AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Republican Gov. Paul LePage's bombastic leadership style long ago alienated Democrats. Now even some in his own party are fed up, saying his high-profile antics have squandered his political capital.
Critics say his decision to retreat to his office and issue a flurry of vetoes shows a lack of leadership and that his attacks on fellow Republicans are counterproductive. Finally, they say his latest actions, including meddling in a charter school's personnel decisions, are distracting from his agenda.
"There are members of the Legislature that have stood beside Gov. LePage through thick and thin that are saying that they are done with him. That's something that I've never heard before," said Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist who worked on several high-profile political campaigns, including those of Maine Sen. Susan Collins and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
Some say the damage that LePage his inflicted on his relationship with the Legislature could make it more difficult for him to accomplish his policy goals throughout his remaining 3½ years in office.
"I think that he should be concerned," said Sen. Tom Saviello, a moderate Republican who's often at odds with LePage.
LePage has frustrated lawmakers by threatening to veto every bill until the Legislature passes one of his top priorities and acknowledging that he was just trying to waste lawmakers' time with his dozens of line-item budget vetoes he knew would be overturned. He publicly attacked Senate Republicans for not standing up for tax cuts and suggested the top Democrat on the budget-writing committee become a pig farmer because she filled the spending plan with so much "pork."
Earlier this month, he hung lawmakers' pictures on a Christmas tree outside his Statehouse office to scold them for giving themselves gifts in the state budget instead of funding his priorities. And this week, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives accused him of blackmailing a school for at-risk youth by threatening to withhold state funds unless they fired him from the top job there. House Speaker Mark Eves says he's considering suing LePage.
After that incident, Saviello said LePage took partisan politics to a "new, dark level." GOP Sen. Roger Katz called his actions "personal, angry and vindictive." A Maine newspaper splashed the headline "Gov. LeRage." Another newspaper's editorial board suggested that he should be investigated for possible impeachment.
LePage's strong-arm tactics have often backfired, observers say, pushing Republicans to join Democrats more often than not to override the more than 100 vetoes he has issued so far this session.
"It's just striking how quickly he squandered any political capital he gained from his re-election," said Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.
LePage supporters dismiss the idea that the governor is being pushed out of the political picture, arguing there would be no income tax cuts in the budget this year if he hadn't put forward an ambitious tax overhaul plan in January.
"It was his town halls and his (budget) proposal that dragged Democrats kicking and screaming to some level of tax relief," said Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party.
Spokesman Peter Steele said LePage has been forced to use unconventional tactics to bring change to a state that had long been under Democratic rule. He said LePage wishes that more lawmakers had the "courage and fortitude to do what's right" and worry less about the outcome of the next election.
"Whether people like his tactics or not, he has certainly raised the level of debate," Steele said.
Unsatisfied with the tax cuts in the final budget, LePage now intends to take his efforts directly to the people. He said this week that he will personally lead a citizen's initiative drive this fall to get a measure on the ballot that would reduce the state's income tax to 4 percent. The income tax rate for the highest-earning individuals in Maine is currently 7.95 percent but will drop to 7.15 percent under the budget expected to go into place on July 1.
"Nobody is going to marginalize Paul LePage," Steele said. "He is a force to be reckoned with and he always will be."
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