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For Maine’s governor, a harsh past forges steely presence

LePage begins 2d term as governor today

“I know what works and doesn’t work,” said Paul LePage, who emphasizes self-reliance.
“I know what works and doesn’t work,” said Paul LePage, who emphasizes self-reliance.Fred Field For the Boston Globe

AUGUSTA, Maine — He's been called the craziest and worst governor in America, and if that doesn't make the point, others have called him a national embarrassment.

But Paul LePage, who will be sworn into his second term Wednesday as Maine's chief executive, calls it nothing but noise.

"We're all crazy in some respect," the 66-year-old Republican said with a smile in his spacious Capitol office. "Until you walk in my shoes," he added later, "you have no standing."

It's a walk that few people have made, let alone a US governor: reared in extreme poverty, abused by his father, a homeless runaway on the streets, and, finally, a business and political success.

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The journey has molded a conservative world-view that holds self-reliance as a sacred virtue and likens welfare to drug addiction and slavery, a view he trumpets with no-holds-barred combativeness.

He is a physically imposing, politically incorrect, far-right Republican in a state whose leaders have generally been mild-mannered and middle-of-the-road. But LePage, who won a three-way race in November with 48 percent of the vote, cares little for traditional niceties.

"It's all about hard work and honesty," LePage said. "I've worked my tail off my whole career."

That career was born of necessity after LePage fled a shabby Lewiston tenement at age 11 following a vicious beating from his alcoholic father. In an expansive, 90-minute interview about his upbringing and beliefs, LePage described a childhood of struggle and chronic abuse as one of 18 siblings.

Six children slept to a bed. The tenement had no shower — only a sink for washing and a single toilet. One night, he tripped over the body of his 4-year-old brother, who had collapsed and died in the dark, LePage recalled.

Paul LePage, shown in his State House office, was reelected with 48 percent of the vote.
Paul LePage, shown in his State House office, was reelected with 48 percent of the vote.Fred Field/Boston Globe

"The nightmares never go away," LePage said, his voice softening. "The beatings from my dad are the worst ones. Those are always the ones I fear the most."

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His father, a wiry painter who spoke only French, generally was well behaved from Monday through Friday. But as the weekend began, when he arrived home with a 12-pack of Rheingold beer in a plastic bag, a shroud of dread and violence cloaked the crowded apartment until work summoned him again on Monday morning.

"When you saw the beer, you knew it would be a tough weekend, and the problem was it was consistent," LePage said. "He was like a monster who would beat the daylights out of us."

His mother would try, often futilely, to defend her children during the assaults. But they were relentless, merciless, and routine.

After one horrific beating, LePage said, his father gave him 50 cents and instructed him to tell the doctors he had fallen down the stairs. Instead, the 11-year-old pocketed the 50 cents and ran away.

LePage said he slept in cars and cellars, sought refuge at the homes of friends, and earned money at a local house of prostitution frequented by sailors from the naval air station in Brunswick.

"My job was to shine the sailors' shoes," LePage said.

Eventually, he divided his time between two households where he found caring surrogate parents. He later talked his way into Husson College in Bangor, where its founder agreed to let him take an SAT test in French instead of in English, which had proved too difficult for LePage's limited language skills.

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The French score was exceptional, LePage recalled, and he gained admission.

"That's the day I started to live," the governor said. "Before that, I was a scared, little rabbit."

Businessman Peter Snowe, the first husband of former US Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, got to know LePage and ended up paying for his first year at Husson.

LePage earned a bachelor's degree there, a master's in business from the University of Maine, and later a job as general manager at Marden's, a chain of discount stores. He served as mayor of Waterville for eight years before winning a five-way race for governor in 2010 with 38 percent of the vote.

In his first term, LePage quickly laid down the gauntlet. He pushed through the largest tax cut in state history and limited welfare benefits to five years. He was alone among New England's governors in refusing federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

He also joined a lawsuit over President Obama's executive order in November that granted temporary protection from deportation to millions of illegal immigrants. Of citizenship, he said: "You've got to earn it." LePage said he himself spent 11 years to gain legal status for a Jamaican he considers one of his five children.

LePage also has vetoed more than 180 bills — more than any other governor in Maine history. He sprang from a chair during the interview to show off a set of three sterling silver "veto pens," as he called them.

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"This is what I tell the legislators, and this is why they despise me so much: If it doesn't help the people of Maine, I'll veto it," LePage said. "If you want to negotiate with me, you better be a good negotiator because I'm tough. I want a whole lot for nothing."

Despite his tough-love approach, LePage acknowledged that he has benefited from the help of others since adolescence. Without that assistance, he said, "I probably would have been a guest of the state" — meaning prison — "for many years."

Five of his siblings have served time behind bars, said LePage, who added with a grimace that he became "the Bank of America" for some of his brothers and sisters, including one sibling who pleaded for help to pay a utility bill, only to buy a stereo with the money.

Still, LePage insists that success is possible through willpower and follow-through.

"I know what works and doesn't work," LePage said.

Part of that prescription could be allowing children younger than 16 to join the labor force, the governor said.

"At 14 years old, putting canned goods on a shelf in a grocery store is not a real tough job," LePage said. Why can't younger teenagers, he asked, work as busboys, dishwashers, or snow shovelers.

"Sixteen years old is a little bit late in my world," LePage said. "If I waited till 16, I would have been six feet under."

If such thinking isn't politically correct, the governor said, so be it.

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Even so, LePage said he probably will not be as confrontational this term and will try to curb his inflammatory rhetoric.

Besides, other prizes are on the horizon. Maine law bars him from seeking a third term, so LePage said he might bide his time and wait for an opening for the US Senate.

"I think I'd win," he said with an impish grin.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.