Gov. Paul LePage traveled to Washington County on Tuesday for a scheduled tour of Downeast Maine. Maine Wire reporter Steve Robinson tagged along.
The day started off at Cobscook State Park in Edmund Township, where the central U.S. government inexplicably attempted to close down a boat launch used by local fishermen. Although the state park is located within Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, it is funded and maintained by the state and Washington County. The federal attempts to blockade a boat launch located within Cobscook became a point of conflict between the LePage and Obama administrations earlier in the week.
Throughout the week, the governor had been working with Washington County officials and state legislators from the area to keep the ramp open. Although federal officials had barricaded the entrance to the ramp Monday, there were no federal employees – or barricades – in sight.
“I’m guessing someone came at o’dark-thirty and made sure those barricades were gone,” joked Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, a sparkle of joy in his eye at having won an obvious victory over the central government.
As LePage supporters and local officials began to congregate, a faint bleating could be heard, when suddenly a herd of sheep came charging down the driveway, gobbling grass as they came.
The farmer, a LePage supporter, said the goats represented the Republican caucus in Washington, D.C., who only hours earlier had surrendered on the shutdown, delivering on very little of their demands after more than two weeks of pitched negotiations.
While nearly everyone one, apart from the media, was there to support the governor, there was one guy who seemed oddly out of place: Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant’s tracker — the charming fellow who is paid to film the governor wherever he goes.
The governor arrived a little late – Cobscook is a big place – and wasted no time getting to business. He approached Gardner and Washington County Sherriff Donnie Smith to discuss the situation.
“We thought it was taken care of over the weekend,” Sherriff Smith told LePage. “We were prepared to make it work one way or the other,” he said humorlessly. LePage shook his head as Gardner led them down to the waterfront.
“The lease says this boat ramp is the responsibility of the state and the county,” Gardner said. “The county maintains from the high water mark back and the state has from the high water mark down,” he said. “There’s nothing in there that says anything about the federal government’s role.”
With the waterfront in the backdrop, Gardner, LePage, and State Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst) took turns addressing the press.
Gardner reiterated the facts of the matter before addressing the obvious politicization of the problem: “There’ll be some in D.C. taking a victory lap over a problem they caused,” he said. “But the reality is we haven’t left the boat, we’ve just moved closer to the band.”
“We thank you and your office and we hope it stays open,” he said.
The governor began by saying he was there to make sure people can work. Once he signaled he was ready to take questions, a combative reporter from the Bangor Daily News shouted the first few questions.
“Governor what’s the point of coming up here today if the federal shutdown is over and now it’s, uh, been open?”
“The point is I’m up here all day,” quipped the governor, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “The point is I was going to be here all day so we decided two days ago I was going to stop by here,” he said.
The reporter pressed on: “You know, a statement issued by your office two days ago the other day criticized Mike Michaud for uh, sort of announcing uh the action by the federal fish and wildlife service after your announcement on Tuesday. Uh, his office said that he got calls from constituents on Monday and he’s been working on it since then.”
“Okay,” LePage said, laughing and shrugging his shoulders. “What can I say?”
The reporter pressed further: “Well, uh, they started putting notices on the uh windshields of fisherman on their trucks up here back at the beginning of October. How come you didn’t do something earlier?”
“Because we didn’t, quite frankly, I didn’t think the federal government was silly enough to go through this charade. That’s why,” said LePage. “And I actually had a little bit of faith in our federal government. And I totally lost it on the first of October.”
Once the BDN reporter relented, Rob Poindexter of WABI Channel 5 asked, “Given the lack of faith that you now have … do you have any confidence that we won’t go through this again?”
“Oh no, we’ll be there again right after the holidays. I have no confidence that this [federal] administration can do anything. This is a vindictive approach. This is the only park that they’ve come in and closed. There is absolutely no reason in the world for doing it. This park is under state lease. We have the responsibility for it. We spend the dollars. I’m amazed. I’m absolutely amazed they chose this one to come in and interfere with a state park. Matter of fact, we have a lease and I’m going to ask them to take it back. Because they might as well run it if they’re going to start doing what they’re doing.”
