At first, Bill DiGiulio was impressed by the handwritten note he got from Gov. Paul LePage after he wrote to the governor about the state’s response to a series of apartment house fires in Lewiston this spring.
By the time he got to the end, he was shocked.
The blunt three-sentence response starts with “Bill, I’ve done my part, far more than anyone else,” and ends with “What have you done?”
“At first I was just shocked, then I thought it was funny,” said DiGiulio, who lives in Bowdoin and is a vice president of a job placement firm in Portland. “I showed it to a friend and he congratulated me: ‘You made it, you got an intimidating letter from your own governor.’”
Now, DiGiulio’s letter and the governor’s response hang on a wall in his Portland office.
DiGiulio wrote to the governor on May 9, the day after LePage visited Lewiston in the wake of three fires over eight days that destroyed nine buildings and left more than 180 residents homeless. LePage said the state had no discretionary money to help the victims.
In fact, there was state discretionary money, and LePage had tapped it in the past.
“Why are you telling us that you haven’t found any such funding?” DiGiulio asked in his letter. “Why are you not doing everything in your power to help these people out Governor? I would like to hear back from you on this issue.”
LePage eventually did release $50,000 in state funds to the city.
In his letter, LePage wrote, “I put up $50,000 plus forgave some $400,000 in loans owed by the City of Lewiston. What have you done?”
Lewiston officials said Wednesday that they had no knowledge of the $400,000 loan forgiveness.
“That’s news to me,” said Finance Director Heather Hunter.
City Administrator Ed Barrett didn’t have any immediate information about it and said he would look into it.
Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, said what the governor cited in the letter is forgiveness of $382,000 in debt from a road project “done years ago.”
He said LePage asked his commissioners for ideas to aid Lewiston after the fires, and Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt suggested forgiving that debt.
“He could have announced he was forgiving the debt at a spaghetti supper,” Steele wrote in an email. “But he preferred to do it out of the limelight, as he does with many of his gracious gestures.”
Former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci hosted a spaghetti supper Wednesday at Lewiston High School, with proceeds going to the United Way of Androscoggin County’s Lewiston Fire Relief Fund.
When asked Wednesday about the tone of the letter to DiGiulio, LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said, “What’s wrong with it?”
She called it “matter of fact.”
“What you have here is a governor who is engaged with his constituents and responds to his constituents,” Bennett said.
One expert on government leadership called the exchange “refreshing.”
“I think it is a good thing that people in elected office sometimes tell constituents what they believe they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear,” said Marty Linsky, who has taught leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for more than 30 years.
“Your governor has a reputation for directness that is unusual and pretty distinctive among governors,” Linsky said. “It’s a bit Chris Christie-ish,” he added, referring to the tough-talking Republican governor of New Jersey.
DiGiulio had his own take on LePage.
“I’m sorry, but he’s always seemed sort of a petulant bully. It’s that whole anti-intellectual streak,” he said.
A former Greenpeace worker who is active now with the liberal MoveOn.org organization, DiGiulio said he’s politically active, donating modest amounts to causes and politicians he believes in, attending political rallies and contacting his elected representatives by phone or mail a few times a year.
This was his first letter to LePage, he said. Aside from the tone of the response, DiGiulio questioned the way LePage referred to the state funds.
“First off, that’s not his 50 grand,” DiGiulio said. “That was yours, and mine and everyone else’s.”
Linsky said he thought LePage’s blunt talk was good. “Since there is so much pandering to constituents, it’s kind of refreshing,” he said.
DiGiulio said he definitely didn’t feel like LePage pandered to him.
“The joke is that they shouldn’t let (LePage) near a microphone,” he said, “but I’m not sure they should give him a pen.”