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End of the era of rants in Maine? New governor looks ahead

February 17, 2019
FILE- In this Feb. 11, 2019, file photo Maine Gov. Janet Mills acknowledges applause from legislators prior to her State of the Budget address at the statehouse in Augusta, Maine. Maine's new Democratic governor has wasted no time in acting swiftly to undo the most visible signs of the legacy of her Republican predecessor. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — For eight years, a Republican governor viewed by critics as a blabbermouth and bully systematically shifted the course of state government to the right with a take-no-prisoner style.

Maine’s new governor is wasting no time in trying to undo the most visible signs of his legacy.

In her first month, Democrat Janet Mills has rolled out voter-approved Medicaid expansion that former Gov. Paul LePage blocked, attended the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration hosted by a NAACP chapter LePage once told to “kiss my butt” and replaced his “Open for Business” sign on I-95 with a “Maine Welcome Home” sign. She’s even installing solar panels — something LePage loathed — on the governor’s mansion.

LePage, a businessman-turned-governor who called himself “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” won by railing against special interests, smooth-talking politicians and welfare dependence. But GOP losses in November have roiled the party, as Democrats enjoying surplus revenues consider Mills’ $8 billion, two-year budget proposal.

For many, Mills’ style is an overdue breath of fresh air.

“The general sense in the state is that people are breathing a sigh of relief that you don’t have to worry about what the governor is going to say next,” said Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel, a Democrat. “We might not agree with everything that was said, but at least she’s not embarrassing us.”

Mills is one of seven Democrats taking over for GOP governors this year following gains in 2018 races.

She joins others taking sweeping steps to reverse the course laid out by Republicans, who are down from 33 governor seats to 27.

In Illinois, new Gov. J.B. Pritzker has backed gun-dealer licensing and minimum wage legislation vetoed by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, while swiftly restoring state government pay increases that Rauner froze. In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham rescinded a school performance ratings system launched by her Republican predecessor, and signed 42 bills that mirror legislation vetoed by former Gov. Susana Martinez.

In Maine, Mills has vowed to not only undo LePage-era policies, but also calm the social and political waters stirred up by LePage’s invectives against “liberal elites,” opponents, black and Hispanic drug dealers and asylum seekers.

Retired state worker Henry Brunell, of Hallowell, said it was “uncomfortable” to see Maine repeatedly in the national spotlight over LePage’s off-color rants: from his concern that out-of-state drug dealers were impregnating “young white” girls, to a profane voicemail he left for a Democratic opponent and his remark that another Democrat was the first “to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”

“He sounded like he wanted to work for Trump,” Brunell said.

Mills, who ran as a “pragmatic and collaborative” Democrat, won in November with more votes than any governor in Maine history. Supporters who say LePage’s outbursts relentlessly embarrassed the largely rural state of 1.3 million praised Mills’ steps on voter-approved Medicaid expansion and the opioid crisis, and say her shift to civility and respect is welcome.

Mills, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has made clear she wants to make her own mark by moving quickly to reverse GOP initiatives.

Republican National Committeewoman Ellie Espling, of New Gloucester, said Mills has made symbolic “knocks” at LePage’s legacy, but it’s hard to say yet how far left the governor will go.

“I wonder what the true Mills’ administration will be like and how it will govern,” Espling said. “That remains to be seen.”

Martin Jones, a retired analyst and investment manager in Freeport, praised LePage’s steadying of Maine’s once-dire finances. But, he said LePage could come across as “uncaring and abrasive,” and fought with lawmakers more than he needed.

“I think state government will be a happier, friendlier place,” Jones said, adding: “I regretted LePage’s confrontational attitude in many cases. And we’re not going to see that in Janet Mills.”

LePage, who has moved to Florida and plans to live in Maine part-time, isn’t going quietly. He’s launched a personal Twitter account, and regularly appears on radio talk shows.

The 70-year-old recently said he’s creating a “conservative mouthpiece” for Mainers that’ll raise money to fight Democrats. He’s railed against abortions and asylum seekers, threatened to fight against a new ranked voting system Mills has endorsed and hinted at a 2022 run against Mills, whom he recently said only differed from a drunken sailor because “a drunken sailor spends his own money.”

“He’s not concerned about his personal legacy,” said former LePage press secretary Julie Rabinowitz. “It’s really about the economy of Maine.”

Espling cautioned against discounting LePage, who left office with 39 percent approval, and his supporters: “There are a lot of people who think like he does.”

Edward Riggs, a retired stock and bond portfolio manager in Albion, agreed that LePage has the right to weigh in, even though it’s unusual for former governors to compete with their successors for media attention: “I don’t think just because you have left office means you have to shut up.” And Jones, for his part, said someone has to remind voters that Maine finances aren’t a “bottom-less well.”

But David Vickrey, a financial adviser in Cape Elizabeth, had a different view. “I wish (LePage) would just stay in Florida and retire and play golf and keep his nose out of the state.”