“Has the federal government given any justification for closing it down given that it is state owned?” I asked.
“No — no. I keep asking and they don’t know,” he said. “They’re saying that they don’t know.”
The BDN reported leapt again: “Why didn’t you send a few state employees up there at the gate at the beginning of October and just have them, uh, bust that lock on that gate?” (Note: there is no gate to lock at the entrance of the landing.)
“I tried to answer that, sir. I did not think that the federal government would take it to this extreme… they talk all the time. And there’s so much hot air coming out of Washington that you don’t know what to believe and not to believe. And so quite frankly, I didn’t think anything was going to come of it until October first came,” said LePage. “And, in 95’ if you recall, when they closed it, they didn’t do it to hurt people. It was an ideological difference. This time, they put as much hurt on the American people as they possibly could. And I just can’t fathom that a U.S. government would do that.”
“Everybody in Washington should be thrown out of office,” he continued. “In 16 days of government shutdown they did not accomplish one iota,” he said, blaming both Republicans and Democrats for the chaos in the capital. “There’s no monopoly on stupidity,” he said. LePage ended his remarks to the press saying the toll the shutdown has taken on Maine highlights the “danger of being dependent on the federal government.”
With the press event out of the way, the governor and his team saddled up and headed out, with State Sen. David Burns (R-Washington) leading the convoy. I was lucky enough to tag along.
The first stop on the Downeast tour was the Elm Street School in East Machias. Principal Tony Maker, AOS 96 Superintendent Scott Porter and the smiling president of the student council greeted the governor at the door. In the lobby of the school building, the governor listened intently as the school’s staff explained the history of the building, recent modifications, and funding concerns in the district. He was led into the cafeteria/gymnasium where some young pupils were hungrily eating their lunches. The governor worked his way around the room and got high-fives from every student.
After a brief inspection of what was being served for lunch, LePage’s next stop was a 4th grade classroom, where he learned about the classroom motto: N.E.D. – Never give up, Encourage others, Do your best. He asked all of their names and made sure he wasn’t keeping them from lunch. LePage asked the class what their favorite subject was. They all agreed on math. So he told the kids reading – a decidedly unpopular thing with the students – was the most important thing to learn in school.
Then he quizzed the students on their presidential history. “Who was the president who served two terms that weren’t back to back?” the governor asked. “I’ll give you a hint – the house I live in is named after the guy he ran against?” That tip was a bit over their heads, so he offered another: “His last name is the name of a city with a pro football team…. the Browns…”
“Cleveland!” a student yelled out. Now it was the students’ turn to ask the questions.
“Have you met any presidents?” a student asked. “Yes, three,” the governor replied. “George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.”
“Oh yeah, I met another one when I was your age, but he is dead now,” said LePage.
“Was it Abraham Lincoln!” a student shouted. The room filled with laughter.
The governor laughed and said, “I’m not that old.” (It was JFK when he came to Lewiston.)
“Are you gonna run for president?” asked one plucky student. “No, but I am running for governor,” LePage said.
Offering one last piece of advice, LePage told the kids, “Remember one thing: the last time I knew it all, I was your age.”
The governor next met with the recently elected student council. The council members got to ask him questions for about 30 minutes and the governor talked quite openly about being governor and current policy issues. One asked whether he liked being governor or the general manager of Marden’s more.
“Let’s just say the job at Marden’s was easier and more satisfying,” said LePage. “Being governor is more political. I’m not very good at the politics, but I think I get a lot of things done,” he said. “The best part is not having to go through security at airports.”
“In all seriousness, I love working for the people of the state of Maine,” he said.
Another student council member asked a more pointed question about education policy and school choice.
