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Has Maine moved on from Paul LePage?

In comeback bid, former governor pitches a gentler, more introspective approach

Maine Republican Gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage made a campaign stop a Dysart's Restaurant in Bangor.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

BANGOR — Paul LePage, the former Republican governor and political provocateur who once cast himself as “Trump before Trump,” told a room of supporters recently why he deserves to return to office after a four-year hiatus.

In calm and measured tones, LePage said at the campaign gathering that Maine needs an economic kick-start, that Democratic Governor Janet Mills is betraying the lobster and lumber industries, and that socialism is on the march in the state and across the nation.

LePage, 74, smiled at the polite applause. He posed for as many selfies as were asked of him. And he didn’t threaten to “deck” anybody, as he did in August in a confrontation with a Democratic staffer tracking one of his campaign events.


Welcome to Paul LePage 2.0.

“I think I’m a different person now. I listen a lot, and I know a lot more,” LePage said in an interview. “When I came into politics in 2010, I was naive.”

Over two terms that ended in 2019, LePage was a brash, take-no-prisoners governor who quickly gained national notoriety by telling the Maine branch of the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” said President Barack Obama “hates white people,“ and used racially inflammatory language to describe out-of-staters who sell illegal drugs in Maine.

Now, LePage said, he wants people to know that he is a gentler, more introspective candidate. “Life is a journey,” he said after the campaign event.

Marguerite Wellington (right) waited to order lunch with her son Jerry Wellington while Paul LePage made a campaign stop at Dysart's Restaurant in Bangor.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

But it’s not clear Mainers are buying it. Polls consistently show him trailing Mills, some by double digits.

“I’m not a fan of LePage,” said Matthew Turner, 36, who paused while playing his trumpet for tips in downtown Portland. “He says a lot of rude stuff, and it’s not acceptable. We need a human being in there with humanity and empathy and caring.”


Kathleen Cousins echoed Turner’s assessment as she finished lunch near the room where LePage greeted voters.

“It’s too bad the Republican Party has not put forward a better candidate. Someone who is a little kinder and gentler,” said Cousins, 67, a Democrat from Bangor.

Although her pastor preaches not to hate, Cousins said with an impish smile, “I guess it’s OK not to like Paul LePage.”

But to many of his supporters, it’s the results that count, not the incendiary rhetoric. LePage’s pugnacious appeal on cultural and fiscal issues still resonates with many voters, particularly in large swaths of small-town Maine, north and west of Bangor, where immigration, crime, and economic issues can turn out the vote.

“Maine was doing a lot better when Paul LePage was governor,” said Kerry McKim, 44, a school board member from Surry, a coastal town not far from Acadia National Park. “I’d rather somebody cut to the chase rather than sugarcoat it.”

Sheldon Hanington talked to a reporter at Dysart's Restaurant in Bangor.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

For Sheldon Hanington, 60, a former Republican state representative from Lincoln, LePage’s pitch for tight-fisted economics is a good fit in times of high inflation and expensive fuel oil. Besides that, LePage pays more than lip service to traditional American values, said Hanington, an Army veteran who served in Iraq.

To Hanington and many other rural Republicans, progressives in the State House might as well be socialists.

“With the socialists coming into the Legislature and across the country, it’s devastating. They want this one world order,” Hanington said. “I think [LePage] is a great patriot. He loves the state. I think he’s going to pick up where he left off.”


LePage’s message at the Bangor event resurrected many of the themes he had trumpeted as governor. He called for more police, railed against business regulations, and demanded work requirements for state unemployment assistance.

“You have to have a very strong safety net, and I’m all in,” LePage said. “My compassion goes away for someone who’s able to work but refuses.”

Drew Gattine, chairman of the state Democratic Party, rebutted LePage’s assertion that the Maine economy has been hurt under Mills. The state’s rainy-day fund has tripled in size since LePage left office, Maine is finally funding education at the level required by law, and environmental protections have been strengthened, Gattine said.

