January 23, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: LePage not only ‘straight-talking’ governor to shake up establishment

The article in Newsweek described the new governor of Maine’s comments as “shockingly insensitive or just plain naive” and noted “his diatribes make it hard to get state business done.”

The governor the article was talking about wasn’t Paul LePage.

Published in 1975, the piece referred to the newly elected independent Gov. James B. Longley. The controversial comment wasn’t a suggestion the NAACP kiss his butt, but Longley’s suggestion Democratic legislators were “pimps.”

There are other parallels between LePage and our last “straight-talking” governor, elected almost four decades ago. For instance, both have an expressed distaste for certain public interest groups.

LePage called the NAACP a “special interest” and singled out labor, education and environmental organizations as opponents during his campaign. Longley had similar views and famously referred to the head of the Maine Teachers Association as the “grand labor dictator of Maine.”

Both men are from Lewiston and were elected with just under 40 percent of the vote in elections noted for their angry, populist backlash. Longley gained office on the heels of Watergate, LePage in the wake of the tea party.

LePage railed against “establishment politicians” during his campaign and the “roadblocks” he felt they placed on efficient government and improving Maine’s business climate. In 1974, Longley called them “professional politicians” and had the same complaints.

In fact, Longley first rose to public prominence thanks to his own “Red Tape Audit,” called the Maine Management and Cost Survey Commission, which was intended to improve government efficiency.

Both sought corporate leaders for administration positions and complained government salaries were too low to entice them to serve. Longley’s solution was to attempt to allow his officials to continue making money off their outside business interests.

“If we eliminated from public service every person who had a potential conflict of interest, we’d have no one serving but failures,” said Longley, according to the book “Year of the Longley” by Willis Johnson.

Longley, like LePage, also had a tendency to stretch the truth. For LePage, some of the areas where he seems to have been less than truthful include non-existent buffalo studies and automatic constitutional repeal provisions and misremembered conversations about black prison inmates.

Longley’s career had a similar pattern of untrue or mistaken statements. He once claimed to the press to have received phone calls from fellow Govs. George Wallace and Ronald Reagan, who might be considering founding a third-party political movement.

His press secretary later had to admit that the calls never happened.

Longley’s shoot-from-the-hip attitude didn’t serve his agenda well. His large personality and popular backing weren’t enough to overcome the Democratic House and Republican Senate.

“Maine’s first independent governor fought endlessly with the Legislature, vetoed 56 bills, and was overridden so many times that people joked about VETO being an acronym for ‘Very Easy to Override,’” is how Governing Magazine described Longley’s tenure. He served only a single term.

LePage has a much better shot at accomplishing his goals.

He has the advantage of leading a political party that is both newly ascendant and  radicalized (thanks to tea partiers). The Legislature is also controlled by Republicans, many of whom ran on similar platforms to his own and are geared to make some big policy changes.

Perhaps it’s this backing that made the LePage administration bold enough to stand behind his comments. Rather than apologize for the “kiss my butt” remark, LePage’s spokesman called it an example of the “direct manner people have come to expect from Paul LePage.”

If we do actually continue to see this same manner of conduct in the future from our governor, it will be interesting to see where it leads.

Maybe, like Longley, a consistently combative attitude and poor self-control will make it difficult for LePage to get things done, and history will repeat itself.

Or  — and this seems more likely — people will get used to these kinds of comments and actions, and they’ll cease to be as much of a problem for LePage and his allies.

If so, LePage may just succeed in changing Maine in ways that Longley desired, but never could.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. email: miketipping@gmail.com

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