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After eight years of LePage, Maine will soon see changes

Maine Governor-elect Janet Mills greeted supporters recently. Mills has vowed to expand Medicaid coverage for poor Mainers. Yoon S. Byun for the Boston Globe

PORTLAND, Maine — Departing governors and presidents often leave gracious notes welcoming their successors and offering words of encouragement.

Not Governor Paul LePage of Maine.

The irascible Republican said he plans to leave a very different message for Democrat Janet Mills when he leaves Blaine House, the governor’s mansion in Augusta, next month.

“I’m going to leave her a note on the pillow that says, ‘If you mess this up, I’m coming back in 2022,’ ” LePage said recently.

The parting shot was vintage LePage.

The blunt, often bombastic governor once called himself “Trump before there was Trump” and frequently landed in national headlines for his inflammatory remarks.


At the same time, he cut welfare, signed the largest tax cut in Maine history, and presided over robust economic growth, endearing him to many Mainers who helped him win two terms in a purple state.

Now, the state is gearing up for a dramatic shift.

Mills, who frequently sparred with LePage as attorney general and will become the state’s first female governor, has promised to usher in a more civil tone in Augusta and to push many of the policies that LePage opposed.

Most prominently, she has vowed to expand Medicaid coverage for thousands of poor Mainers, a policy that LePage refused to execute despite court orders and the passage of a ballot question last year.

He raised fiscal concerns, saying he would go to jail “before I put the state in red ink.”

Maine Governor Paul LePage in February.Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File

Mills said the theme of her inaugural on Jan. 2 will be a “new and better direction,” stressing that Maine is “undivided” and “everybody feels a part of the family.”

“My job going forward is to put a positive face on the state of Maine, to make sure we tell the world what a great place we are,” she said Thursday in Portland, where she was announcing expanded high-speed Internet service.


As for the threat to run against her in 2022 that LePage promised to leave on her pillow, Mills just shrugged. “Who says I’m sleeping in the same bed?” she said.

Mills said the theme of her inaugural will be a “new and better direction.” Yoon S. Byun for the Boston Globe

Even some Republicans, weary of LePage’s defiant rhetoric, if not his fiscal policies, say they hope Mills will revive the state’s tradition of mild-mannered leadership in the mold of Margaret Chase Smith, George Mitchell, and Olympia Snowe.

“She will be a kinder, gentler governor — somebody who shows more respect to individuals,” said Republican state Senator Dana Dow, the newly elected minority leader. “We will be happy to work with her,” he said, adding that Mills is “well respected in Augusta.”

The product of a prominent political family, Mills dropped out of Colby College and moved to San Francisco during the “Summer of Love” before graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1970 when it was a fledgling institution known for its radical faculty.

After graduating from the University of Maine School of Law, she followed her father, a former US attorney for Maine, into the legal profession, prosecuting murders and other major crimes before she was elected as a county district attorney in 1980, the first woman to hold that position in New England.

After a stint in the Maine House representing her hometown of Farmington, she was elected by the Legislature to serve as attorney general in 2008.


In November, she won the governor’s race, replacing the term-limited LePage, in a wave that flipped the Maine Senate to Democratic control and extended the party’s hold on the House.

Mills, 70, captured just over 50 percent of the vote, which will make her the first Maine governor to earn majority support in two decades.

LePage’s incendiary rhetoric helped drive the GOP out of power, said Roger Katz, a former Republican state senator who also was just term-limited out of office.

LePage once told the NAACP to “kiss my butt.”

He said he wanted to tell President Barack Obama to “go to hell.”

And he complained that Maine’s opioid crisis was fueled by out-of-state drug dealers “with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty’’ and said ‘‘half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.’’

The comments were widely condemned as racist.

“To the extent that a voter thinks of a Republican and the first thing that comes to mind is the style we see from President Trump and Governor LePage, that hurt us,” Katz said.

“So I know there’s a lot of soul-searching going on within the Republican Party about how we regain the Republican brand,” Katz said.

James Tierney, a former Democratic attorney general of Maine who has known Mills for 40 years, said her victory marked “a return to sanity.”

“People are tired of the drama,” he said. “They’re tired of having the governor embarrass them. Even if they agree with him, they don’t want to be embarrassed, and yet he’s embarrassing.”


LePage supporters point to his strong economic record. Maine’s unemployment rate fell from 7.7 percent when he took office in 2011 to 3.3 percent last month, and the state ended the recent fiscal year with a $176 million surplus, after years of red ink.

“There’s no question that the economy has dramatically improved under Governor LePage, and having a businessman as governor has allowed the state to post a surplus and promote an economic growth agenda that has dramatically improved Maine’s standing,” said Brent Littlefield, LePage’s senior political adviser.

LePage, however, seems happy to relive his more controversial moments as he prepares to exit public life.

During a two-hour appearance on Howie Carr’s radio show earlier this month, he talked about leaving that note on Mills’s pillow, reiterated his plans to move to Florida to avoid Maine taxes, and laughed as Carr played a clip of his “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” remarks.

“These are legitimate people. These are not made-up people,” he said.

He also railed against a favorite target, the media, but said the press will probably miss him when he’s gone.

“Once I leave, who are they going to report on?” he said. “It’s going to be a love-fest with the new governor. And they only sell newspapers when there’s controversy, so they’re going to be in trouble.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@mlevenson.