[Editor’s Note, 6/16/2022: The following article, the first in a two-part biography of Maine Governor Paul LePage, appeared in the now defunct Portland Phoenix‘s January 12, 2012 print edition. As the articles are not available in their entirety on the web — and LePage is currently running for a non-consecutive third term — I’ve reposted them here. Part II is here.] 

Escaping Poverty; or, the Horatio Alger Years
Portland Phoenix, 12 January 2012

By Colin Woodard

Governor Paul LePage generated more controversy and negative press in his first year in office than most Maine politicians do in their entire careers. Elected on a promise to cut taxes, social spending, and regulations that hamper job growth, he has undermined his standing with legislators and the public by picking unnecessary fights with the NAACP, women, organized labor, journalists, and even the leaders of his own party.

A man who campaigned on his Dickensian childhood and identification with the hardworking everyman, once in office LePage outsourced much of his policy agenda to favored lobbyists representing smokestack industries within Maine, and massive corporations from beyond. A candidate who waved a copy of the US Constitution on the stump, LePage has shown remarkable ignorance about its contents, and has seemed surprised by, and impatient with, the limits to the powers of the office he sought and won. A talented business manager whom friends and enemies alike frequently described as plainspoken and honest, he has had a worrying propensity to invent easily-disproven stories about himself and others, and to try to shout down and bully anyone who challenges him.

On the first anniversary of his inauguration — and given that he has already filed to run for reelection — it’s time to look at the man and how he got to where he is.

LePage’s administration appears driven by his personal psychology as much as his politics, and many in Maine have wondered what is driving their chief executive, what parts of his agenda come from personal experiences and convictions and which are opportunistic favors for friends, allies, and donors. In short: who is Paul LePage, what forces shaped him and his world view, who are his true friends and allies, and what sort of Maine is he seeking, open-mouthed and close-fisted, to create?

An examination of his life reveals a focused, hardworking youth who escaped poverty by gaining the attention of private benefactors and who thinks others can do the same; a successful manager schooled in the old industrial economy, a sector whose interests dominate his economic, environmental, and labor policies; a leader unafraid to impose austerity measures, but who has always done so by intimidating — rather than co-opting — would-be opponents; and a governor who, a half century removed from his days on the streets, still takes pride in the rules he sometimes bent to get ahead.

(The governor elected not to participate in this story. His spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, did not respond to our inquiry for eight days, then apologized and said she would be happy to assist, and then, questions in hand, went silent.)

Paul Richard LePage was born in Lewiston on the ninth of October, 1948, the first son of Gerard and Teresa LePage, Lewiston natives of Quebecois descent and limited means.

His father, a 24-year-old mill worker, was the son of immigrants from Saint Jean de Dieu, a small Quebec farming village 70 miles north of Madawaska, who then lived in a modest three-bedroom cape on a small grassy lot at 759 Lisbon Street. A Quebec genealogist recently revealed Gerard to have been one of the fifth-great-grandsons of Rene LePage de Saint Claire, first lord of Rimouski, Quebec, but his branch of the family had inherited neither wealth nor privilege. Gerard’s father, a printer, had emigrated to Lewiston in 1919, married a local girl, and raised nine children. Gov. LePage has said his father had only a third grade education.

When Gerard LePage turned 18 and was drafted to fight in the Second World War, he was assigned to a field artillery training regiment and, according to his service record, sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for training in March 1943. His fellow enlistees participated in the invasion of the Italian mainland that fall, but Gerard did not. He had been given an honorable discharge from the Army in August on account of “inaptness,” a designation the army’s Office of Medical History says was given to an individual “considered to possess defects of intelligence or personality which exculpated his inability to render adequate service.” He returned to his parents’ home on Lisbon Street and found a job at the Androscoggin Division of the Bates Mill. He married Teresa Gagnon in April 1947, by which time he had a son from a prior relationship, according to Gov. LePage’s brother, Maurice.

