NORTH BERWICK, Maine — Of all the decisions Mark Eves has made as a father and elected official, one of the hardest was what to tell his son after a pig scramble when the boy asked if he could take the pig home.

“Good grief,” Eves thought to himself, though he reluctantly consented.

The first order of business was to build a sty, but in that, at least he had experience. Elsewhere on his family’s modest property at the end of a rural, dead-end dirt road are penned-in goats and chickens that roam free.

Farm animals in the yard are hardly rare in Maine, but Eves starting every day with a feed bucket in hand might be hard for some to imagine. As the Democratic speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Eves is more well-known for his polished appearance and the carefully measured demeanor he brings to the House rostrum.

During the past year, he also has emerged as Public Enemy No. 1 for combative Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“I don’t think the people of Maine want fighting at the State House,” Eves said recently, sipping coffee on the porch of his family’s cozy two-story home. “I have decided to focus my efforts on working with people who are willing to be good-faith negotiators. I think people appreciate a relaxed leadership style that’s more in line with the people of Maine.”

Not everyone agrees, with some Democrats suggesting Eves’ measured responses to LePage’s personal attacks and condemnation of the Legislature could be interpreted as weakness.

“His temperament is such that he doesn’t want to create havoc with anyone, and I think that is one of the reasons that the governor probably saw him as a pushover,” Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who was speaker of the House for 19 years ending in 1994, said. “What Mark should have done at some point is go into the governor’s office one on one and told him exactly what he thought of him.”

Rocky roads

Despite his usually mild-mannered demeanor, Eves has found himself at the receiving end of bitter public clashes with LePage, especially after Republicans in 2014 won a majority in the Maine Senate, effectively pushing one of LePage’s other chief foils, former Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland, into the background.

After innumerable clashes on policy issues, LePage made his attacks on Eves personal earlier this year, when the governor publicly ransacked Eves’ reputation and forced Good Will-Hinckley, which runs a charter school for at-risk children in Fairfield, to rescind a $120,000-per-year contract to Eves to be the organization’s president.

In a letter to the Good Will-Hinckley board in early June, LePage said Eves’ skills in conflict resolution, leadership, negotiation and reconciliation were “sadly deficient.” In a now-infamous handwritten letter LePage wrote to Hinckley board Chairman John Moore, which Moore said he threw away, LePage called Eves a “hack.”

The controversy, in which LePage threatened to withhold state funding for Good Will-Hinckley unless it fired Eves, has grown since it erupted. LePage is under investigation by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, and Eves has filed a federal civil lawsuit against the governor, which seeks unspecified financial damages. Some House members are threatening to launch impeachment proceedings against LePage.

Meanwhile, Eves said he is struggling on one hand to maintain enough decorum in the sharply divided House for there to be hope of consensus while on the other trying to earn a paycheck to help his wife, Laura, support their three children.

“I lost a job I was really looking forward to doing, which would have changed our family’s life for the better,” Eves said. “I never thought [LePage] would follow through on his threat to withhold that money, but he did.”

Eves’ lawsuit and any legislative action against LePage would take months or years to unfold, and Eves says he knows his family is in this fight “for the long haul.”

On the defensive

Although Eves criticized LePage in the past, for the most part the arrows in this battle are flying in one direction. That’s largely the way it has been between LePage and legislators during the three years of LePage’s tenure that Democrats, led by Eves, have controlled the House: LePage keeps his foes on the defensive.

Some lawmakers and political observers have quietly questioned whether Eves should strike a more aggressive tone. While well-liked and respected, Eves at times has frustrated members of his caucus as LePage’s fiery demeanor has overshadowed his careful and measured public responses, regardless of the issue. This approach, in the Legislature as well as the Maine Democratic Party, has fueled criticism that Democrats lack the tenacity or will to stand up to LePage.

On the other hand, Eves is firm at the House rostrum, adhering astutely to procedural rules and at times loudly gaveling down outbursts from members of both parties in an effort to maintain decorum and order.

Behind the scenes, he has found a way to command loyalty — or at least solidarity when it comes time to vote — from House Democrats, a group whose ideology runs the gamut from Portland progressives to social conservatives such as Martin.

