AUGUSTA, Maine — When it comes to communicating with Mainers, Gov. Paul LePage prefers small groups.
“I get my message out by doing town halls, meeting people on Saturday mornings in my office and talking with anyone who will listen, except for the press,” he told attendees Wednesday at his town hall meeting in Boothbay Harbor. “The reason I’m doing these town halls is I’m trying to give you an unedited version of who I am. I’m not nearly as bad as what you read every day.”
This form of retail politics is becoming LePage’s main method of communication with voters. For months, he hasn’t granted interviews to Maine media — railing against newspapers specifically at his town halls — and in recent months, news conferences have been rare and tightly controlled.
He uses occasional appearances on supportive radio shows, carefully managed public events and the town halls to deliver his message. Here’s why:
He can emphasize what he wants to make his case — factually or not. LePage’s remarks are often full of statistics and figures. Some are accurate, as the Bangor Daily News found in a recent fact-check of a transcript his June town hall meeting in Richmond.
But he also is liberal with falsehoods and half-truths, some of which have become core elements of the political narrative he uses to court public support for reforming government to comply with his conservative vision.
On welfare reform, for example, LePage has repeated blatant falsehoods several times, such as when he says half of all food stamps are redeemed between midnight and 3 a.m. on the day they are issued. The correct figure is about 0.65 percent.
Fudging these numbers to create the impression of rampant abuse and fraud helps convince voters that Maine’s public assistance system requires reform that penalizes recipients. LePage might be giving attendees an unedited version of himself, but he also is sharing his ideologically edited version of welfare recipients.
When it comes to a question on this November’s statewide ballot that would require background checks for some gun sales, LePage, who opposes the proposal, savagely misstates the details.
“It’s going to do background checks for letting someone use your gun or go hunting or you can’t let your son use your gun,” LePage said in Richmond. “It’s crazy. You’re going to have to apply to the federal government every time you want to use your gun.”
The background check initiative, which would affect only private gun sales, has exemptions for transfers between family members and during hunting trips.
He also hammers on the concept of Democrats having picked “winners and losers” for the past four decades on everything from energy policy to economic development. He doesn’t mention the myriad examples of his doing that himself, such as when he led the charge to drive an international energy firm’s deep-water wind project out of Maine and scuttled the creation of a new solar energy policy while at the same time championing a biomass industry bailout bill earlier this year.
In the battle against drugs, LePage has been just as aggressive — and at times incorrect.
In his efforts to limit access to anti-overdose drugs, LePage has told stories that are just incorrect, such as how a Deering High School student overdosed, was given a shot of Narcan and sent back to class. LePage later acknowledged that the story was false.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, a frequent critic and target of LePage, said the governor “re-uses the same talking points” and “even though they’re false,” many “have a tendency to believe them because he says them so many times.”
All of this allows LePage to define himself — and others — in ways that promote his agenda and undercut criticism.
He’s engaging voters who otherwise don’t follow politics, and town halls allow him more control of the message without having to answer challenging questions. Part of the reason behind LePage’s electoral success is that he has appealed to new voters and non-Republicans.
His drumbeat march through Maine communities for his town halls makes him as regularly accessible to the public as any governor in recent Maine history. That strikes a chord with voters and helps LePage define himself as anything but a politician.
“He’s taking time out of his weekly schedule to go out and inform the community every week, which I’ve never heard of a governor doing,” Tim Gauthier of Boothbay Harbor said.
Though the crowds the governor attracts rarely number more than a few hundred, word of mouth travels quickly through rural areas, intensifying the impact of his visits.
Ray Richardson, a conservative radio host and friend of LePage, said he suggested the town hall format. He called the meetings “the most effective way to talk to constituents.”
“I know to everybody, LePage is politics,” he said. “For LePage himself, this is not politics. This is really what he believes and how he feels.”
Still, sitting in front of a crowd doesn’t allow for follow-up questions or fact-checking from people, such as journalists, who are familiar with the initiatives he is addressing.
Although he is sometimes challenged by protesters, LePage’s words often are left to stand as he said them. Some of the falsehoods appear in hastily produced media stories on the events.
Town halls aren’t the only way to hear from LePage — he does talk radio appearances on Tuesdays on WVOM and Wednesdays with Richardson on WLOB. But the format demands that they move from topic-to-topic without digging deeply, and Richardson admits he’s “a friendly.”
Audiences react favorably, even when LePage says things that offend others.
There are usually a handful of obvious LePage foes at the meetings and some have been asked to leave. But it’s mostly his supporters who arrive in force. The applause is frequent, most of the questions are friendly and LePage’s tone is welcome.
“He’s trying to be blunt about it so people will wake up,” Gauthier, an automobile service consultant, said. “It’s an aggressive strategy but I think it works out because at least people are paying attention.”
Bruce Barter of Boothbay, who is in the tree removal business, said he learned of Wednesday’s town hall meeting about 90 minutes before it began.
“I really like the honesty that he has,” said Barter, who voted for LePage twice. “He doesn’t bull—- people. He just tells it like it is and no one wants to hear the truth.”
Of course, LePage’s “truth” isn’t always factual. Richardson said LePage’s message is “more about the broader picture of creating an environment where people think they can be successful” than the intricacies of facts or figures.
Chris Slattery of East Boothbay said voters are hungry for people like LePage, which she said is helping give rise to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Should LePage tone it down? No way, Slattery said.
“Now you’d be talking about someone who is a polished politician that’s trying to work the system that we’re all opposed to at this point,” she said. “Maybe he’s a little rough around the edges, but that tells me he is speaking from the heart and that he’s not couching every word so carefully that he ends up saying nothing at all.”
Don’t expect many changes — potentially to LePage’s peril. With two years left in his tenure before he is forced out of office by term limits, LePage is likely to continue with his chosen communication style and to do it in venues he prefers.
When he bends the truth or makes statements that cause offense, expect him to blame the media, the Legislature, or Democrats for blocking progress toward his vision. It’s working for him so far.
But this belies the fact that LePage isn’t widely popular in Maine. His approval rating hovered around 40 percent throughout his tenure, and the town hall audiences usually belong to that plurality.
McCabe said the town halls may appeal to those who “back him at every corner.” But the November election will decide the makeup of LePage’s last Legislature before he leaves office in early 2019. Republicans have a hard road to keeping the Maine Senate and could lose ground to majority Democrats in the House of Representatives.
If that happens, LePage’s last two years could be unproductive. McCabe said his narrow message may alienate some consensus-minded voters in both parties who “are actually looking for people who have leadership abilities and can be collaborative.”
That’ll be the real test of LePage’s communication strategy: Is it an echo chamber or an avenue for broader appeal?