Full Measure interviewed the U.S. governor who recently vowed he'd "no longer speak to the press ever again." That governor is Republican Paul LePage of Maine and he’s been embroiled in controversies stemming from his dislike of the press, and his unorthodox ways, which some find offensive or worse. His supporters think he’s a straight-shooter who’s become a political target in part because of his aggressive push to reform The Welfare State. Full Measure explores his effort to get Mainers off the dole and whether it’s a model for the rest of the nation.
Maine is known for scenic water views, an abundance of lobster and its reputation as a welfare state.
But this summer, Governor Paul LePage’s effort to reform that reputation was threatened by an expletive-filled voicemail he left a critic over whether his policies are racially-motivated.
Governor Paul LePage Voicemail: “I want you to prove that I'm a racist. I've spent my life helping black people and you little son-of-a b---- socialist ----sucker.”
That drew national attention and calls for him to resign.
Rachel Maddow Show: “This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of Governor Paul LePage, his controversies and his fights and even his public smearing. That would take way too long.”
But LePage insists he’s not going anywhere and will continue pushing aggressive welfare reforms, which helped him get elected in 2010.
That year, a full 36% of Maine’s budget was spent on welfare like food stamps and cash assistance.
Call Center Operator: “We’ll either call you back today or tomorrow.”
LePage: “I am the example, the poster child for the American dream, and you don’t it by taking. You do it by giving and earning what you have.
Call Center Operator: “Let’s go ahead and look at your expenses as well.”
LePage has launched a crackdown on fraud after discovering a shocking detail nobody else had unearthed; millions of dollars in food stamps intended for needy Maine residents were being spent in far-flung locations like Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Sharyl Attkisson: “What does that tell you?”
LePage: “It tells me that it doesn’t work (laughs). That’s what it tells me. It tells me that there’s nobody check, looking after the chicken coop.”
Tom Roth leads the effort to catch welfare cheats.
Tom Roth: “We’ve got one large case that should be going for indictment soon that’s about a quarter of a million dollars in theft and that’s our largest case to date.”
LePage has also pushed through a series of major welfare reforms. Maine was one of the few states with no restrictions on how long people could get cash assistance. Now there’s a five-year limit. Those convicted of drug crimes can be booted off welfare if they flunk a drug test.
And then there are big changes to the food stamp program.
LePage: “Food stamps is a copout. The difference between myself and those who say, ‘I’m bad because I don’t want to give them food stamps’, I’d rather teach them how to earn money so they can buy their own food.”
Under revisions made in October 2014, Maine adults under age 50 with no dependents can only get food stamps if they enroll in vocational education, volunteer an hour a day or work 20 hours a week, if they’re mentally and physically able.
After one year, the results were remarkable. The food stamp caseload of childless adults dropped more than 80% from above 13,000 to under 2600.
LePage: “I’ve met some people that in 2010 hated me. Hated me. I was, when I was campaigning about reforming welfare and I would just get these letters occasionally saying, “You were absolutely right. Now I’m not on benefits. I am self-reliant for myself. We’re productive.
But the governor’s brand of tough-love has plenty of skeptics. Chantal Brouillard is a restaurant manager in Castine, Maine.
Chantal Brouillard: “I think that, yeah, we can’t have a state that’s dependent on it, but I think he is potentially going to take away benefits for families and community members that really, really need it, and I think that’s scary.”
State Senator Nate Libby, a Democrat, accuses the Governor of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Nate Libby: “I think the Governor has sort of um created this sense in the state of Maine that all welfare is bad, and that you know, people should be cut off of the public assistance rolls at any cost, without sort of looking at the corollary effects of that.”
LePage’s reforms and his running commentary on the causes of Maine’s social ills, have set off critics. Earlier this year, he said most Maine’s heroin problems are coming from black out-of-state drug dealers.
LePage: “Guys that are named ‘D-money,’ ‘Smoothy,’ ‘Shifty,’ these type of guys that come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here. They sell their heroin. Then they go back home. Incidentally, half the time, they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”
Confronted by what he viewed as a hostile media and accusations he’s racist, LePage lashed out and said he wished it were the 1880’s so he could duel one of his critics.
And he stood by his earlier criticism.
