Amid the chaos caused by President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, it’s worth remembering that Maine has been dealing with a smaller-scale version of such disruption for the last six years. Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t wield the enormous powers granted to American presidents, but within the context of our state, he’s practiced similar techniques.

The resulting confusion and consternation isn’t accidental, but part of the plan. Trump and LePage both display strong narcissistic behavior, which means, to them, that all criticism and dissent is illegitimate. While both identify as Republicans, they don’t remotely resemble the Republicans elected to high office a generation ago.

These character traits make resistance more difficult — in Maine, we’re used to more consensus-oriented behavior — but even more necessary.

True, we’ve had some difficult moments. In the 19th century — in a role less acclaimed than his stand at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, but even more vital to Maine — former Gov. Joshua Chamberlain faced down competing militias from the balcony of the State House, both of which had laid claim to represent the legitimate legislature.

In our own time, the nadir was the state government shutdown of 1991, eerily reprised when former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down Washington four years later. Such episodes leave scars, and it may be that we’re still shadowed by the disorder following the literal breakdown of governing in Augusta.

Under LePage, state government has struggled to maintain balance. For a small state, Maine has a powerful chief executive with a four-year term, unlike our northern New England neighbors, Vermont and New Hampshire, where governors still serve two years.

And Maine’s Legislature, once dominant, has been seriously weakened by term limits, imposed by a 1993 referendum in a misguided attempt to deal with the deadlock and shutdown two years earlier. LePage has often gotten his way through vetoes and various executive actions, unconstrained by our common understanding of legal and constitutional limits.

There have been notable exceptions, however. Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, a Republican willing to act when his Democratic colleagues hung back, challenged LePage on his extra-legal takeover of the bonding process.

While Katz’s bill to remove the technicality that governors sign bond warrants fell short, his stand forced LePage to end his blockade of bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program. The Legislature will get another chance to do the right thing this year.

Last week, the new House speaker, Sara Gideon, forced a similar climb-down. There was broad agreement that the Legislature and executive branch needed more time to implement the marijuana legalization referendum enacted by the voters, and to correct an apparent oversight that could have made marijuana use legal for kids.

That wasn’t enough for LePage, who also insisted on a $1.6 million appropriation that Gideon, correctly, said wasn’t permissible because there had been no hearings on the emergency bill. When the bill reached him, LePage refused to sign it, tweeting “the clock is ticking.”

A day later, he signed anyway, not wanting to be responsible for marijuana in schoolrooms. He then accused Gideon of “dirty politics,” which, in the circumstances, can be considered high praise.

Those who oppose LePage should expect vilification and abuse, but if they hold their ground and uphold our common understanding of the law, he retreats.

This hardly means we can avoid damage to the common good. At the State House recently, I had a conversation with a legislator who described how, in classrooms all over Maine, little kids come to school hungry every Monday morning.

Six years of a governor insisting that welfare “abuse” is a huge problem, and who’s willing to embrace absurd policies, such as giving up federal funding for nutrition programs because Washington won’t require photo IDs, takes a toll.

Not only has LePage refused to accept federal health care funding for 70,000 Mainers covered by the Affordable Care Act — also creating a financial crisis for rural hospitals — but he removed 30,000 who were already getting benefits through his 2012 budget maneuver that has never received the attention it deserved.

LePage’s powers are waning. He hasn’t been effectively involved in budget-crafting for four years, and his provocative budget this year will also be largely disregarded. He’ll continue to agitate for attention with his broadsides and ultimatums – and the press should use discretion about which of them actually need coverage.

Yet resistance is possible, and can be effective, with enough patience and judgment. Democracy is being tested in ways we haven’t before seen or imagined — and we can’t yet foresee the final outcome.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His first book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: