BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Two days a week, 12 hours a shift, the waterfront bar at McSeagull’s is tended by an amiable 71-year-old who pours 200 drinks a day and poses for dozens of pictures with beaming patrons who sometimes drive for hours to chat him up and watch him work.
It’s just a job to keep him busy in retirement, the bartender says. A part-time diversion from caring for the dogs. But slinging drinks in Boothbay Harbor might be something more: an improbable prelude to another stormy chapter in a polarizing and pugnacious political career.
The man holding court behind the horseshoe bar is Paul LePage, the former two-term Republican governor of Maine who once proudly proclaimed he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump." Now, nearly two years out of office, LePage is weighing another run for governor in 2022.
From his no-hiding perch behind the bar, LePage appears to be serving as a one-man exploratory committee.
LePage said he’ll probably decide before the end of the winter — “if my health holds up, and I see no reason why it won’t” — whether to challenge Governor Janet Mills, a Democrat who presumably would run for a second term.
“I’m just talking to people right now. The support base is there, no question,” LePage said one recent morning as he set up the large, outdoor bar. He wore shorts, as well as a T-shirt that urged customers to "Eat, Drink & Flounder . . . Just for the Halibut!”
Kevin Thomas, the McSeagull’s manager, said LePage’s presence turns the place into a “mini-Trump rally" during his shifts on Mondays and Saturdays. The former governor signs Trump paraphernalia for patrons, autographs the bar’s signature “rum bucket” drinks, and talks Maine politics with anyone who bends his ear.
“He’s quite a dude. He tells it like it is. Isn’t that what we want in a person?" said Donna Matthews, a retiree from Bath Iron Works.
What he calls straight talk, however, is also widely assailed as racist. In 2016, LePage ignited a firestorm when he said that a binder he kept of drug arrests in Maine showed the vast preponderance of cases involved out-of-state people of color.
“I don’t ask them to come to Maine and sell their poison, but they come, and I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ringed binder, are Black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Conn., the Bronx, and Brooklyn,” he said at the time.
A public records request filed later by the ACLU and others showed that most of the cases involved white suspects.
Like Trump, LePage embraces political incorrectness and stirs intense loyalty among his supporters, even though he never reached 50 percent of the vote in his statewide races. Each of them featured three or more candidates.
What matters, LePage’s supporters say, is his record as governor: lower taxes, reduced unemployment, and fewer welfare cases.
“This is a big morale booster for me," said Daniel Dam, a retiree and cancer survivor who drove to Boothbay Harbor on the chance he would see LePage. Dam, who was orphaned, said he and LePage share similar stories of childhoods spent on the streets of Lewiston.
One of 18 siblings, LePage at age 11 fled an abusive and alcoholic father who would regularly strike him, his mother, and other children in the family.
“That poor lady, she really took some beatings. She was a saint,” LePage said, shaking his head as he wiped down the bar before a crush of customers arrived. “I just happened to run into the right people at the right time. I didn’t do it on my own. I had a lot of help, and that’s where the difference is."
“People say there is racism in the country," he added. "I think poverty is the problem.”
On this weekend day, LePage was a man in constant motion — pouring drinks, taking orders, cleaning glasses, and punching in purchases at the cash register. Although LePage wore a clear face shield during nearly all of his shift, masks were a rarity among the bar’s customers, many of whom sat much closer than 6 feet apart.
“All set?” he asked a patron, pointing toward an empty glass. After the refill, the patron wished LePage good luck in the governor’s race.
“Thanks, nice to meet you,” LePage said with a wide smile.
LePage, who owns property in Boothbay Harbor and nearby Edgecomb, began working at the bar last summer. His wife, Ann, has worked as a waitress there for several years. Around November, they will decamp for the winter to Ormond Beach, Fla., where they live in a gated community.
LePage has lost 80 pounds over the last few years, the result of a lifestyle change after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He bikes 3,000 miles a year, even though he’s been hit by a car four times. And he enjoys the family’s two dogs, one of which is named Veto — a nod to his record-setting hobby as governor.
Ann LePage told him another run for governor will come with a price: He’ll have to buy her a pickup truck, and he’ll have to learn to like country and western music.
“If it makes him happy, go ahead," she said. "I thought that gig was up for me. But if he can help the state, go for it.”
LePage said that he misses public service, but that he doesn’t miss the media or dealing with legislators, whom he divided into three categories: those intent on doing good, those building their resumes, and those who want the lifetime health insurance that comes with 10 years of service in Maine.
He remains a fan of Trump’s and said he speaks with him occasionally. In his view, Trump did a masterful job with the economy before the pandemic struck and "as good a job as anybody could have done” managing the virus.
“It''s a no-win situation for him,” LePage said.
He made the comment before the release this week of taped interviews, used for Bob Woodward’s new book, in which Trump said as early as February that he knew the virus was much more lethal than the flu but wanted to downplay the threat.
Although praising Trump’s performance in office, LePage said he wishes the president would refrain from personal attacks and stop tweeting as much. No stranger to political acrimony, he also bemoaned the nation’s bitter partisanship.
“I don’t see how you can govern from the extremes and have a good country,” LePage said. “It’s just so heartbreaking. I struggle with that every day.”
LePage acknowledged that returning to Augusta for another term could bring more stress, both personal and professional. But he doesn’t take criticism home, LePage said.
“Give me respect, and I’ll give you all the respect in the world," he said. “But if you attack me, I will not turn the other cheek.
“The only thing I care about is that I’m comfortable in my own shoes,” he added. “I love the state, and I love the state’s people. I think it’s the greatest place on Earth."
Later, LePage posed for pictures with Jim Myrick, the son of a man who had taken LePage off the streets as a teenager.
“One day, Dad ended up bringing him home. All of a sudden, we had another family member. How cool is that?” Myrick said.
With that, he lifted a glass and offered a toast: “Thank you, governor."
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.