Exploring Governor Paul LePage’s Waterville legacy

In an American political climate where outspoken politicians continue to generate headlines on a national level, Maine Governor Paul LePage has often garnered widespread media attention. Although his name recognition now extends beyond Maine’s borders, LePage got his start much closer to home and laid the foundation for a lasting legacy in Waterville by serving on city council for two terms and as mayor of Waterville from 2004 to the time he took office as governor in 2011.

Current mayor of Waterville Nick Isgro characterizes fellow Republican LePage’s overall legacy in Waterville as positive based on his observations of city residents.

“When I think about my experience as mayor and working with the people of Waterville, I think [LePage’s] legacy has more to do with really working to try to represent the everyday Waterville resident,” Isgro said in an interview with the Echo.  “Everywhere I go or would be campaigning, people across all party lines, for the most part, would really speak in very favorable terms of his time as mayor and I think people felt like they had somebody at city hall who was really looking out for their best interests.”

Former mayor of Waterville Karen Heck ’74, an Independent who served as mayor from 2012 to 2014, has observed inconsistencies in LePage’s legacy in Waterville after years of working closely with him within local politics and as Rotarians.

“He was somebody I actually voted for the first time and I think he had the best interests of the City financially at first, but in his second term he really went about pretending to cut taxes…when in fact what he did was take surplus funds and use them for operating purposes rather than for the capital projects that they had been used for before,” Heck explained. “I think that he has a legacy there whether that’s a good one or a bad one.”

During LePage’s time as mayor, Waterville’s credit rating improved and the City’s “rainy day” fund grew tenfold, an indicator of LePage’s economic impact on the city of Waterville, a central theme of his gubernatorial campaign. Taxes lowered during the years he served and the mill rate, used to calculate property tax, did not rise. 

“He held the line on property taxes pretty well and I think the mill rate went down slightly which was important for him,” Colby government Professor Joseph Reisert said, a 25 year resident of Waterville who has been appointed by LePage to the state’s judicial compensation commission twice. “He was really pretty aggressive using the mayor’s authority with a predominantly Democrat city council to really keep the lid on spending.”

LePage was known for his willingness to use his veto power to block legislation put forth by the Democrats on city council. As a champion of small government, his focus on fiscal responsibility was a major trademark of his leadership and in his time as mayor, he was successful in eliminating several government positions and consolidating city departments.

Many point to the implementation of a new city charter redistributing power in city leadership as of the one of the greatest changes LePage brought about as mayor. The new charter strengthened the power of the town manager and city council while reducing the mayor’s influence and pay.

“Paul applied a business like approach to managing departments, identifying efficient use of services and eliminated unnecessary spending,” Nick Champagne said, Republican city councilman, in an interview with the Echo. “I was elected to the city council just last year and I can tell you that this approach can still be seen through the budget process and working with department heads. Many of the City’s department heads served under LePage as mayor and they still operate in many ways as they did when he was in office.”

Although LePage continues to advocate for conservative policy as governor, some of his opinions have shifted. Waterville’s relatively small geographic size and the large amount of property held by non-profits limit property tax revenue.  Given that Waterville gets the majority of its revenue from property taxes, LePage originally asserted that the state should support the City by redistributing funds from the state budget.

“I think in his time as mayor if you look at those budgets and you look at the large amounts of money that he was getting from the state, he actually did use the funds to give it back to the people of Waterville,” Isgro said.

As governor, LePage has sought to end revenue sharing.  This signifies one of the greatest disparities between his time as mayor and governor.

“Our income and sales taxes, collected by the state, are supposed to be returned to us through revenue sharing in order to pay for vital public services,” Winifred Tate said, a professor of anthropology at Colby and a member of City Council. “Governor LePage has refused to comply, leaving Waterville and other towns facing severe budget shortages.”

Another contrast lies in the increased controversy surrounding his conduct and frequently unfiltered comments as governor.

“I’ve known him for 35 years and I think there was a definite change in his approach to governing and to politics after Tea Party became popular,” Heck said.  “He was always fiscally interested in fiscal responsibility, but he was pro-choice, he was in favor of universal healthcare, and he was a supporter of gay rights. I think it was the opportunity he found to be a champion of the Tea Party that caused him to really alter the way he portrayed himself.”

Many liberal leaning students on the Colby campus, including Nellie LaValle ’18, president of the Colby Democrats, condemn the governor’s impact on the state in light of his controversial comments.

“I was aware of his connection to Waterville and I think overall, his legacy has been a positive one among the people of Waterville, although I personally see that he initiated the same kind of stripped down government as he as attempted to do at the state level,” LaValle said.  “I am also a Mainer, and he has been horrible for the state.”

Although LePage has been known for his outspoken personality in the past, his platform now attracts more widespread attention than it did in his role as mayor.

“His colorful and outspoken pronouncements were a pretty constant thing,” Reisert recalled.  “But no one really cares outside of Waterville if the mayor of Waterville says something nutty, it’s not going to make a national news story, whereas if the state governor does, well then that’s a bigger deal.”

“I think that in the last six years he has embarrassed the state nationally and internationally,” Heck said.  “He has dismantled and been disdainful of the legislative and governing practice… and I think that we’ve experienced for six years what we’ve been experiencing for the last year with Trump.”

While LePage no longer serves as the general manager of local retailer Marden’s, as he did during his time as mayor, he remains connected to Waterville whether spending time at the Waterville Country Club in the summer or fostering the City’s fledgling initiatives with Colby College and IT firm Collaborative Consulting.

“As a former mayor of Waterville, he’s been very helpful and in some ways instrumental in helping us with our partnership with Colby College,” Isgro. aid “It’s been a great partnership with all of the things going on between the city and Colby to have the governor’s office want to be a partner in all of this and help us get a lot of these things moving through.”

Regardless of how one views LePage, his legacy in the city of Waterville endures.

“It’s impossible to be re-elected multiple times as mayor of Waterville, particularly as a Republican, if he wasn’t someone notable and well liked,”  Isgro said. “He was the right mayor for the right time.”