WATERVILLE — They say Gov. Paul LePage means well but doesn’t play well with others. He should resign but won’t because he is too stubborn. LePage says inappropriate and inflammatory things when he is frustrated or under pressure, but definitely is not a racist.

Three Democrats and a Republican who served with LePage when he was a city councilor and a mayor in Waterville before he became governor were critical but also understanding when asked Tuesday about LePage’s current situation.

LePage sparked several days of sustained controversy beginning last week when he told a North Berwick audience that he’s been keeping a binder of drug dealers, and that 90 percent of those dealers are black or Hispanic. Statistics show that the overwhelming majority of drug dealers arrested in Maine are white, and critics have said that even if the governor’s numbers were accurate, he is wrong to focus on race. LePage also threatened a Democratic legislator in a voice mail because LePage believed he was calling him a racist, then said on a radio show Tuesday morning he is contemplating leaving office early, though he later stepped back from those remarks in a tweet.

Even so, political pressure continued to build Tuesday on LePage, who was mayor of Waterville from 2004 to 2010 and was on the City Council for two terms before that.

Waterville lawyer David Geller, a Republican, said he knew LePage to be “a really good guy” in local politics. Geller was the only Waterville Republican contacted who commented Tuesday afternoon, while others contacted did not return calls requesting comment.

Geller, who served on the city’s Charter Commission when LePage was on the City Council, and whom LePage later appointed to the Charter Commission, said, “He’s a very nice person. He is generous.”

“He’s very smart and I was in the Rotary Club with him, and I never saw a red flag of him being racist,” he said. “He says things that definitely — appropriately — make people upset. I don’t think that he’s saying the things about the drug epidemic for any other reason than trying to address the drug epidemic. I don’t think there’s anything behind it, only because I knew him personally and I never saw any flags that he was racist or a bigot or anything like that.”

Geller said the governor’s job is demanding and stressful, though that’s not an excuse for LePage to say inappropriate things.

“But it might explain it,” Geller said. “Because of being the governor and having the other side — the Democrats — always in a battle with him, he’s unfortunately, it seems, always in battle mode. It’s just too bad.”

City Democrats who worked with LePage had similar but more pointed observations.

City Council Chairman John O’Donnell said, “Frankly, I don’t expect Paul to resign. I just think he’s too strong-headed and stubborn to do anything like that.

“I think he’s convinced he’s right and everyone else is wrong,” said O’Donnell, a Democrat who represents Ward 5.

O’Donnell, who was a councilor for several years when LePage was mayor, knows him well and says he likes him. Their children were in school together and he and LePage both were coaches, though they did not get along on government policy issues.

But like others who say LePage was a good mayor, looked out for taxpayers and worked to keep costs down, O’Donnell, an attorney, thinks he has not been a good leader for the state.

“He’s not a bad guy. He just has some far-out ideas, which oftentimes are not politically correct,” O’Donnell said. “I think it’s time he consider stepping aside, but I don’t think he actually will.”

O’Donnell says that given LePage adopted and raised a black child, he doesn’t think he is a “full-blooded racist.”

“But certainly his comments regarding drugs coming into Maine have racial overtones,” O’Donnell said. “It may just be a kind of ignorant way to look at it. Obviously we all know there are many people from out of state … bringing drugs to Maine, but maybe those kind of comments about who’s doing it isn’t doing anything to help. … It’s just starting a fire of a different type.”

Dana Sennett, a Democratic former council chairman and mayor, said he thinks LePage is frustrated with the drug problem in Maine and is speaking out of frustration when he says inappropriate things.

“He’s speaking out in vulgarities and he’s not thinking about what he’s saying,” Sennett said. “I don’t think Paul’s a racist. I think he was trying to make reference to the fact that people of color were being arrested on drug charges. However, I don’t think he’s reviewed the facts. I just feel he’s bringing attention — that we have a drug problem, that these people were standing out because of color. Is that racism? I don’t believe that was racism. I think in his mind, he’s bringing attention to the fact that we have a drug problem in the state.”

Sennett says he does not think LePage should resign.

“I think he should be censured. I think that would be the appropriate thing to do and be advised by the full Legislature that this type of language and actions won’t be tolerated on the state level.”

Sennett, who was an advertising sales representative for the Morning Sentinel when he was a councilor and mayor, said he worked well with LePage and the situation now is unfortunate because he probably has some good ideas.

“But he’s proven he’s not an effective leader,” he said. “I think he means well, but he doesn’t play well in the sand box.”

Former council chairman Fred Stubbert, also a Democrat, said people opposing LePage are “overemphasizing” the issue.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as what’s being portrayed, but I also think it could be a case of pressure getting to Paul,” he said.

Like Sennett, Stubbert does not think LePage is racist.

“Paul is French Canadian and has been looked down on in Maine ever since he was a kid, so he knows what this is about,” Stubbert said. “I do not believe he is a racist, but my feeling is that the pressure is kind of getting to him.”

Like Sennett, Stubbert says he does not think LePage should resign.

“I think he may need some help, though. He needs to calm down a bit,” Stubbert said. “I’m a Democrat and I’ve been in Maine most of my life. When I was a young kid, Maine was a Republican state. Ed Muskie was so popular that he built a Democratic party into a much larger focus. I think it’s healthy to have an active two-party system in Maine and I think that’s why Paul should stay on as governor until his term is over.”

Stubbert said he worked well with LePage, who has many friends who are Democrats.

“I have a great deal of respect for Paul,” he said. “Paul’s a very bright man. A lot of times he says things to get attention and make his point. He’s a very opinionated person, and sometimes the facts are not what people want to hear.”

City Manager Michael Roy was town manager in Oakland before LePage, as mayor, hired him to work in Waterville in 2004. Roy, who had worked with LePage for more than five years, declined to comment Tuesday.

Geller said the issues surrounding LePage are indicative of the state of the entire political arena — local, state and national — with people bickering and saying nasty things. He said he’s never seen anything like it.

“I don’t remember a national, presidential campaign like this, and I think that is unfortunately helping to fuel acrimony through the whole political process,” he said. “There’s just a lot of disturbing things happening on both sides of the aisle.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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