LePage: “This is what I said. There’s a, we have a lot of people from Connecticut, New York, The Bronx, they come up to Maine with heroin. They’re killing our people. And yes, they move into, they find a woman to move in with. And since we’re 99% white, it’s a white woman. Sorry, but it’s a fact.”
Attkisson: “The words people use about you that you don’t like are often ‘angry,’ ‘racist’…
LePage: “Oh I’m racist?”
LePage: “If I have something to say, I say it right out. And do I say things that are not politically correct? Yes. Will I continue? Yes. Do I get attention? Yes. All of the above. And I think you people worry too much about PC being politically correct, instead of the heart of the person.”
LePage insists his heart is in the right place and his philosophies deeply rooted in personal experience. His grandparents came to Maine from Canada to work in the textile mills. He grew up in an abusive home, speaking only French. He’s the eldest of 18 children…most he never knew because he ran away at age 11.
Attkisson: “Was it a tough upbringing?”
LePage: “A major tough upbringing. Major. And to the point where I just couldn’t take it, and I left.”
Attkisson: “What happened?”
LePage: “It was a beating. Um a vicious beating. And I left home.”
He lived on the streets until two families gave him work and took him in.
Attkisson: “Some would say being someone who grew up in poverty, abused as a child, homeless for a time, that you should have the most kind of sympathy for people?”
LePage: “I do.”
Attkisson: “Going through that.”
LePage: “I am the most compassionate person for poverty that exist in the state of Maine, and the United States of America. You try growing up, can’t speak English, on the streets of Maine. I’m gonna tell you, you go to school with a hole in your shoe, and you get a piece of cardboard to keep it from freezing, and the fact that you’re living on the streets, you don't have a shower every day, and you tell me we don’t get discriminated against.”
He a became successful businessman and father of five, including a young man he calls his adopted son, Devon, who is black. LePage says his street experience taught him what helps and what doesn’t.
LePage: “July of 1964 we had a war on poverty, and we’ve thrown money at it, and then we turn around and walk away. But I roll up my sleeves, and work with people, and teach them how to get out of poverty.”
On our visit, the governor took us to Capitol Clubhouse, a program that trains the mentally ill so they can earn their own paychecks.
Clubhouse worker: “Thank you for visiting our clubhouse.”
30 years ago, LePage was the first businessman in the state to hire so-called transitional employees from a Clubhouse project.
Drowned out by the noise over the Governor’s controversies are his supporters and successes.
Attkisson: What do you think of Governor LePage?”
Shirley Anne Davidson: “I love him.”
Davidson: “Why? Because he’s not a politician. One of the things I agree with is the idea that everybody should be pulling their own weight.”
Scott Mitchell: “His concerns about the state are spot on in regards to the things that need to change in the state of Maine. His approach is questionable. We all know that.”
While more people have been getting on food stamps nationally, it’s the opposite in Maine. Under LePage, the state’s food stamp enrollment has dropped 23%. Cash assistance cases are down 62%. And the amount of food stamp money spent outside of Maine has been cut almost in half
Eric Brakey is a Republican state senator.
Sen. Eric Brakey: “Welfare reform has been a very popular message here in Maine. Now maybe in some corners of you know, “The People's Republic of Portland”, uh may- maybe it’s not always not always as popular there. Um but, but statewide we, we see that um welfare reform is very popular. “
So popular, there’s a brand new law barring people from spending cash benefits on alcohol, tobacco, guns and tattoos.
And it was sponsored by a Democrat: Senator Libby.
Libby: “A lot of Mainers are really surprised to learn that you can use state public assistance to buy cigarettes and alcohol. And I don’t think there’s anybody who thinks that’s a um an expenditure that helps pull somebody out of poverty.”
As the sun sets on the LePage administration; he’s out in two years under term limits; he plans to stay the course. It remains to be seen whether Maine’s reforms will lead to more poverty, as some critics fear.
For now, the state’s call centers sound a little less like a welfare state.
Call Center operator: “This is definitely a temporary assistance. It’s not something that’s permanent.”
And LePage says he’s out to reduce dependency, not make friends.
LePage: “I don’t care. I wasn’t here to be liked. This is my story about uh being liked. When I want to be liked, I go get a dog. It’s unconditional love, and I have 3 now. I might have to have a 4th one before I’m done (laughs).
A footnote— Full Measure visited the Governor in Maine shortly before he swore off talking to the press amid controversy over his remarks about black heroin dealers coming from out-of-state.