After their fourth child was born in 1953, Gerard and Teresa moved to the tenements of Little Canada, the densely populated Franco-American neighborhood squeezed between the textile mills on the Lewiston riverfront. French was most everyone’s first language, children were schooled by nuns and priests at St. Mary’s grammar school, and regular church attendance was the norm. Little Canada had earned a bad reputation in decades past, allegedly a scene of crime, disease, and unsavory social clubs. “In high school, I’d ask the kids I played hockey with to come down to my neighborhood and play in my yard,” recalls Roland Moreau, who lived a few doors down Lincoln Street from the LePages and was one of Paul’s classmates. “They’d talk to their parents and they’d say, ‘no, you can’t go down there — that’s a bad neighborhood!’ It wasn’t really like that in our generation, but if you were from Lincoln Street, you were considered to be from the wrong side of the tracks.”

Little Canada was also a tight-knit neighborhood in a city and time where people watched out for their neighbors’ children. Lincoln Street’s many children played in a park near the LePages’ tenement building — kick the can in the summer, snowball fights in the winter — swam in a nearby public pool, or lined up at the local fire station to be fitted for hand-me-down skates. Sam Alpren, who owned a steel-products business across the street from the LePages, would occasionally drive two or three impoverished children to the downtown department stores, fit them with new sets of clothing, and drop them off at their doorsteps. “The adults knew what Sam was doing, but he didn’t want to be thought of as a hero, he just felt you had to do something for the kids every once in a while,” Moreau recalls. “There was goodwill in the neighborhood, and it was down almost in a whisper, because they didn’t want to make people feel like they had a handout.”

“You could go to a fire station around dinner time and those guys knew the neighborhoods and knew you were the youngest of sixteen kids — as I was — or could tell by your clothes. ‘Sit down and have supper with us, they’d say,'” recalls Alice Bisson-Barnes, who was born in Lewiston two years before LePage, and had to travel on crutches after a crippling accident at age four. “If you were walking down the street and it was twenty below zero — which Paul and I both did — the guard at the mill would insist you warm up in his guardhouse. You could knock on the parish door and you could tell the priest you didn’t have money to buy milk for the kid and they would give it to you. Generosity was a lot easier to find in those days. People cared. That’s the community we lived in, that Paul grew up in.”

Paul and his siblings needed lots of help. When Paul was five, his father lost his job at the Androscoggin Mill — it would close down entirely four years later — and was thereafter listed in the Lewiston Directory as being a house painter and, later, simply a laborer. Meanwhile, Paul’s mother birthed children on a nearly annual basis — seventeen in total — crowding their apartment on the third floor of 215 ½ Lincoln Street. At night, the parents bedded down on living room couches, while the children slept in the two bedrooms, four or five to a bed, Paul’s younger brother, Maurice, told the Portland Press Herald. Most of the eleven other families that lived in their four-story wood-frame building were equally large. LePage has said that by the time he was ten there were 83 children living in the structure, which has since been demolished. Moreau, whose father owned the building and operated a grocery store on its ground floor, recalls mothers doing their washing by hand and hanging it on the back porches to dry. Children carried firewood from the basement to fuel wood-fired kitchen stoves, which were the only means of heating water. There were two to three apartments per floor, whose many occupants shared a single toilet. There were no showers.

Early on the morning of August 21, 1957, Paul’s four-year old brother, Norman, died of acute gastroenteritis after two days of suffering. Neighborhood children, attracted by the emergency vehicles, gathered outside and watched the child’s body being carried out to the ambulance. “It stuck in my mind because it was my first — and I think Paul’s first — exposure to death,” recalls Moreau. “Everybody had that somber look — and Paul too — and you connect with the eye, but nobody ever spoke about it after that. That was the mindset.” Shortly thereafter, police called the ambulance back from the funeral home, according to the account in that day’s Lewiston Evening Journal. Paul’s 9-year-old brother Emile was also seriously dehydrated from the same infection and was rushed to hospital and saved.

