Residents of the state of Maine have a highly cultivated self-image of being politically independent and not closely identified with parties or partisanship. It’s an image that has taken a terrible beating in recent years during the tenure of reigning Republican Gov. Paul LePage, the state’s irascible and flamboyant chief executive since 2011.
Independent, in the Maine context, usually means “moderate,” an honored, even hallowed, stance in the state’s politics since Sen. Margaret Chase Smith established its cachet in the 1950s by opposing (though not by name) her party’s anti-communist demagogue Joseph R. McCarthy. Smith’s role in this affair tends to be exaggerated, but popular myth has identified her public “declaration of conscience” as key in the resistance to McCarthyism.
Be that as it may, perceived independence and moderation has long been the route to higher office for Maine politicians — at least until tea partier LePage. Founder of the modern Maine Democratic party, Edmund Muskie, who served as governor and senator before aspiring to the presidency, personified it. So did Republican Sen. William Cohen, who inherited the GOP moderate mantle from Sen. Smith in the 1970s and then passed it along to understudies Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Recently elected Sen. Angus King, a certified independent with no party affiliation, is the latest practitioner.
For Maine Republicans, being a moderate independent translates into voting with your party’s conservatives 80% of the time, but being shrewd enough to periodically cast high-profile bipartisan votes that establish your contrarian independence. The mainstream media adore this posturing, as is evidenced by their continuing love affair with Maine “moderates” Snowe and Collins. Snowe, who constantly frustrated thoroughgoing health reform during Obama’s first term, was nevertheless lauded for her seeming willingness to work with Democrats to produce the ultimately watered-down Affordable Care Act.
With the emergence of Paul LePage, however, the surreptitious, backdoor conservatism practiced by Maine’s Washington-based GOP contingent seems quaint, touching, almost lovable. LePage, whose ideologically driven tea-party supporters have fully taken over the state’s Republican organization, has shattered the moderate image carefully crafted by his predecessors. His Maine Republican party projects a mean vengefulness aimed not just at defeating its opponents, but destroying and humiliating them. At the same time, the governor’s cracker-barrel persona, replete with barnyard humor and crude commentary, has made him a staple for late-night comedians on cable TV.
For typically reserved Maine Yankees, including many old-school members of the GOP, this is embarrassing in the extreme. But LePage, refugee from a dysfunctional home who grew up on the mean streets, has never depended on country-club Republicans for his base support. He’s also a product of Maine’s Franco-American community, nominally Democratic but culturally conservative, an ethnic minority with long memories of prejudice and discrimination.
Someone with LePage’s background might be expected to have more sympathy for the downtrodden and the underdog. But in common with other politicians from underprivileged backgrounds who made it largely on their own, Maine’s governor is a purveyor of “tough love” — so tough in his case that it hardly qualifies as love. The fact that he made it in business (discount retailing) only adds to his jaundiced perspective when it comes to the working class.
A partial rundown of LePage’s “accomplishments” might be in order here. Over his first two years, with the help of a Republican legislative majority, he implemented the following from the tea-party wish list: pension reform that cut retirement benefits for teachers and other state workers; tax reform that rewarded the rich by lowering the top state income-tax rate and raising the estate-tax exemption, while 4,000 public-sector jobs were being eliminated; welfare reform that punished the poor by shortening the eligibility period for benefits; Medicaid reform that barred legal non-citizens with limited residency in the US from the state program and rejected federal funds to expand its coverage; healthcare reform that deregulated the health-insurance market and permitted across-the-board premium-rate increases without state review.
And, of course, there was the highly publicized removal from the walls of the State Labor Department of the supposedly “anti-employer” art murals celebrating Maine working people. It should surprise no one that Governor 39 Percent (his 2010 winning vote total in a three-way contest) is also one of the Republican governors refusing to set up a state health exchange under Obamacare.
Add to this right-wing agenda LePage’s desired accomplishments not yet fulfilled: an overall reduction in state Medicaid rolls; a rezoning of Maine’s unorganized wilderness territories for business development; a shrinking of the amount of state wetlands protected from developers; the elimination of same-day voter registration; an expansion of nuclear-power development; an increase in teacher contributions to the state retirement system. (Tea partiers despise teachers, perhaps because they didn’t do well in school.)
All of this has been served up with a generous portion of tasteless invective by a chief executive only marginally in control of his emotions. Here are a few of the bon mots uttered by the articulate Monsieur LePage: President Obama, who “hates” white people, could “go to hell.” The NAACP, whose invitation to a Martin Luther King Day observance LePage rejected, could “Kiss my butt.” Political opponents were routinely shafting the public “without providing Vaseline.” The IRS was “the new Gestapo.” Those who opposed removal of the famous art murals were “idiots.” So it goes in LePage’s world.
The good news, for Maine and for the progressive community generally, is that LePage’s world may be coming undone; his comic Robespierre is facing the inevitable Thermidor. In 2014, hizzoner will confront a rejuvenated Democratic party with a different kind of Franco-American candidate for governor, Second District Congressman Mike Michaud, a pro-labor, anti-free trade liberal whose working-class bona fides — he’s a former millworker — are more than a match for the incumbent’s angry everyman image. LePage is also burdened by a lackluster 1.3% increase in statewide jobs despite running an all-out businessman’s government for nearly four years.
Down in the polls, the governor’s only hope for survival is the potential third-party spoiler candidacy of “No Labels” independent Eliot Cutler, an apostate Democrat. Cutler, a less abrasive LePage, split the gubernatorial vote three ways in 2010 and could do so again. Maine’s treasured independent streak may yet come back to haunt it.
Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013
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