Former Gov. Paul LePage pumps his fist as he walks off the stage at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. LePage formally kicked off his campaign for a third term in front of more than a thousand noisy supporters at an indoor arena in the capital city. Credit: Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald via AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage called again for Maine’s personal income tax to be eliminated at a kickoff rally for his 2022 gubernatorial campaign on Wednesday, criticizing his successor’s reversal of many of his key policies.

The former governor — who moved to Florida after leaving the Blaine House in 2019 but returned to Maine last year and hinted all along that he was considering another run — formally filed as a candidate in early July. But he kept an uncharacteristically low profile this summer, sticking to smaller Republican events and unannounced visits to agricultural fairs.

LePage’s candidacy has been welcomed by the Republican base, but he faces a tough race against Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who has had higher approval ratings thus far than the former two-term governor achieved during his divisive eight years in Augusta with a last term punctuated by a 2017 government shutdown and a strong national economy.

He focused on budget issues and school choice in his kickoff speech, while addressing the COVID-19 pandemic briefly and mostly in general terms. He hammered Mills on many topics, including early pandemic restrictions on houses of worship and school closures, while calling for more “parents’ choice” in education.

“My campaign stands for faith, freedom and trust,” LePage said. “My opponent stands for power, control and the politics of the past.”

Known perhaps more for flare-ups than policy during his two terms, LePage made national headlines at different times in 2016 for suggesting drug dealers were impregnating “white girls” in Maine and then leaving a profane voicemail for a lawmaker who criticized him.

He entered his tenure behind Republican majorities in the Legislature, signing landmark bills that established charter schools, enshrined the biggest income tax cut in Maine history and paid back long-standing hospital debt using liquor revenue. But his relationship with fellow Republicans in the Maine Senate soured in 2015 and he left the Blaine House with a record 642 vetoes — which was 173 more than all 23 Maine governors dating back to 1917.

Mills, who as attorney general warred with LePage during their overlapping tenures in statewide office, won the 2018 race to succeed him over a Republican who ran on preserving LePage’s legacy, with her victory buoyed by Democratic majorities in the Legislature.

She overturned much of her predecessor’s policies, implementing voter-approved Medicaid expansion that he repeatedly blocked, hiring more state employees and setting more aggressive climate goals, though she resisted efforts from progressives to raise taxes on high earners.

Budget issues were a theme of LePage’s Wednesday address as the former governor bashed the size of Mills’ first state budget and efforts to hire state workers in positions his administration had left unfilled. He said the state’s use of federal pandemic aid money was unsustainable. While Mills’ two-year budgets have been the largest in state history, she has also bolstered the state’s rainy day fund to record levels exceeding the LePage years.

LePage called again for the elimination of personal income tax, something he pitched unsuccessfully during his tenure. Doing so will be difficult: That tax is expected to generate $1.8 billion — or 44 percent of all revenue — this fiscal year. The former governor proposed raising and expanding the sales tax in 2015 to cut income taxes, but Republicans were skeptical and negotiated a budget that set LePage’s priority aside.

Also on Wednesday, LePage suggested a program allowing parents to send children to a school of their choice for a year and received some of his loudest cheers when calling for stricter voter identification laws.

The event at the Augusta Civic Center featured several hundred supporters, with few wearing face coverings still recommended at the city-owned facility as a pandemic precaution. LePage wore a mask to the stage before speaking. He mostly avoided discussing the pandemic outside of criticizing Mills over nursing home deaths and knocking school closures and mandates, though he avoided talking about vaccines directly.

“We don’t need government mandates,” he said. “We need freedom.”

His speech was preceded by remarks from lawmakers and others. An endorsement video from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins touted the former governor’s job-creating credentials, but many in the crowd booed the centrist Republican before a smaller group cheered her words of support.

Mills has not launched a public-facing campaign yet, but she is raising money and has teased a rollout in the coming months. During a COVID-19 news conference on Wednesday, she said it was “way too early to be talking about campaigns,” but her campaign sent an email to supporters earlier in the day criticizing LePage for “failed leadership.”

“We simply cannot go back,” it said.