In this time period, Moreau recalls Paul’s father as “a lean, stooped-over kind of guy” who “always had that haggard look, like ‘I have to put food in the mouths of these kids and whatever I can do I have to do.'” According to Paul, his father drank heavily on weekends, and was violent when he did so. He has said he faced beatings “every Friday afternoon starting at three until Monday morning at seven. I was the oldest boy and therefore the punching bag for many years.” One Sunday when Paul was just shy of his 12th birthday — probably September 25 or October 2, 1960 — he has said his father beat him severely, breaking his nose and dislocating his jaw. His father visited him in the hospital, slipped him a fifty-cent piece, and told him to tell the doctors he had fallen down the stairs. “The physician was excellent; the nurse wanted to scratch my dad’s eyes out. They were all angry, but back then the laws weren’t as tough as they are now,” Gov. LePage recalled at a public forum this summer. “They knew, they knew exactly [what had really happened]. I just never had a chance to talk to the doctor. The minute [my father] left, I left.” LePage didn’t go home, and has said that even when he visited his dying father a half-century later, he never again slept under his roof.

LePage has also said repeatedly that he keeps a fifty-cent piece in his pocket at all times, but not for the reason most would expect. “I carried my fifty-cent piece not so much to remind me of the beating,” he told a Portland audience last summer, “but to remind me: you never hit kids and you never hit women.”

After LePage left the home, Gerard turned on Maurice, then 7, who has said he remained at home to protect his younger brothers and sisters. Their mother, he told the Press Herald’s Tom Bell, was a good woman, but not strong enough to stand up to her husband. Instead, she asked her children to kneel beside her and recite the rosary in French. Maurice said he would stay up until after his drunken father fell asleep because on several occasions, Gerard had rolled up newspapers, doused them with kerosene, stuffed them in a slipper stuck under the family television, lit them aflame, and walked out of the house. “My father,” Maurice said, “was an evil, evil man.” Another sister, Diane, who was five when Paul left, told Bell there was often not enough food in the house because their father had drunk his wages. A younger brother, Donald, was a toddler when LePage was sent to the hospital; he was struck by a car on Lincoln Street at age four, fracturing his skull, according to press reports at the time. Two others were hospitalized simultaneously a few months thereafter. LePage has said that the family did not have health insurance and that his father still owed Lewiston hospitals more than $100,000 in 2005, when he died.

LePage made his “life on the streets” a major part of his campaign story, retelling it in his stump speech and in numerous interviews. According to his account, he slept in cellars, in hallways, and at friends’ houses. He shined the shoes of businessmen and Brunswick Naval Air Station personnel visiting Hotel Holly, a strip joint on Main Street. Sometimes the women who worked there would let him sleep in a bedroom that was not in use. He has admitted to hiding in a Lincoln Street alley on Halloween, 1960, and mugging younger children for their candy, a story he recounted with a roguish smile. (His morally ambiguous punchline to this anecdote — “And now I’m governor of Maine, and there’s nothing left to steal” — made headlines last year.) He cleaned stables out at the harness-racing track, where the caretaker told him to remember this phrase: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” He met and tagged along with Myrick, who drove a delivery truck for Seltzer & Rydholm, helping the older man load and unload cases of Pepsi. He eventually started washing dishes for Eddie Collins, who had just purchased Theriault’s Café, a diner at 209 Lincoln Street, in the shadow of LePage’s parents’ home. He has said he passed on some of his earnings to his younger siblings, so they didn’t go hungry.

LePage apparently managed to conceal his semi-homeless status from many of his classmates, from the priests at St. Mary’s grammar school, and even from Myrick. Moreau, who was Paul’s classmate, says he was unaware of his friend’s circumstances at the time. “Maybe I was very naïve or not perceptive enough to notice,” he says. He recalls no interruption in Paul’s studies at St. Mary’s (which charged modest tuition), but that at some point he stopped playing and running around with the neighborhood kids. “Some of the kids in the neighborhood were envious of Paul because he had met up with this Pepsi delivery man, and at the end of the day he would give him a full case of Pepsi Cola,” says Moreau, who also remembers often seeing Paul at work when he and other kids would drop in to Theriault’s to share a big (fifteen-cent) order of french fries. “A lot of kids had little part-time jobs, but Paul was always working, always hustling and pretty serious in what he did.”