“The most important thing is inspiration and passion,” he said. “Just because you live at a street address doesn’t mean you should have to go to that school,” he said, adding that the future of America was in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
A seventh grade boy probed about Obamacare, and the governor did his best to explain the law and his opposition to it. “It forces the American people to buy a product,” he said. “And you can’t force someone to buy something they can’t afford.”
“I do believe in a safety net,” he added. “But where does that end?”
The next stop on the tour was lunch at Helen’s Restaurant. In the parking lot of Helen’s, the governor took a phone call – a difficult thing in the cell-service black hole that is Washington County. “Still stuff going on with the state workers union,” his staff told me.
I wasn’t about to let union tactics get between me and a fried haddock sandwich, so I went and found myself a table. The couple at an adjoining table looked curiously out the window.
“Is that the governor,” they asked. I told them he was on a tour of Washington County.
“So you must be the reporter following him around,” the woman said. “You’re not giving him a hard time, are you?”
I asked what they thought of the governor. “One thing about it, he’ll let you know where he stands,” the husband said.
After an all-too-quick meal, the caravan hit the road, this time headed for Downeast Community Hospital.
“Lately it’s a lot of fun visiting hospitals,” LePage told me with a smile as we walked in.
Douglas Jones, President and CEO of Downeast Community Hospital led LePage on a tour of the hospital. Some nurses behind a desk were delighted to see him.
“We just want you to know, governor, that there are three fishermen’s wives in this office. So thank you for doing what you did this morning,” said one nurse, dressed in floral scrubs.
From out behind a curtain, an anonymous patient shouts, “Governor LePage!”
“I don’t care what anybody says, you’re all right,” he said. The governor beamed.
The hospital visit ended with a meeting with senior staff – a meeting I was asked to stay out of.
DCH is a small operation, one hospital worker told me, and it serves a very large area. It’s a lifesaver for a lot of people who arrive in critical condition, are stabilized, and then transported to larger facilities in Bangor.
“If you’re in a car accident on Route 9 in the winter, there’s no chance you make it to Bangor in time,” he said.
The next stop on the tour was Coastal Maine General Contracting, Inc., a small family-run construction company run by Maine-native Matt Gurney. LePage looked around the shop and asked questions about Gurney’s business: what kind of construction do you do, how big is the company, what’s business been like?
“It’s been tough going,” Gurney told the governor, “but were doing all right.”
“We’d like to expand,” he said.
“You will,” replied the governor confidently. After posing for some pictures, the caravan loaded up for the next destination: the East Machias Aquatic Research Center.
EMRC is a sustainable salmon hatchery funded by the non-profit Downeast Salmon Federation. DSF chairman Alan “Chubba” Kane started the project in 2012, retrofitting an abandoned Bangor Hydro Electric Co. hydro-dam. The building now boasts an innovative research facility – complete with solar panels and wind turbines – that is committed to restoring wild salmon populations through unique hatchery research and techniques.
The governor listened as EMRC researchers explained their work. “Most hatcheries don’t even come close to replicating Mother Nature,” explained Chubba. He said when most hatcheries release salmon into the wild it’s like “dropping a kid from northern Maine on the streets of Bronx.”
“They have a tough time surviving,” he said.
Standing over tanks of thousands of young salmon, the researchers explained how their method simulates nature by pumping river water into the tanks to create steady current.
Chubba said most fish raised in a hatchery become a buffet for birds when they’re released into the wild because they don’t know how to swim. “Ours – you dump ‘em in the water and, zip, they’re off.”
Like most of the people the governor met that day, Chubba needed a favor. “You shouldn’t need a passport to fish for salmon in Maine,” he said. “It could be a big money-maker for the state.”
* * *
All in all, it was an exhausting day following the governor around Washington County. The man keeps an incredible pace and never tires. While he headed to Robbinston for a mix and mingle event with the Eastport Area and St. Croix Valley Chambers of Commerce, I began the long drive back home.
Maine Wire Reporter