (this seemed to be a way to deny climate change without mentioning climate change), and something about dam removal that made the crowd lose focus and start talking among themselves. His long explanation of how he would have built on the Obamacare marketplace instead of expanding Medicaid, which wouldn’t have de-incentivized work, also was falling flat until he mentioned that most of the new people on Medicaid were young men with no kids.
“Put them to work!,” someone yelled out.
He quickly switched tacks to education, where he claimed “teachers don’t want to teach anymore,” because they’re told what they have to teach, but not by school boards, rather by superintendents, who are the real bad guys and just have so much power and have you seen some of these books — they’re downright pornographic! And if you question any of it, “you’re a bad person.”
This last part really resonated. Everyone in the room was confident they were not a bad person and they didn’t like being made to feel like one.
To wrap things up, we got a couple of hits on support for the police (LePage wants to advertise to all the cops in the bad places like Oregon and Minnesota and tell them they’ll get a $10,000 bonus if they move here) and voter IDs, which got a huge cheer.
There were no stolen elections. No caravans of “illegals.” No covid hoax. Until the Q&A period.
In many ways, this was LePage at his best. While he did town halls as governor, those were always structured affairs where you had to submit questions ahead of time. This was true Q&A, with people raising hands and LePage calling on them and not all of them were asked by sycophants.
There was a serious question about PFAS chemicals and LePage responded that the state okayed them in the first place so the state was going to have to pay to clean them up. Another question was about the opioid epidemic, where LePage started with a compassionate answer about needing to keep these kids from dying, then moved into a plan where if you blow your first chance at rehab, you have to go to jail, even for one night, before you get another chance.
But people didn’t really like that. The room buzzed. And so LePage kept talking and found himself claiming Governor Mills had passed a law making possession of “1,000 grams” of fentanyl a misdemeanor — “she did that.”
“Disgusting!,” an audience member yelled out.
This is, of course, nonsense, likely a half-remembered initiative by the legislature to decriminalize possession that never passed that he decided to run with in the moment. Even big fans sitting near me were mumbling that it seemed sort of impossible that a kilo of fentanyl wasn’t a felony anymore.
Similarly, a fervent individual asked him what he was going to do about the Democrats who were “gathering right this minute” to conspire to steal the election.
LePage started by saying, “it’s nearly impossible to cheat the system in Maine,” though he didn’t like mass-mailed forms that allow people to request absentee ballots. He said because of our use of paper ballots, it’s really not a problem.
But that wasn’t good enough for the crowd. Just about everyone was pretty convinced the elections could be rigged. So LePage ad-libbed again, saying he had “great confidence in small towns,” like right here in Mount Vernon!, because the election clerks basically knew everyone by sight, but he had less confidence in “big cities” like Bangor, Rockland, Lewiston, Portland, and South Portland, because it’s impossible to know everyone and how are you supposed to know that person is who they say they are without an ID?
Which, again, how do you argue with that? Of course, even a little examination of the problem leads one to understand that it’s an awful lot of work to try to figure out which voters won’t be voting so you can impersonate them one by one and not get caught and actually affect an election.
He became exasperated again when a young couple in the back expressed concerns about “illegals” coming into our towns and “raping” and “doing drugs” (which, of course, there is very little evidence to support). LePage tried to pivot to Biden, letting them know that asylum seekers are not illegal because Biden says so. “They’re not illegal!,” he had to finally yell. And then he detailed his plan to put them to work.
A repair shop owner involved with the local Republican Party group quickly interjected that he can’t find anyone to work, even just to keep him company, and, “I’d take a Mexican. I’d take a Jamaican.” This mollified the crowd a little bit.
Another woman, a self-identified head of the local Republican Party group, noted that the Dobbs decision nullifying Roe v. Wade had made it difficult to have conversations with some people and wanted to know how to talk about it with voters.
Almost before she could get it out of her mouth, LePage said, “It’s not going anywhere. It’s the law.”
“They’re killing babies!,” a woman yelled out.
“Look,” said LePage, “abortion isn’t going anywhere in Maine because 90 percent of Democrats want it and 50 percent of Republicans want it, so it’s not going anywhere.” It was pretty clear he didn’t want to talk about it.
