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Maine Gov. Paul LePage's candor fuels controversy -- but he's not backing down

Maine Gov. Paul LePage's candor fuels controversy -- but he's not backing down
Maine Gov. Paul LePage in January. (Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

Maine Gov. Paul LePage — who has compared the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo, called the NAACP a "special interest" and joked to a political cartoonist's son that he'd like to shoot the father — has never been one to mince words.

In the latest controversy, he's sticking to that strategy.

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Opponents accuse LePage of improperly threatening to pull discretionary state funding for a foundation that helps at-risk children if it hired Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as director in June. The foundation's board quickly revoked the job offer.

"Yeah, I did," the two-term Republican governor told local media. "If I could, I would. Absolutely. Why wouldn't I?"

Now, the governor is facing an investigation by the Legislature, a lawsuit from Eves and bipartisan criticism.

Eves called the incident "an egregious abuse of power," and even some state Republicans say they're uncomfortable with politics intruding on legislators' personal lives.

"Speaker Eves has got a point, and we don't want to be putting people in the position where they have to worry about personal retribution," said Michael Thibodeau, the Republican president of the Maine Senate.

LePage has not backed down, casting his actions as part of an anti-corruption campaign. He argues that Eves' opposition to charter schools in the Legislature disqualified him from running a program that includes charter schools.

"I will sleep well at night knowing I did the right thing for the Maine people," LePage said in a radio address.

LePage's hard-charging, self-assured style is nothing new to those who follow Maine politics.

"It's surprising if you're not familiar with Paul LePage," said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono. "What would have surprised me is if he'd tried to obfuscate on the issue and say, 'I'm not prepared to give an answer.'"

A former mayor of Waterville and businessman, LePage was elected governor in the tea party wave of 2010, consolidating conservative support in a three-way race with an independent and a Democratic candidate.

He made national headlines weeks after his inauguration. Under fire for declining an invitation to attend an NAACP celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he became frustrated with repeated questions. "Tell them to kiss my butt," he snapped at reporters.

That confrontational style was something of a shock to the state's typically centrist political culture.

"Maine politics has been very civil, very cordial, very bipartisan, very respectful and almost deferential," Brewer said. "Paul LePage doesn't operate that way."

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LePage won reelection with 48% of the vote in 2014, another banner year for Republicans, in part by implying he would adopt a more conciliatory tone.

But his rhetoric has escalated.

In the state legislative session that ended July 16, LePage became frustrated that members had not passed his proposed budget. He began vetoing bills en masse, first focusing on those with a Democratic sponsor and eventually expanding his reach to almost all bills.

The approach alienated even fellow Republicans.

"This governor is brass knuckles. He goes to the mat every single time," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason. "I think what happened with the speaker was unfortunate."

Many of LePage's vetoes were overridden by the Legislature. Another set may become law because of the governor's failure to return them to the Legislature within 10 days, which the state attorney general and legal experts say is required for a successful veto.

Against that political ferment, LePage's confrontation with Eves has incited calls from some for impeachment.

"It's a gross misuse of public funding to blackmail a school like that," said state Rep. Ben Chipman, an independent. "It's not the government's job to determine who is or isn't qualified."

Impeachment faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate, but a state legislative committee has asked a government accountability board to investigate and report back in September.

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