Outside the chamber — and especially in public confrontations with LePage and House Republicans — Eves’ sterner side has been less evident. While there have been few public criticisms of Eves from members of his party, Martin said Democratic ideals might be better served by a more bombastic approach from party leadership.

Martin said as speaker — such as when he and Democrats battled with Republican Gov. John McKernan over workers’ compensation reform, which led to a government shutdown in 1991 — he tried to maintain a balance between a calm public persona and a fierce negotiator in private.

“I would say Mark Eves is too nice of a guy,” Martin said. “That was not my style, and it would not be my style now.”

Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, who was House speaker for two years preceding Eves, said he views Eves as fair in running the House’s business.

“He’s one of the key spokesmen for the state’s Democratic Party, and as a result his ideas and my ideas about how to run the state vary greatly,” Nutting said. “Gov. LePage has his positions as well, and for reasons of their own the two of them don’t seem to get along. It makes it hard to come to compromise on issues, but I don’t think you can put all of the blame for that on the speaker.”

Eves for governor?

There are some who look to Eves as the Democrats’ next candidate for governor, though it would be an uphill battle because candidates for statewide office from York County have historically fared poorly — especially in the more conservative and provincial 2nd Congressional District. Eves won’t talk much about his gubernatorial ambitions but does not deny the possibility.

“Just hearing people saying that is a little surreal for me,” said Eves, who will be term-limited out of his House seat in 2016. “If an opportunity came up that made sense for my family, I’d love to continue to serve in public office.”

After moving from state to state as a child and earning a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Eves moved to Maine in 2003, where he started a career working with at-risk children and their families. In the early days, that involved visits to homes where family dysfunction and mental illness were often of epic and multigenerational proportions. Much of the time, his presence wasn’t welcome.

“A lot of these kids knew their parents had some serious issues,” Eves said. “Some of them were suicidal. You never know when you leave that house whether that kid would take their life that night. I can’t even relate to that.”

It was in those difficult circumstances that Eves began to recognize that what some see as a weakness he sees as his strength.

“I’ve learned that just having some basic human dignity goes a long way,” he said. “You have to have the ability to connect with people. That’s also true in the Legislature.”

‘Look out for one another’

After winning his House of Representatives seat by about 500 votes in 2008, Eves became a fierce advocate for Maine’s health care safety net and one of the leading proponents for expanding Medicaid under the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act. As speaker, he has made supporting senior citizens his marquee issue.

“My parents always taught me, and now I’m instilling it in my own kids, the responsibility we all have to look out for one another,” Eves said. “We are our brother’s keeper and have a responsibility to work with one another.”

Heading back to Augusta in January and possibly to the ballot in 2018, Eves said voters should expect more of his low-key leadership. As he has said and written, he carries with him daily what his mother said every morning before he left for school: “God loves you and so do I, and remember who you are.”

Jo Ann Eves said recently it has been difficult watching her son engage in this battle with LePage.

“As a mom you want what is always good and shiny for your children,” she said. “I believe he is remembering who he is. I’ve seen a lot of growth and wisdom in him.”

Mark Eves said his immediate goals involve supporting his family. After being let go by Good Will-Hinckley, he accepted another job offer at Woodford’s Family Services, which serves children and families with special needs and where Eves worked previously. Eves is one of the organization’s development officers, which means, among other things, that he is responsible for fundraising, building partnerships and soliciting grants.

Eves said he was worried his controversy with LePage would make it difficult for him to find another job, but Woodford Executive Director Paul Nau said that’s not the case.

“We brought Mark back because he did a great job for us before,” Nau said. “We’re glad to have him back.”

As for his relationship with LePage, Eves said he’s still hopeful the governor and Legislature can forge a constructive working relationship. But “hopeful” and “optimistic” aren’t the same thing.

“The governor is still marching forward with this behavior,” said Eves, who added he will not participate in any impeachment proceedings if they arise. “I think the people of Maine are expecting the governor to be held accountable. You shouldn’t be able to use taxpayer money and your elected position to get someone you don’t like fired.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.