LePage was especially proud of his association with Myrick. He has recalled that in seventh grade — a year into his semi-homeless period — his teacher asked each student what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Everybody gets up and wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut,” he recalled.” I wanted to be a Pepsi Cola truck driver! And they thought I was a real clown and comedian and I had everybody laughing, but I was serious. I had no idea of any other level of aspiration. That’s what I knew of life at the time.”

Lewiston’s informal social infrastructure supported LePage in ways that would be remarkable today. At some point, Myrick realized LePage wasn’t really living at his parents’ home. (He told a reporter that he dropped off LePage one day to find his parents had moved without leaving a forwarding address, but Gerard and Teresa remained at 215 ½ Lincoln until LePage was in high school.) He and his wife took Paul into their own home across the river in Auburn three days a week. Eddie and Pauline Collins — who had an apartment in Little Canada — took him in during the midweek. Moreau recalls Paul slept on their couch and got up at 4:30 in the morning to help Collins with the café’s baking before going to school. “We treated him like a son,” Collins told the Associated Press in 2010, “and we still do.” Collins later introduced LePage to Thomas J. Anthoine, owner of Anthoine Rubber Company, who also gave LePage employment and would later help pay his college tuition. Myrick brought LePage to the attention of his close friend, Peter Snowe, a young Auburn businessman and aspiring politician, who would help LePage get into and pay for college.

LePage credits Myrick and Collins for saving him not just from poverty, but from the malevolent influence of the Maine Department of Human Services, which had apparently taken an interest in his situation. “Welfare and dependency it spawns got its hooks into [my younger siblings] early, and they never escaped,” LePage told writer and Tea Party activist Robert Shaffer in 2009. “The system is designed to breed dependency — once you’ve become skilled at milking he system, breaking free is almost impossible. To this day, I have no idea what people mean when they say…that cutting welfare will ‘hurt’ people.”

He has since argued that mentoring — not welfare resources — is key to helping children escape generational poverty. “In life you are going to hit a lot of Ys in the road, and without the right mentoring you’re likely to slip and take the wrong road, and too many in our society today have done that,” he told a Portland audience last year. With generational poverty, he added, mentors have to intervene before children reach adolescence to have the best chance of success. “When I got out of college, I was going to become the knight in shining armor and I was going to help my entire family,” he said, by way of an example. “I had one brother who robbed my wife. I had another who stole from our home. If you don’t get them early and they become teenagers, it’s more difficult.” LePage has said many of his siblings wound up in prison or as welfare dependents. He has also said he regrets not having intervened to remove his much younger siblings from the home. “The big difference between myself and some of my siblings who were closer to my age is that I was more of a sponge for learning things,” he told a Portland audience last year, “and some of my brothers were more of a sponge for taking things, which got them in trouble.”

“Incarceration was never an option, because I’m claustrophobic, so crime was out. My only option was to work hard and outsmart my opponents,” LePage told Shaffer in 2009. “For me it was a matter of seeing the Haves and the Have Nots, and making a conscious decision to be one of the Haves.”

Vernon Moore, associate professor of social work at the University of New England, says LePage’s attitudes toward welfare, social services, and impoverished adults are not unusual for people who’ve become successful after escaping childhood poverty and abuse. “As one who comes from conditions very similar to Gov. LePage, my goal has been to remove luck from the equation, because some of us are very lucky and some of us are very unlucky,” he says. “What I’ve discovered is that those who . . . are unwilling to accept that it was their good luck and the bad luck of others [that explains their success] move in a direction that is much more focused on . . . individual responsibility.”

“On one hand he can recognize that he had assistance, but I think he ignores that not all of us are going to have help from the private sector — from friends or family or people in the street who decide to help us through chance encounters,” Moore adds, noting that such informal community support is much rarer now than in 1960, when he and LePage were children. “To demonize a system that is there to help people is unfair to the system, to the people who work in it, and the people who go through it.”

