My first impression of Paul LePage was that he talks way too much.
It was the summer of 2010, and the then-mayor of Waterville had run away with the GOP nomination for governor. I had just moved home to Maine, and got roped into bar tending a fundraiser for him.
Like every campaign event, the candidate came forward to give a stump speech. And he did. People kept drinking, and he kept talking. As a bartender, you tend to keep an eye on people’s drinks. The attendees had all drained their glasses, but LePage was still stumping. Worse yet, he was standing in front of the bar, so there was no discrete way to get past him and get a refill.
(Piece of advice to would-be fundraisers: If the purpose of an event is to get people to give you money, a little liquor is your friend. Don’t make it hard to get a drink.)
When he finally finished talking, he continued to work the room. The crowd dwindled and a few of us remained at the bar. And I told the candidate he had gone on too long.
The rest, as they say, is history. Despite (or perhaps because of) a tumultuous campaign, he was elected as the governor of Maine. Our barroom chat turned into an offer to come work for him. Regardless of your politics, if the governor of your state asks you — at 26 years old — to join his or her team, you should do so.
For a little more than two-and-a-half years, I got to work closely with Gov. LePage. Like most jobs, you get to know your boss pretty well. The perception of them in the larger organization or community may be very different — whether better or worse — than what you know of them. That is especially true when you’re working in the public sphere.
Therefore, in the same vein as the rest of the “legacy” stories being written about LePage, I’ll try to offer a bit of reflection. Plenty has already been written about his successes, such as repaying the more than $700 million owed to Maine hospitals, restoring the state budget “rainy day” fund, or reforming the public employee pension system to push it closer to solvency.
Others have dispelled some of the irrational, chicken little-esque fears that followed his election; for example, he had had an exemplary record appointing judges and others to the myriad boards and commissions which make up state government. So I’ll try to take a different tack and offer a more behind the scenes take on things you might not know about him.
For one, he is a voracious reader, particularly of presidential history. If you want to have a debate about the respective merits of the administrations of Rutherford B. Hayes versus Grover Cleveland, Paul LePage is your guy.
Second, copying the example of Abraham Lincoln, he would take Saturdays to meet with individual citizens and hear their concerns. He would then delegate those constituent requests to staff, commissioners, and departments; it was a very real way to keep the public trust at the fore of everyone’s mind, even if it created a degree of operational complication.
Lastly, he really did read almost all those enacted laws. One of the first bills that ever reached his desk came down unanimously from the Republican-controlled Legislature. It dealt with municipal finances, something the former Waterville mayor knew well. LePage had a concern about the policy that would become law with his signature, and met with legislators to discuss them.
The result? The Legislature recalled the bill and let it die. Again, without objection. For all the subtext surrounding his free-handed use of the veto pen, it was not — at least in my experience — without reason. You could disagree with the merits of his position, but it wasn’t whim or passion that lead to his decision.
If you get behind the headlines, there is a lot to like about Paul LePage the person. And, although I fully admit I’m biased, I think Maine will find we miss him as governor. So get a drink, raise a glass, and say “farewell” to LePage.