AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said during a business breakfast Wednesday morning that Donald Trump was his third choice for president.
LePage initially endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the Republican primary, but he said for the first time Wednesday that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was his second choice. LePage previously has introduced Trump at rallies in Maine, including one in Portland earlier this month.
“I am supporting Donald Trump. It’s a situation of the lesser of two evils,” said LePage, who reportedly called on fellow Republican governors in private to disavow Trump less than a week before publicly endorsing him. While Trump has had his ups and downs, he’s still a businessman, the governor said.
At the Business Insider Breakfast presented by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, LePage also talked about taxation, public policy and getting things done Maine as well as presidential politics to the largely supportive crowd of about 80 people gathered at the Senator Inn & Spa in Augusta. LePage also said his next budget will strongly lower the state’s income tax and raise the sales tax.
Although LePage hasn’t said previously Bush was his second choice for president, the pair have a history in politics in this state. That includes Bush appearing at the first major fundraiser for LePage’s 2014 re-election campaign for governor, even as LePage was distancing himself from Bush’s controversial education reform foundation. The governor’s administration was facing criticism over revelations that it had permitted Bush’s foundation to draft virtual charter school policies, proposed legislation and even one of the governor’s executive orders while the foundation had strong ties to companies that would profit from the proposed changes.
While he’s had concerns about controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails while secretary of state, LePage said at the chamber talk that he was more concerned about her actions following the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“It’s repugnant to me that she wasn’t willing to get them and bring them home,” LePage said of Clinton. “The Pentagon had to overrule her. We do not, as Americans, leave our soldiers behind. So she’s out.”
The Clinton campaign on Wednesday declined to respond to LePage’s remarks, but pointed to a fact-check by Politifact in response to a similar statement by Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate. The fact-check points out that the responsibility to deploy troops to Libya was not Clinton’s, but rather rested with the military chain of command.
LePage said the American people are angry with Congress and President Barack Obama, and that explains the popularity of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who led an unsuccessful insurgent candidacy against Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
In his wide-ranging style, LePage on Wednesday touched on the shortage of workers in Maine by saying — with a half-laugh — that he wanted to recruit 100,000 Puerto Ricans to relocate and work in Maine. Puerto Rico, with its high unemployment rate and roiling financial crisis, is an American possession, so Puerto Ricans would require no immigration review. LePage said he didn’t know how he could keep them in Maine during the winter.
The governor also touched on the need to improve public education, expand hydro power in Maine to continue to bring down energy bills, and cut red tape.
He also talked about his frustration about the difficulty of getting things done.
“Many of you here know we can’t get there with the configuration we have (in Augusta),” he said. “It’s not a Republican-Democrat thing; it’s a common sense thing. No one has a monopoly on stupidity.”
LePage made his case for cutting the income tax and raising the sales tax, which he said is below the national average.
“We spend beyond our means,” he said. “That’s why I say in November that it’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s about the people who care for the state of Maine and will work for the state of Maine, and not special interests.”
The state, he said, is doing well, citing the fact that he was recently named one of the top governors for economic policy in the country. “We have the right policies we don’t have the right cooperation in Augusta, and it’s not cooperation so as much as it is ideology.”
LePage’s nod came from the American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative nonprofit group of state legislators and corporate executives that develops and shares model state-level legislation — which praised LePage’s 2016 State of the State address as one of the best in the country for economic policy proposals. LePage declined to give that address in person before the Legislature, instead submitting it in letter form to legislative leaders.
In November, voters will have six state ballot questions to consider; one is a bond issue and the other five are referendums.
While he favors the $100 million bond issue for transportation projects, LePage was succinct in his opinion on the referendums: “No, no, no, no, no.”
“We’ve done more work in the last six years than we have done in the previous 20 years,” he said. Because of the mild winter, the state has saved enough money to pave an additional 63.5 miles of roads; the hangup is the state can’t find contractors because they are all working.
The five remaining questions cover legalizing marijuana, establishing a 3 percent tax on household income over $200,000, requiring background checks for gun sales and transfers, increasing the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020, and statewide ranked-choice voting.
“It’s not good legislation. They are written by special interests and not by professionals. They will be difficult to interpret,” he said.
If the gun referendum passes, LePage said, he won’t enforce it. The Maine Constitution says citizens have the right to bear arms and that shall never be questioned, he said, calling the ballot question unconstitutional. If people want to bring about such change, they should instead try to amend the Constitution, he said.
LePage was due to speak later Wednesday at a town hall-style meeting in Sanford; he’s also scheduled to speak Monday at a luncheon meeting of the Waterville Rotary Club at the Alfond Youth Center on North Street in Waterville.
Jessica Lowell — 621-5632