Editor’s note: This story is part of a series examining Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy as his tenure comes to a close, including his impact on the economy, politics and more. You can read the rest of the series here.
Touring the Millinocket mill where his family worked for generations, Sean DeWitt was struck by the vastness of the unused space.
“It was like buying a city that had lost its source of power,” DeWitt said of his economic development group’s 2017 purchase of the Great Northern Paper Mill for $1.
As Our Katahdin fights to get out from under $1.5 million in unpaid taxes that are stymying hopes of redeveloping the mill, far to the south Paul Schumacher is witnessing a “Renaissance.”
From his office window, the director of the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission can see the Pepperell Mill. Over the past seven years, the sprawling Biddeford complex has been transformed from a vacant textile plant to the home of hundreds of residents and small businesses, including a popular restaurant, brewery and co-working space.
More than 200 miles apart, the death of one mill and rebirth of the other mark the divergent economic paths different parts of Maine have continued along under Gov. Paul LePage.
The divide maps a dynamic that’s defined the governor’s tenure: LePage has maintained staunch support in the northern, rural areas of Maine that have struggled economically during his time in office, while being deeply unpopular in the southern, urban areas that have prospered. Overall, voting data and a variety of economic indicators suggest Mainers’ opinions of the governor are divorced from what’s going on in their local economies.
For instance, in Maine’s left-leaning 1st Congressional District — made up of Cumberland, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, York and most of Kennebec county — the average unemployment rate dropped from 7.2 to under 3 percent from 2011 to 2017, the most recent year available, according to state data. During the same period, the unemployment rate in the more conservative, rural 2nd Congressional District, excluding a small part of Kennebec County, remained consistently higher, falling from 9.5 to 3.9 percent.
Although LePage has supported business developments throughout Maine, the geography of his political base has given the brash Republican incentive to champion rural parts of the state even as he has fought unending battles with its cities — especially Portland.
[LePage mostly made good on his promise to improve Maine’s business climate]
“Every governor has people who love them and people who hate them, and a significant part of that is partisanship,” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, a Democrat, said. “[LePage] has played to his base in the same way Donald Trump is playing to his base.”
First elected from a crowded field in 2010, LePage took office with roughly 38 percent of the overall vote and fewer than three votes in 10 from Maine’s 10 most populous cities. He won a second term during the Republican wave election of 2014, taking 48 percent of the statewide vote in a three-way race even while losing the 10 largest cities, overall, to Democrat Mike Michaud.
Donald Trump continued this pattern on his way to winning the presidency with LePage’s endorsement. In 2016, Trump won in Maine’s 2nd House District but lost in the southern and coastal 1st District — as well as in the state’s popular vote — to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In Maine’s 10 largest cities, the Republican won one vote out of every three.
LePage first entered office with Maine still deep in the recession. But during his second term healthy job growth, falling unemployment and some population increases in the urbanized, southern parts of the state have driven a strong overall state economy.
The governor’s press secretary, Julie Rabinowitz, said in a statement that Maine has made a “tremendous economic comeback” under LePage and touted the state’s “record-number” of jobs and “record-high” wages as accomplishments of particular note.
At the same time, many northern and rural portions of Maine have struggled to rebound, and continue to face population losses and unemployment rates well above the state and national averages.
This pattern is part of a national trend. Driven by market and demographic forces beyond the control of governors and presidents, the past eight years of sustained economic growth have benefited American cities more than rural regions of the country.
“We’ve had other mill sites in rural parts of our region that have tried to do the same thing and it just hasn’t taken off,” Schumacher, whose group works on economic development in York and southern Oxford counties, said. “It’s all about location really.”
For LePage, who made strengthening fishing, farming and forestry an important part of his 2012 State of the State address, trying to fight for rural areas was a core political cause.
[What stands out about LePage’s approach to the economy: A focus on industries of the past]
“The people who live in more rural counties have seen how hard [LePage] and his administration have worked to bring business to the rural parts of the state, and he has had great success,” said Rabinowitz, adding that the governor’s backing of infrastructure projects, including a Portland shipping terminal, has helped the natural resource economy support “jobs in the rural, and coastal areas.”
DeWitt said LePage has helped Our Katahdin settle the Millinocket mill’s state tax debt and tried to help the group over federal hurdles it will ultimately need to overcome to proceed with redevelopment.
“The support from the governor blew us away,” DeWitt said. “It just shows the commitment this administration has to the bioeconomy, to the forest economy in Maine.”
In Maine’s population centers, people focused on economic development have found the governor a less consistent ally.
LePage grew up on the streets of Lewiston, the state’s second largest city, and managed to claim victory there during both his elections. Over the past few years, the city has seen new investments in several high-tech manufacturing plants, but these have had little to do with the governor’s policies, according to Lincoln Jeffers, the city’s economic and community development director.
It’s national trends and local efforts that have spurred investment in Lewiston, while LePage’s cuts to the tax revenue the state shares with municipalities hurt the city, Jeffers said.
“I’ve got to say, candidly, that I think the LePage policies didn’t have much impact on most of these,” Jeffers said of Lewiston’s new manufacturing facilities. “The cuts to state revenue sharing were very challenging. They put multimillion dollar holes in the budget during already challenging budget times.”
The governor’s former finance chief contends that LePage’s reworking of the tax code and imposition of fiscal discipline on a state government that had been hemorrhaging red ink built the foundation for Maine’s recent economic growth.
“Sound management of state government doesn’t automatically make a state economy successful, but mismanagement of state government can destroy an economy,” said Richard Rosen, a former Republican lawmaker who served as finance commissioner from 2015 until he resigned in 2017 during the protracted budget fight that resulted in a government shutdown.
[Why LePage’s Portland offensive is a stroke of political genius]
LePage’s cuts to state spending and tightening of welfare programs have also brought him into conflict with other city leaders, especially those in left-leaning Portland.
In his efforts to dam the flow of state money to local coffers, LePage has cast Maine’s largest city as a rhetorical bogeyman, attacking its spending on General Assistance and the operation of its homeless shelter while trying to push through state budgets.
The governor also tried and failed to block Portland and Bangor from raising their local minimum wages in 2015, and loudly opposed a statewide wage hike to similar effect the next year.
At the time, LePage and other opponents of the mandated wage increase presented it as potentially calamitous, especially for rural areas. More recently, the governor said rising wages “mean a better financial situation and quality of life for Mainers in the long-term,” without noting the change to the minimum wage.
Whereas Rosen credits LePage’s tax cuts with helping Maine compete for business and workers, Strimling, Portland’s mayor, said the minimum wage increases at the city and then state level “made us more competitive and helped to close the economic gap.”
Heather Zimmerman, director of advocacy for Preble Street, contends that LePage’s unwillingness to spend available federal welfare funds represented policy failing in both Portland and the rural parts of the state where her organization offers aid.
“When we talk about keeping the state in a healthy situation that goes beyond balancing a budget,” Zimmerman said. “When we have families across the state who can’t keep a roof over their head or food on the table, we’re not in a healthy financial state.”