Three months into Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure, it was clear that this governor had some learning to do. Visiting the University of Maine, former Maine Attorney General James Tierney was hopeful, saying, “I think the governor will learn. I am optimistic that he will get it,” Tierney said. “He and the rest of us will have some rough spots, but he will grow.”
What were those rough spots?
LePage had already had made national news for his startling comments. When he said in January 2011 that the NAACP could “kiss my butt,” it went viral. And the same happened the next month, after the governor said the worst impact from some plastics “is some women may have little beards.”
As Tierney noted, new governors often get off track, as there are all sorts of “mistakes that a lot of newly elected officials make” including “say[ing] a lot of silly things all the time.” These are worth avoiding because “when you are the governor of any state, words matter, and they matter a lot. … This is serious because amongst the people who are listening are job makers,” said Tierney. “LePage doesn’t understand the extent to which his words are costing us jobs.”
Has the governor grown since those early days?
Along the way, Maine has heard other rather outrageous statements from the governor, even as he has had a mix of policy successes and failures.
More importantly, assessing job performance requires looking at how the governor has carried out his main role, as chief executive. That job involves overseeing state agencies without favoritism and working with the Legislature.
On that score, the governor has been erratic and sometimes absent. The supplemental budget just passed had zero input from LePage, as he refused to put forth a budget.
Becoming the most vetoing governor in Maine history didn’t show executive competence either, but demonstrated an inability to work in a bipartisan way to get things done.
Of LePage’s 158 vetoes in the 126th Legislature, more than a third involved bills with unanimous committee reports and another about the same proportion involved bills with bipartisan reports.
Beyond the numbers, LePage’s lack of learning could be seen on the last night of the legislative session. Just a few days before, the governor put forth two bills, on drugs and nursing homes, that he said he really cared about.
Yet this purported high-priority effort ended after the governor gave the word that he “would veto the bills if lawmakers passed them as they had been amended.” The bipartisan Appropriations Committee then voted unanimously to kill the bills.
While the governor’s legislative relations leave much to be desired, this approach may make sense in one respect — politically.
LePage has never had majority support but, in this multi-candidate field, he can win re-election if he keeps his base happy. And, according to a recent Pan Atlantic SMS poll, 62.4 percent of all Mainers — but only 44 percent of Republicans — agree that, “I want my elected official to work with the other side, even if that means allowing compromise on core values.”
That same tendency shows up nationally. During the fall government shutdown, most Americans told Gallup they supported compromise over sticking to their beliefs, but only 36 percent of Republicans chose compromise.
While there are still some moderate Republicans in Maine, many take in their media from what Politico called the national “tea party-talk radio nexus,” in which radio hosts are funneled money from the Heritage Foundation and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. These groups disdain compromise and the rudiments of pragmatic governing.
Maine’s media-“think tank” complex manufactures faux data and outrage. Taxpayer dollars are used to develop politicized, ideological “research.” Recently a thinly trained, twenty-something former Maine Heritage Policy Center staffer, who contracted the discredited Alexander Group Medicaid expansion report, was promoted to chief operating officer for the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile, Maine is 46th in job growth.
In issuing a report card for the governor, what do Maine voters conclude? Well, other findings from that recent Maine poll found that, among the three candidates, just 36.9 percent of Mainers think LePage, the only person on the ballot who has been governor, has the right experience to be governor. And only 34 percent overall think LePage best understands how state government works.