Paul LePage, whose compelling life story and anti-establishment message lifted the Republican to victory in November, pledged to bring an open-minded, nonpartisan approach to the Blaine House on Wednesday after being sworn in as the state’s newest governor.
LePage took the oath of office at approximately 12:25 p.m. as his family and four governors looked on from the stage and more than 5,000 energized supporters watched from the seats of the Augusta Civic Center. An evening reception for LePage at the civic center drew an estimated 4,000 people.
Addressing the crowd immediately after taking the oath, LePage echoed many of the themes of his gubernatorial campaign: government accountability, improving Maine’s business climate, education and welfare reform, and listening to residents about their concerns.
Saying, “I have four years and a job to do,” LePage also repeated what has become a chorus of his incoming administration: putting people before politics.
LePage elicited a roar of approval from the crowd when he said the framers of Maine’s constitution “had it right” when they left out the word “politics” and any mention of specific political parties. The word “people,” on the other hand, appears 49 times in the document, he said.
“Partisan affiliations, political leanings and the obsession with winning and losing have been getting in the way of solving our problems,” LePage said. “We need a new approach and it starts here. It starts today and I need all of your help.”
Wednesday’s inaugural ceremonies capped a seemingly storybook narrative for the 62-year-old.
Homeless at age 11 after running away from an abusive father, LePage eventually was taken in by two Lewiston families and worked his way through college with the help of others. He succeeded in business — most recently as general manager of the Marden’s discount chain store — and served as mayor of Waterville before launching his campaign for governor.
“Paul says together we can move Maine forward, and he is right,” said Bruce Myrick, whose family took the young LePage in from the streets. “He is a product of that spirit and we are very proud of him.”
Inauguration day began early Wednesday with all of the official ceremony that accompanies the installation of a new governor. A delegation of lawmakers, after affirming the results of the November election, walked from the State House to the Blaine House to deliver the good news to a waiting LePage.
The new governor then had coffee and tea in the Blaine House with four of his predecessors: John Baldacci, Angus King, John McKernan and Joseph Brennan. In a break from recent practice, all four of the former governors also attended the inauguration.
During his speech, the newly minted governor pledged to listen to anyone and said there would be no “favors for special interests.” He also announced plans for town hall meetings throughout Maine, breakfast gatherings with groups and constituent service hours.
But his speech also included some of the campaign rhetoric that proved so popular with an electorate frustrated with government and the slow economic recovery.
Some of the loudest rounds of applause from the predominantly Republican crowd came when he said, “I do not care about editorials” and promised to address the concerns of “taxpayers tired of footing the bill for a bloated establishment in Augusta.”
“It is time to make state government more accountable,” LePage said to loud cheers. “It is time to deliver value to our taxpayers. It is time to put people ahead of politics.”
After the inauguration, Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, said he was disappointed to hear LePage continue to refer to state government as “bloated.” Webster suggested that LePage and the Legislature’s new Republican leadership soon will learn that cutting the budget without decimating services is easier said than done.
“I just feel sorry for all the state workers who are hearing that,” said Webster, who serves on the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. “I’ve seen those people — a lot of them — working long hours for nothing. At night and on the weekends, there they are.”
Democratic leaders welcomed LePage’s assurances that he will accept good ideas from anyone, regardless of political label. But they expressed concerns about the lack of specifics in his speech and what they viewed as partisan rhetoric on issues such as welfare.
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said Democrats do not want to see the state move backward in the areas of environmental protection, education and support for the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Cain said much of LePage’s address sounded like a campaign speech, adding that calling government “bloated” and targeting welfare may be popular politically but does not address the underlying problems facing the state.
“The goals that the governor has laid out about job creation, about economic prosperity for the state of Maine, are things that we all want,” said Cain. “But now it is time for us to find out what the numbers mean, what the policies are that he will be proposing, what the budget will look like. Because that will determine our ability to move with the kind of lofty goals that he put before us today.”
The inaugural ceremony, which was actually a special joint session of the Legislature, featured performances from a drumming and choral group of Passamaquoddy young people as well as the Maine Steiners, an a cappella group from the University of Maine.
Military personnel from Maine also were featured prominently throughout the ceremony, from the Maine Army National Guard’s 195th Army Band to the All-Service Honor Guard that included representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
An estimated 4,000-plus people returned to the civic center Wednesday evening for an informal reception, which the governor had requested rather than the traditional inaugural ball in order to reduce costs.
LePage and his wife, Ann, greeted supporters waiting in the lengthy receiving line, with the governor frequently stopping to sign inauguration programs or other keepsakes.
During the campaign, LePage frequently said one of his first acts as governor would be to erect a sign at the southern end of the Maine Turnpike proclaiming that Maine was “open for business.”
And just before 8 p.m. Wednesday, LePage received a gift inspired by that pledge: a large, blue highway sign reading “OPEN FOR BUSINESS.”
The sign was the idea of John Stewart and Cynthia Rosen, a couple from Washington, who solicited donations ranging from $5 to $100 from LePage supporters. Stewart said he purchased the official highway sign for $1,300 from a sign-manufacturing company in Texas.
“We’ll take a ride to Kittery in the morning and we’ll put it up,” LePage said, grinning.