LEWISTON, Maine — Maine just ended its fiscal year in the black, with a healthy surplus of $176 million, a far cry from a few short years ago when it was hemorrhaging red ink.
Other governors might spend weeks boasting about such an accomplishment. But Gov. Paul LePage, Maine’s two-term Republican governor and an irascible, combative showman, has a tendency to step on his own good news.
Within days, he called on the state’s Democratic attorney general to step down from office while she runs for governor. He was ordered by the courts to comply with an election funding law he didn’t like and had refused to carry out. And he sent a letter to the governor of Massachusetts complaining that the state was engaged in a “shakedown” of Maine drivers who did not pay tolls on time.
With all that, there was little time to hail the surplus.
As his tenure as governor comes to a close, LePage — who may be best known nationally for speaking bluntly, sometimes crudely, from his gut — has done a pretty good job over his eight years in office of distracting attention from his achievements.
Among his most noted acts: He signed the largest tax cut in state history, curbed welfare benefits and oversaw strong job growth.
But drawing far more notice have been his incendiary remarks, which began long before that brand of political discourse became everyday fare. He said he wanted to tell President Barack Obama to “go to hell.” He likened the IRS to the Gestapo. Twice. He called asylum-seekers “the biggest problem in our state,” saying they brought in diseases.
He cast Maine’s dire opioid crisis in racial terms, branding “people of color or people of Hispanic origin” as “the enemy” for coming to Maine and selling drugs; in addition, he said, they “impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”
His defiant partisanship has inflamed Augusta, the state capital. In one particularly explosive episode, he left a threatening, obscenity-laced voice mail message for a Democratic lawmaker who, LePage said, had called him a racist. LePage then challenged the lawmaker to a duel and said he would shoot him between the eyes.
LePage is barred by term limits from seeking re-election. On the November ballot to replace him are a Republican, Shawn Moody, who shares many of LePage’s views but not his confrontational style, and a Democrat, Janet Mills, the state attorney general, who has vowed to take a different tack. Two independents are also running.
With LePage, 69, having dominated the state for almost eight years, the election is shaping up as a referendum on him. It may also signal how Maine views President Donald Trump, who has much in common with LePage and who in 2016 beat Hillary Clinton in one of the state’s two congressional districts.
“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” LePage boasted after endorsing Trump for president. Indeed, LePage has been every bit as disruptive in Augusta as Trump has been in Washington.
LePage has wielded his veto pen as a blunt instrument, vetoing more bills than all other Maine governors combined in the last 100 years. One year, he refused to deliver his State of the State address in person to the Legislature because some members had tried to impeach him.
New polling in early August showed that Trump is more popular in Maine than LePage, who was viewed favorably by just 37 percent.
One reason may be LePage’s lack of a verbal filter.
“He’s conservative, I’m conservative,” said Karen Jordan, 61, a housekeeping aide and registered Republican in Lewiston, where LePage grew up. But, she added, “I don’t like his mouth.”
A onetime millworker with an origin story out of Dickens — the oldest of 18 children of an abusive, alcoholic father, he ran away from home at 11 — LePage wears his rough-and-tumble “tell it like it is” persona as a badge of honor.
But his outsize personality has often overshadowed Maine’s progress.
The unemployment rate, above 8 percent when LePage took office in 2011, was 2.9 percent in June, among the lowest in four decades. Housing prices are up. Portland, the largest city, is booming with development and was just named Bon Appétit magazine’s “restaurant city of the year.” And tourists continue to flock to the state’s iconic craggy coast.
LePage’s critics suggest anecdotally that his antics have tarnished Maine’s image. But the number of tourists reached a five-year high last year, with nearly 37 million visitors coming to this vast, rural state of 1.34 million people.
And some businesses are doubling down in Maine. After a global search, Nordic Aquafarms, of Norway, is building a $500 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast. Idexx, a veterinary technology company with headquarters in Westbrook, is undertaking a $62 million expansion with plans for 600 new jobs.
LePage’s supporters credit his fiscal policies. He reduced the top individual income tax rate to 7.15 percent from 8.5 percent and doubled the estate tax exemption to $2 million from $1 million. He has cut the size of government, reduced welfare cases by 41 percent, overhauled the state’s pension system and overseen the creation of more than 36,000 nonfarm jobs.
Still, just last week, a report from the state Labor Department predicted almost no net job growth over the next eight years.
LePage declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokeswoman said he was not prepared to discuss his legacy now because he believed he had more to do. But allies offered glowing assessments.
“People are working good-paying, private sector jobs with record-high wages, averaging $43,500 in pay,” said Terry Brown, communications director for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Critics do not dispute that Maine’s economy has improved, but they say it was buoyed by a robust national economy and that not everyone has benefited.
Maine still lags behind the nation and most of New England in several important economic indicators, said Michael Donihue, an economist at Colby College. These include the rates of growth in employment, wages, personal income and real gross domestic product.
Moreover, say critics, gains in the overall economic picture, especially in bustling Southern Maine and along the coast, mask increasing hardships that many poor residents face, most pointedly in the state’s rural interior. They say LePage’s cuts in taxes, welfare and programs like food stamps, along with his vehement opposition to raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid coverage, have crimped services to residents who were already vulnerable.
“No one is representing the people who are being hit the hardest by these cuts,” said Melissa Newbury, director of the Bangor Ecumenical Food Cupboard. She said 82 families used her food pantry each week as of June, compared with 14 families a week in 2012.
In 2011, when LePage took office, Maine had the 14th lowest rate of poverty in the nation, according to the census; last year, it fell to 21st.
As for education, LePage famously derided the state’s public schools shortly after taking office, saying, “If you want a good education, go to private schools.”
Since then, state funding for public schools has climbed, though much of that increase was a result of legislative overrides of LePage’s vetoes.
While those amounts increased, they did not keep up with the cost of education under Maine’s school funding formula, said James Myall, a policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal research group. With the state paying a smaller share, towns have had to increase property taxes to fill the gap.
The rate of students graduating from high school has slowly inched up, to a relatively high 88 percent. But Maine’s statewide test results have shown little improvement. And the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college has remained flat.
As the November election approaches, LePage may not be on the ballot, but his actions of the last eight years are at the center of the debate.
“His legacy will be the incredible acrimony you see in the statehouse,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College. “And it’s as acrimonious as it has ever been.”