Governor draws both ire and support at Yarmouth town hall event

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YARMOUTH — The mood ranged from disappointment to outright hostility when Gov. Paul LePage spoke to a standing-room only crowd Wednesday night.

During a Town Hall-type meeting LePage said the state needs to build its industrial and commercial base to become wealthier. He also said Maine’s tax burden is its downfall 

But at least half of his March 8 visit featured audience concerns and questions, often shouted from the floor. People questioned the governor’s lack of support for two voter-approved referendum questions that would raise the minimum age and require people earning over $200,000 to be taxed at a higher rate to help pay for public education. 

Speaking at the AMVETS Post 2 Hall at 148 North Road on March 8, LePage said energy costs and taxes are too high, and businesses are choosing to open and create jobs elsewhere. Lowering energy costs is key to attracting and keeping companies, he believes.

LePage said the lumber industry’s decline in Maine is a sign of these troubles. Over the last decade, eight out of 13 paper mills have closed, as Maine has lost forestry jobs to the Midwest and southern states.

“I became governor to try and make Maine more prosperous,” LePage said while sitting at a raised podium, directly facing at least 150 people who came to hear and question him. 

“We have a difficult time recruiting professionals,” said LePage, adding that the most well-trained and qualified individuals, such as doctors, are leaving the state for New Hampshire, where they will be taxed far less than in Maine.

“If we don’t (fix) our tax structure and our energy structure, we have no shot,” LePage said.

On Jan. 1, the minimum pay rate increased to $9 per hour from $7.50, and changes to Maine’s minimum wage factored into the night’s verbal exchange. 

LePage said changes to the restaurant workers’ tipping structure would hurt Maine’s top industry, tourism.

Some audience members made sure they were heard, clapping in support or against some of LePage’s remarks before and after he asked for questions. One seated woman stamped her feet repeatedly while others standing in the back called out for LePage to “do your job.” 

No one was asked to leave the hall or was forcibly removed, but there was at least one close call. A Yarmouth police officer told a young man that he didn’t want to ask him to leave as the man approached the front of the room with a digital recorder while talking out loud.

Other attendees applauded the conservative governor, who is known for his frank talk. He said his wife chides him occasionally on that score.

“I will continue to be brutally honest,” LePage said, as some people clapped.

People receiving welfare or food stamp-type benefits need to have some work or service as a requirement for social service help. Everyone needs to work, he said.

“This country needs every person who is able to contribute to this country,” LePage said.

He chided two of his gubernatorial predecessors, Democrat John Baldacci and U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, for waiving the social benefits’ work requirement. He took several swipes at the Legislature for not implementing some of his plans. 

LePage wants student education loan debt to be worked off with employers’ help as a way to help young people stay and live in Maine. He favors higher pay for teachers and nurses; teachers should be paid equally across the state.

There are also too many school superintendents in Maine, said LePage. 

“There’s too much money in the administration and not enough going into the classroom.”  

He compared Maine, with a K-12 student population of 177,000 and 147 superintendents to Florida, where there are 3 million K-12 students and 64 superintendents. LePage recommends one school superintendent per Maine county.

Governors cannot do much about federally unfunded mandates, yet in Maine, LePage possibly can.

“If there are unfunded mandates coming from the state, give me a list and I’ll remove them,” he said.

Some audience members criticized LePage for not speaking up more against racism and hate crimes. He apologized to Bath Iron Works employee Garrett Stewart, who sat in the front row.

Stewart, a person of color, said LePage’s earlier harping on minorities and the illicit drug trade or crime made Stewart’s family feel ashamed. Especially Stewart’s children.

“It doesn’t help when you’re making comments about drug dealers,” Stewart said. “We’re not all like that.”

“I didn’t say that,” said LePage.

“You’re the governor of Maine,” Stewart responded.

“I apologize to you and your children,” LePage said.

In one instance, LePage gave as good as he got.  

“I hate it all,” he said of all racial or ethnic slurs, “but I can only say I’m against it. What else can I do but work with the communities?”

Someone in the hall called out something that irked LePage, who recalled his family’s experience in 1922 in Brownville. They were among a large group of French-Canadians were en route to the Piscataquis County town. The reception they received was not welcoming.

“Don’t tell me about racism, my family was on that train,” the governor shouted.

Lisa Connell can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or Follow Lisa on Twitter: @connell_ld.

Cape Elizabeth High School student Jacob Jordan questions Gov. Paul LePage during a March 8 Town Hall meeting at AMVETS Post 2 in Yarmouth.

Gov. Paul LePage outlines his economic plans for the state before a standing-room only crowd in Yarmouth on March 8 at AMVETS Post 2 hall.

A packed audience listens attentively to Gov. Paul LePage speak about the Maine state economy, education, and job growth during a March 8 Town Hall meeting at AMVETS Post 2 in Yarmouth.