LePage has also admitted a willingness to bend the rules to get his way. Last year he revisited St. Mary’s — now the Lewiston Franco-American Center — and told an audience, grinning with pride, that the only reason he graduated from Lewiston High School was that, on account of alphabetical desk assignments, he sat behind the same girl in many of his classes. “She was the brains, I got through high school,” he said. Despite this academic osmosis, he had poor grades, and he has said his verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was just 300. He had been involved in no extra-curricular activities. A high-school guidance counselor advised him to become a painter, like his father. Then Peter Snowe, who had just won a seat in the state legislature, intervened.

LePage has said Snowe, 24, told him: “you find a college that will accept you, and I will make sure your first year is paid for.” LePage claims to have applied to 50 schools, and received 50 rejection letters. But Snowe intervened again, asking the founder of Husson College in Bangor, Chesley Husson, to grant his lanky young mentee an interview. Husson met LePage and agreed to bend the rules, allowing him to take an aptitude test in French. “I did very well and they accepted me,” LePage has said, noting he was placed on academic probation “so they could bounce me if I didn’t live up to the grade.”

“If it wasn’t for Peter Snowe, seriously, I would still be in generational poverty,” LePage told a Tea Party gathering in January 2010. “I would still be on the streets and I would still be on welfare.”

Snowe later married a Lewiston orphan, Olympia Bouchles, now a US senator. (He died in a tragic car accident in April 1973.) John Richter, Senator Snowe’s chief of staff, said she was not on the scene when her late husband would have helped LePage, but that Myrick was, indeed, one of Mr. Snowe’s close friends and that the incident “sounds like something Peter would have done.” LePage has nonetheless remained fiercely loyal to Ms. Snowe, endorsing her reelection. “She went on to finish the job he started,” he told a Portland forum, and suddenly looked choked up. “And she is now the senior senator from the state of Maine.” Richter said their friendship is partly based on common experiences: “the senator and the governor share the same hometown as well as very challenging times growing up, with the senator’s parents having both died by the time she was ten years old.” (She endorsed LePage’s gubernatorial candidacy.)

Beginning the escape

Attending Husson was a more than just a turning point for the future governor. He recently described it as his greatest achievement, saying everything else has “all been a bonus.” He’s said his fraternity brothers “were literally my family” and that the education he received was the “driving force” of his future success. “My life began the day I started college,” LePage told an audience last summer. “I wouldn’t want to live a day prior to going to college.”

LePage — thin and serious looking in photos from the period — thrived. He was editor of the daily campus newsletter, the Tomahawk Tally, vice president of the student senate, treasurer of his sophomore class, junior class vice-president, and president of the senior class. He played intramural sports, joined an outing club and a fraternity, and served on the college’s student affairs committee and as a counselor to other students at the career planning office. All the while, he held part-time jobs — bartender, short-order cook, editor — to pay his living expenses. (He has said his first-year tuition was paid by Snowe and Anthoine, the remainder covered by scholarships and loans.) He would graduate with, he later boasted to a newspaper reporter, a “3.0-plus” grade point average.

LePage arrived at Husson at a strange historical moment. The school had just moved from its downtown Bangor location to a new campus in the outskirts. Parking lots remained unpaved, and many lawns were still unseeded. The new brick dormitories and academic buildings looked out on the construction sites of other yet-to-be completed buildings. But college administrators were already having trouble filling all those new beds and classroom seats. “They had taken out all this debt to build this campus, but hadn’t figured out where the students would come from,” recalls Chuck Sliter, who was a year behind LePage. “They looked around and said, oh my God, there aren’t enough people in Maine to fill all these dorms!” In desperation, Husson dispatched recruiters to community colleges across the northeast in an effort to get transfer students. “I went up there sight unseen,” says Sliter, who transferred from upstate New York. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to end up, because it was probably the most dysfunctional college around at the time.”

