Before there was Trump, there was brash business tycoon Paul LePage
PORTLAND, Maine — Before there was Donald Trump, there was Paul LePage, a brash businessman with a blunt style who bonded with blue-collar workers in an economically lagging state that previously was a reliable bastion of Democrats and moderate Republicans.
“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” LePage joked after throwing his endorsement behind Trump last month. Indeed, the two-term governor has taken credit for providing a template, saying he and Trump are cut from “the same cloth.”
Maine, in many ways, represents just the kind of state where Trump has resonated.
“It’s a rural state and it’s suffering through the process of post-industrialism, and that’s leaving a lot of people behind,” said Mike Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist and Maine resident. “A lot of people are feeling angry, like both the political parties have let them down.”
The Maine GOP caucuses on Saturday coincide with Republican voting in Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana. With no public polling, there are few indicators how well Trump might fare, but he won neighboring New Hampshire.
Trump has proven especially resonant with white, working-class voters who feel left behind by an economy that has shifted away from manufacturing jobs. In Maine, Trump and LePage have drawn from voters who’ve watched as paper mills, textile mills and shoe factories have closed because of overseas competition, said Allen Holmes, a Trump supporter from Rockland. Their blunt language and promises to shake up the establishment make sense to those voters.
“They’re tapping into the frustration of Mainers,” said Holmes, a certified public accountant. He said ruffling a few feathers “is not such a bad thing.”
Like Trump, LePage started his career in business, launching a consulting firm and eventually becoming the general manager of a local chain of discount stores.
But unlike Trump, he comes from humble roots.
LePage grew up poor, and ran away from home when he was young, briefing living on the street. He shined shoes and washed dishes, and struggled with college because his first language was French. Trump, in contrast, grew up the son of a highly successful New York real estate developer.
Yet both have shaken the GOP establishment, developed reputations as sometimes crude speakers and shown a deep disdain for the media.
LePage once said he’d tell President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” and told the Portland chapter of the NAACP to “kiss my butt.”
He recently said drug dealers with names like “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” were coming into Maine to sell heroin and “impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” He later apologized, calling the racially charged statements a slip of the tongue.
“Donald Trump is a little bit like I am. He says what needs to be said,” LePage said Thursday as he introduced Trump at a Portland rally. “Most of all folks, he’s not afraid of the United States liberal media,” LePage said, adding: “They dislike him nearly as much as they hate me.”
LePage had originally endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dropped his bid after a disappointing showing in New Hampshire. After Christie shocked supporters by endorsing Trump, LePage followed the same day.
Justin Baggs, a young father from South Berwick who attended Trump’s rally, said LePage and Trump resonate because they say what others might think but are unwilling to say aloud.
“They know what they’re going to say is going to offend others, but they’re saying what the majority of people believe to be true,” said Baggs, 34.
Josh Tardy, a Republican activist and former lawmaker from Newport, said voters appear infatuated with the outspoken style the two share.
“They’re both bare-knuckle brawlers,” said Tardy, who supports Trump rival Marco Rubio. “They’re not ambiguous about what they say. … That’s both good and bad. But you never have to question where they’re coming from.”