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LePage upends Maine, known for bipartisanship

Maine Governor Paul LePage speaks to reporters last week at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Robert F. Bukaty/ AP

Maine Governor Paul LePage speaks to reporters last week at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Maine has a long tradition of respected, responsible leaders who view themselves as Mainers and public servants first — and partisans only as a distant second. That has been true whether those leaders are Democrats, Republicans, or independents. Yet the productive atmosphere in Augusta has given way lately to discontent, because of Governor Paul LePage’s alienating approach.

LePage, a conservative, Tea Party-backed Republican who won election with less than 40 percent of the vote in a five-candidate field in 2010, has proved a lamentable exception to Maine’s usual pattern of political restraint. Mainers have cut LePage some slack because of his hardscrabble upbringing as the eldest of 18 children in a family headed by an alcoholic father. Rather than growing in office, however, LePage has shrunk.

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On some matters, LePage has taken an inflexible ideological line. For example, he recently vetoed a bill giving prosecutors the discretion not to file drug-possession charges against people who call 911 after witnessing drug overdoses.

The more serious criticisms can’t be dismissed as mere philosophical differences. LePage has bristled, for instance, at normal outside scrutiny of his actions; he now refuses to speak with three of Maine’s prominent newspapers — the Portland Press Herald, Augusta’s Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, the city where he started his career as a city councilor and then mayor. Indeed, he has eschewed the basic niceties that make it possible to discuss disagreements in a professional manner. In mid-June, the temperamental governor offered another headline-grabbing outburst, making a vulgar sexual remark about a Democratic state senator and calling that lawmaker “a bad man” with “no brains” and “a black heart.” He added that the legislator, a logger from northern Maine, “ought to go back in the woods and cut trees and let somebody with a brain come down here and do some work.”

Even members of LePage’s own party are fed up. The assistant Republican leader in the Maine Senate just penned a column for the Press Herald decrying “the unfortunate tone” LePage had set by using “vulgarity and schoolyard taunts.” Such comments are all the more disappointing in Maine, which until recently has been a model of practical governance.

If LePage hopes to finish his first term on a higher note, he needs to embrace the legacy of earlier Maine leaders: Politics is most productive when issues aren’t personalized.

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