There were a lot of takers. “It was right in the smack middle of the Vietnam era, and your student deferment would end if you stopped going to school,” says Walter Sprague, who joined LePage’s class from a three-year college in Boston sophomore year. “Many people wanted a four-year school.” Husson, whose student body had previously been almost entirely from Maine, was suddenly split between natives and an odd assortment of students “from away.” The out-of-staters were more likely to have taken onboard the fashions, haircuts, and ethos of the ongoing cultural revolution. “There was a lot of short hair, and those were usually Mainers coming out of small towns who would go back to them once they got a degree,” says Sliter. “The college was very conservative — girls weren’t allowed in the boys’ dorm and vice versa — but they were all college kids, so they wanted to get laid and drink and have a good time. Fraternities and sororities were dying across the northeast at the time, but not at Husson.” For male students, Tau Kappa Epsilon was dominated by out-of-staters; Kappa Delta Phi was a mixing ground for more privileged students; Mu Sigma Chi (or MEX) — which LePage joined — was dominated by Mainers, especially Franco-Americans. “For [white] out-of-staters, it would have been easier to get into the Black Panthers than to get into MEX,” Sliter says.

Sprague was an exception to this rule, as he became friends with his dormitory roommate, the president of MEX. “The fraternity was very close, period,” says Sprague, who also served with LePage on the school newspaper, in the Young Republicans club, and in the student senate. “We both had not political aspirations, but rather a bent toward some kind of leadership role. He was active in all the elements of the school’s activities, political life, and student life. I’d characterize him as being fully engaged.”

One of the biggest honors at Husson was to be elected “Chief for a Day,” a sort-of homecoming king honor which theoretically allowed a student to act as the college’s president for 24 hours. MEX nominated LePage and, by coincidence, a rival fraternity put his childhood classmate, Roland Moreau, up against him. “That year, for the first time, it was decided that staff and janitors could vote as well,” Moreau recalls with a chuckle. “Paul won by two votes, and allegedly both were cast by janitors.” Moreau was not aware that that electoral change had been engineered by LePage himself, a bit of rule bending that the governor remains proud of today. “He was in a larger, much more popular fraternity, and I was in a fraternity that was like Animal House,” a grinning LePage told an audience at the Franco-American Center last year. “This is how I won . . . As president of the student senate, I convinced the student senate to allow everybody to vote! . . . And I never told Roland that. Strangely enough, he works for the state,” the governor added, basking in his 40-year-old triumph, “for the revenue department.”

As governor, LePage has regularly declared his contempt for the press. Ironically, at Husson LePage founded the school’s first real newspaper on his own initiative and served as its first editor-in-chief. “The Tomahawk Tally has sometimes been mistaken for a newspaper, but it is not,” LePage editorialized in the inaugural edition of the Spectator Weekly, which, he wrote, “will stamp out the communication gap [and] furnish a real newspaper to the students, faculty, and administrators at Husson College.” Students and faculty were urged to “express their ideas and philosophies about society” in a mission to “conquer and destroy the apathy that surrounds us.” Students responded, complaining about faculty hassling bearded, long-haired students and — especially — the obstacles administrators put in the path of drinking and getting laid.

“He put out the first couple issues on a mimeograph machine at school, but then he went out and got this printer in Brewer,” says Sliter, who took over as editor in 1970, when LePage decided to be business manager. “Paul worked out this relationship with him and was getting incredibly good deals. The school was subsidizing it, and Paul would go out and hustle the advertisers. He was economical and really a pretty organized guy for a kid. But I don’t think he was in it for the love of the news business. You got paid for being editor, and we were responsible for writing down our own hours, so it was like a license to steal.”

Sliter said he was surprised LePage got involved in politics, because he’d always seen him as an introvert. “Frankly, I don’t think anybody knew Paul that well . . . He was a quiet guy who always went to class and never got in any trouble I knew of.” Sprague, who was closer to LePage, said he was a person “well known on campus and who had opinions well-formed even at that age . . . Paul was an opinionated guy back then, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about his opinion.”
“I don’t think he was looking to be a politician, he was looking to not fail,” says Moreau. “He worked to get the education he sought, and as he continued to be successful by not failing, he was learning along the way how to succeed, and that’s how he gained his confidence.”

LePage, who had technically been on academic probation throughout his college years, was cited for “outstanding academic and extracurricular achievement” at his graduation in May 1971. He had a degree in business administration, a girlfriend he was about to propose to, and the opportunity for a future far greater than he could ever have hoped for in high school.

READ: The Making of Paul LePage, Part 2 by Colin Woodard 

This project was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.