Paul LePage spoke at Dysart's Restaurant in Bangor during a campaign stop.Fred J. Field for the Boston Globe

“I don’t think there are people up here who sit around and miss Paul LePage much,” said Gattine, who as a Westbrook state representative in 2016 was subjected to a widely publicized, profanity-laced phone call from LePage, who called him “a little son-of-a-bitch socialist [expletive].”

Even during this campaign, in a reversion to past practice, LePage has accused Mills, a former attorney general, of handing out “crack pipes.” Although the federal government has provided “harm reduction” grants for local programs that work with drug users — to reduce the danger of injections, for example — Gattine said he is unware of any state program to provide pipes for smoking crack cocaine.

“That’s not the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to have a serious political conversation” about opioid addiction, Gattine said. “That’s the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to score cheap points.”


LePage and his wife, Ann, also have come under fire for receiving a property-tax exemption reserved for permanent Florida residents between 2009 and 2015, which overlapped LePage’s time as governor, and also from 2018 through the end of this year, The New York Times reported.

A campaign spokesman for LePage, who sought in 2017 to eliminate a similar exemption in Maine for residents under 65, has responded that two properties in Ormond Beach, Fla., that received the exemption were owned by Ann LePage.

Ann LePage, who previously had spent much of her time in Florida, became a permanent resident of Maine once again this year, adviser Brent Littlefield told the Portland Press Herald. The former governor reestablished his residency last year, Littlefield added.

LePage is not the only Maine Republican seeking a comeback.

In Bangor, he was joined by former congressman Bruce Poliquin, who was defeated in 2018 by Jared Golden, a Democrat, in ranked-choice voting for the Second District seat, which includes Bangor and most of the area north of Portland and Augusta.

Poliquin, who sidestepped a reporter’s question on the legitimacy of President Biden’s election, blasted the president on immigration.

Biden “invited everybody to come to America. Come here legally if you want, but if you come here illegally, we’re going to take care of you” with public subsidies and services, Poliquin told the gathering. “I make absolutely no apologies for standing up for Maine first and America first.”


Poliquin also said that he and LePage “are completely in sync” on the issues, although the former governor appears to have broken ranks on the integrity of the 2020 election. While LePage said in 2020 that the presidential election was “clearly” stolen, he declared this month at a debate that Biden had won legitimately.

Notably absent from the Bangor event was any mention of former president Donald Trump, the man who made “America First” a foundational piece of his political persona. Even LePage, who once claimed to be the Trump prototype, never invoked his name.

Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political science professor, does not think LePage benefits in 2022 from connecting himself with Trump, who has been besieged by lawsuits and damaging findings from the Jan. 6 investigative committee.

“I don’t think those comparisons hurt him, but I don’t think they have helped him, either,” Brewer said of LePage. “There are very few people out there voting who don’t have an opinion of him already. You’re either for Paul LePage or you’re not.”

Juliette Wilbur of Ellsworth, the Republican register of probate for Hancock County, is for him.

“He brings checks and balances and common sense. He loves Maine and the people behind it,” said Wilbur, a 41-year-old graduate of Wellesley College who returned to live Down East.

“Get up, go to work, earn a living, and have a purpose,” said Wilbur, who cautioned against stereotyping Republicans such as herself.

“I don’t think being a Republican necessarily means I believe in conspiracy theories or being racist or bigoted or homophobic,” she said.

Although Wilbur said LePage is “outspoken,” she added that he seems more accessible than the Mills administration.

So, has Paul LePage changed? Has he permanently transformed into the amiable everyman who tended bar in Boothbay Harbor after he left office? Someone willing to reach across the aisle and put away his veto pen, which he used more than all of his predecessors combined?

“I don’t know,” said Brewer, the UMaine professor. “The proof is in the pudding, and you can’t see the pudding until he’s in office.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at