If there is a moment from Maine’s gubernatorial campaign that best encapsulates its mood and eventual result, it came in Channel 13’s Oct. 24 televised debate between sitting Governor Janet Mills and her “predecessor” — as she liked to call him — former Governor Paul LePage.
The conversation had moved to the Shawmut Dam relicensing and its effect on the Sappi Paper Mill. “We’re talking about five fish a year vs. 750 direct jobs,” LePage claimed, “just sign the permit and then make them do what you want to make them do.”
Mills, clearly perplexed as to how she would get the 19 billion-dollar company Brookfield Renewables to make environmental accommodations if they already had a permit in hand, tried to move the conversation into energy policy, but LePage wouldn’t have it:
“If you sign the permit tonight,” he goaded, turning to face her directly, pleased with himself. “I will guarantee you I will volunteer to bring the five fish up over the dam for the rest of my life.”
“That’s just childish,” Mills rejoined, refusing to look at him or take the bait. “Childish talk. … That humongous company knows how to solve the problem.”
Ultimately, that childish talk left LePage on election night saying, “right now, the election doesn’t look very well,” to a crowd of maybe 25 boozy supporters in a fluorescent-lit, drop-ceilinged abandoned retail store in Lewiston, while Mills danced joyously with a crowd at the purple-lit Portland nightclub Aura, an R&B band playing Whitney Houston and Bruno Mars covers.
But there was more childish talk to come. Still foolishly wearing that lucky red vest Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin had given him a few months prior, wife Ann standing by his side, LePage could not find it within himself to be gracious: “Janet Mills, I just hope your second term, if I lose, is better than your first term because you are not an honest, sincere person. You are an elitist, and I think that America needs better than people who are not caring for the people they govern.”
As he walked off, having muttered “thank you very much,” you could hear a supporter declare, quite clearly: “Fuck Janet Mills!” And in case you were wondering how to parse that, the gentleman was also actually wearing a sweatshirt that read, “#FuckMills.”
With Mills collecting a whopping 55 percent of the vote — about 80,000 more votes than LePage ever did in winning his elections — it’s hard not to conclude that Mainers are tired of this childishness, this nastiness, this casual regard for the truth, this brand of politics that seems more interested in scoring sick burns and whipping up anger than actually solving the real and dire needs that many Mainers experience.
I have observed that Mills supporters represent a sort of cult of competence, admiring her ability to operate the executive branch, but they are also, I think, desperate for her soft-spoken kindness.
While the Maine Democrats certainly spent time calling LePage a “bully” and a “liar,” it was notable how positive Mills’ official campaign communications stayed. In her final message before election day, “I promise,” she said, “you will find a governor who listens, who tells you the truth, who works to fight problems — not people — and who will deliver solutions – not vitriol.”
Just as people gravitated to the mild-mannered Dr. Nirav Shah at the height of the pandemic, this time of endless-pandemic inflation, where a gallon of heating oil and a dozen eggs will both cost you around $5, has taken the fight out of a lot of folks. Vitriol’s a luxury. And did LePage really think people would agree with him when he argued those $850 checks should have gone to heating oil companies instead?
It’s a wonder, really, that anyone watched his campaign and thought he had a chance. Surely we have had our fill of nastiness over the past few years, haven’t we?
As national pundits wonder if Election Day represents a repudiation of Trumpism, there can be little doubt that Mainers have repudiated LePageism. Will this Mills victory usher in a new era of more thoughtful, less poisonous, less breathless, more substantive political discourse in Maine, as newly seated representatives and future candidates look to mimic her success?
That may well depend on what she does with her mandate.