(Updates with LePage welfare changes in 10th paragraph.)
By Annie Linskey
Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Maine Governor Paul LePage now keeps a roll of duct tape on his desk as a reminder to himself.
“We all have faults -- mine is that I can’t keep my mouth shut,” LePage, 64, said yesterday in his Augusta office. “I promised my staff: Now till Election Day, when I want to say something that is off-color, I’m going to tape my mouth shut.”
New England’s only Republican governor is coming off a rocky summer. He alluded to sodomy while criticizing a political opponent, joked about bombing the state’s largest newspaper and on Aug. 19 was quoted online as saying the nation’s first black president “hates white people.”
A Republican in a state twice carried by Democratic President Barack Obama, LePage is already one of the most vulnerable governors seeking re-election next year. The verbal miscues are creating fissures in his party, robbing him of the chance to sell his pro-business and Tea Party-backed agenda and underscoring a “go it alone” attitude that’s alienating potential allies.
“I will put my actions against any candidate running for governor,” LePage said. “I can get it done. They talk nice words. This state has been under 50 years of one-party rule. It is time they get a little shock to the system. Wake them up.”
LePage can rattle off a list of accomplishments, mostly from his first two years in office, when Republicans controlled not only the governor’s mansion but both chambers of the legislature for the first time since 1967. Maine traditionally elected Democratic or centrist Republican governors.
He reduced income taxes by the largest amount in state history, froze cost-of-living increases for three years and raised the retirement age for new state workers to revamp the pension plan. He also enacted a program to repay about $500 million in debt to hospitals, which has been a drag on the state’s credit rating, by negotiating better terms on a state liquor contract.
“These were all historic pieces of legislation that are pushing the needle in the right direction,” said J. Scott Moody, the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based research organization that says it promotes “conservative public policies” and free enterprise.
One of the most tangible signs of his leadership is in downtown Portland, the state’s largest city, where teachers this week were preparing for the first class of 135 freshman and sophomores at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. Maine’s third charter school, it will boast a Mandarin-speaking instructor, a metalworking shop with computer-controlled machines, and math and science classrooms looking out on Casco Bay.
LePage also has cut the size of the state government, overhauled Maine’s welfare program to push recipients off of the dole after five years and passed legislation -- which hasn’t been implemented -- to require drug testing for welfare recipients with narcotics convictions. Those who fail would have to enter a treatment program or lose benefits.
Advocates for the needy say the changes cut benefits to 2,231 families, including 80 a month that will be pushed off welfare as they hit the five-year limit.
“It is unprecedented, the cuts to the safety net,” said Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta-based nonprofit. “Instead of a war on poverty, it feels like a war on poor people.”
LePage answers critics by saying that some of his 17 siblings have been on welfare.
“We want to have some accountability,” he said. “We want a system that, one, we can afford, two, it works and, three, that the most vulnerable are taken care of and are moving toward self-sufficiency.”
In June, the governor vetoed a bill that would have expanded Medicaid to 50,000 adults without children and prevented about 25,000 from losing benefits starting in January.
LePage said he’s open to revisiting a smaller expansion that requires the poor to contribute something toward their health costs when the legislature returns next year.
“If you are making $20,000 a year and you can use 1 percent of your income to pay for your health insurance, I think that is a deal,” he said. “I’ll take that deal all day long.”
Selling the new agenda hasn’t been easy.
Last week, on the same day that LePage sent every U.S. governor a carton of lobster to promote the industry, the Portland Press Herald quoted unidentified Republican lawmakers as saying that LePage, speaking at a fundraiser, told donors that Obama “hates white people.”
In the interview, LePage referred to the comments as “alleged,” though he didn’t deny making them.
“It was not the way it was reported,” he said.
He also sent a letter to members of his party: “My fellow Republicans, I write to you to apologize for any difficulty that remarks recently reported in the press may have caused you.”
Other comments were caught on tape. In June, during a budget battle where Republicans joined forces with Democrats to override his spending plan, LePage singled out Democratic lawmaker Troy Jackson.
“Senator Jackson claims to be for the people, but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline,” LePage told a local television station. The governor walked away and then returned. “That comment is not politically correct, but we’ve got to understand who this man is,” he said. “This man is a bad person. He doesn’t only have no brains, he has a black heart.”
The episode prompted Roger Katz, the assistant Republican leader in the state Senate, to write an apologetic essay in the Press Herald. “I am embarrassed,” he said.
In the interview, LePage said he’s a “poor politician but a good businessman.”
His shoot-from-the-hip comments date to the campaign, when he told a group of fishermen: “As your governor, you’re going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying, ‘Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell.’”
The governor was raised in Lewiston, Maine. He said his father beat him as a child -- injuring him enough to require hospital treatment at one point -- prompting him to leave home and live on the streets.
With the help of two families, he said, he found work and went to school. He graduated from Lewiston High School and Husson College in Bangor, Maine, then received a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Maine.
He worked at a discount chain, Marden’s Surplus & Salvage, where he rose to become general manager. In 2003, he was elected mayor of Waterville, a city that’s home to Colby College.
In 2010, he beat six Republicans in a primary to become the party’s nominee for the open seat for governor. LePage won by 2 percentage points, with 38 percent of the vote in a five-way race.
In LePage’s statehouse office, there’s a framed picture of Secretariat, the champion racehorse that swept the Triple Crown in 1973, with a message signed by former jockey Ron Turcotte.
“It says ‘You are the living Secretariat,’” LePage said. “I was totally unknown before I became governor.”
Polls suggest his run may not last. LePage’s party lost control of both chambers of the legislature in 2012. A survey of 953 voters by Public Policy Polling, conducted Aug. 23-25, showed Democratic challenger Mike Michaud, one of Maine’s two members of Congress since 2003, beating LePage 39 percent to 35 percent.
Independent Eliot Cutler, who ran in 2010 and hasn’t formally declared for next year, was backed by 18 percent. The poll had a margin for error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Perhaps more tellingly, this week Democrats narrowly won a special election for a swing senate seat after running radio advertisements that rehashed LePage’s gaffes and making robocalls tying the candidate to the governor’s opposition of Medicaid expansion.
After hearing the vote totals, losing Republican candidate Paula Benoit, 58, stood outside her election night party at an Irish pub in Bath and said that seniors were misled.
“Democrats said I would take away their Medicaid,” she said. “Can you imagine that?”
Standing in the vestibule in the salty Maine air, she repeated the same phrase a few times.
“I’m a moderate Republican,” she said. “I’m a moderate Republican.”