Even as Turcotte and other handlers hovered, though, LePage just kept taking questions. Something about deed theft took up a lot of time. An older couple bemoaned the fact that DHHS emphasizes reunification of families and so they can’t get custody — LePage said he would dismantle DHHS and create a new Child Protective Services outside of DHHS (it remains unclear why this would change things) and that “reunification is a horrible thing.” He agreed with someone who wants to get rid of ranked-choice voting, but said he’d be fine with run-off elections “if they want to get to 51 percent.”
If you’ve seen all of the things LePage has done and said — from the Shifty and D-Money comments to “vaseline” to recently threatening to deck a Democratic staffer who got too close with a phone in hand to video him — and you wonder why anyone would vote for such a guy, you probably haven’t seen him interact with a crowd like this one. He didn’t just tell them what they wanted to hear. At one point he even reminded everyone that he can’t do anything right how, he’s just a regular guy until they elect him and he’s governor in January.
Rather, he made it clear that he was one of them. He’s just a guy who bartends sometimes — “this last weekend it was rum buckets; everyone wanted a rum bucket!” — and sometimes loses his temper and drops in some colorful language and sometimes finds himself bewildered by the pace of change and how different Maine and the world have become in such a short time.
Who could argue with that?
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
Is Good Press
Did you miss the Mount Vernon event? It’s not surprising. Unless you happened to live locally or be driving through, there was no other way to know it was happening.
While I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in, I ended up experiencing an event that wasn’t about attracting new voters, but was rather a Republican political rally, with local candidates getting a minute or so each prior to LePage’s address and a general feeling that if you were not a Republican, you were unwelcome.
Further, while I introduced myself after the event to campaign staff and asked about appropriate media follow up, my emails, phone messages, and Twitter DMs with follow up questions and a request for a sit down with LePage for clarification have gone completely unanswered.
UMaine media historian Michael Socolow says this lack of interest in a press listing of the event or coverage thereof is pretty typical of contemporary campaigns — “it’s not exactly new.”
“Strategic thinking in American politics today says that an energized base is more valuable than lukewarm undecideds,” he said, on the phone, after I’ve described the Mt. Vernon event to him. “For instance, political ads now are geared much more toward getting out the vote and suppressing the other side’s vote than rational persuasion for independents.”
He points to Maine Senator Susan Collins, who has largely avoided public events for decades. That didn’t seem to hurt her in the 2020 campaign: “I think it’s fair to say,” he says, “that the Democratic base was not as excited by Sara Gideon’s appeal as the Republican base was by Collins’ appeal. It’s just about following the numbers.”
And that gets to why LePage was doing an event like the Mt. Vernon Community Center, with its potluck and folding chairs, in the first place. Because of how truly few voters there are, where winning and losing can be a matter of five or 10 thousand votes, “Maine is one of the last bastions of retail politics, one of the last bastions of shaking hands and talking directly to voters,” said Socolow. “If money truly decided elections, Sara Gideon would be the current senator.”
And Bruce Poliquin would be in Congress and Eliot Cutler would have taken LePage out the first go-round. And Janet Mills, who holds a sizable fundraising lead over LePage, would be a shoo-in for re-election.
While one might think that the ubiquity of audio- and video-capturing phones would make it impossible to say one thing to the base and another to the general public, that’s a tired old idea proven not to have much merit.
Socolow’s specialty is the early radio news of the 1920s and ’30s, which was “thought to be a huge equalizer,” he said. “The theory was that politicians were all two-faced; they’d say one thing to one crowd and another thing to another crowd, but then broadcasting came along and there was a theory that that would no longer occur, which was supposed to be good for democracy. They’d have to become less hypocritical.
“But that didn’t happen,” Socolow said. “We know it’s not happening today. We know that what [LePage] says to farmers and at the multi-cultural center is different from what he says to donors. That’s standard political behavior at this point.”
And maybe it is. And maybe that’s why the LePage campaign has no interest in cultivating stories in the media — the Mills campaign also has no press contact information on their website, by the way — and holds rallies among the faithful in what amounts to a safe space.
But one wonders why no one seems interested in speaking to 350,000 or so voters who are registered to neither party through a free vehicle such as the press.
— Sam Pfeifle