AUGUSTA — Former two-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage rallied a crowd of nearly 2,000 people indoors at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday, formally launching a campaign for his old job.

“Freedom is not free and prosperity is not a promise,” LePage said as he revisited his previous eight years in office and efforts he made to cut taxes, create jobs, and reform public education and the welfare system.

LePage also took aim at Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, criticizing her for overreaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and for rolling back efforts his administration made to trim the number of Mainers receiving public benefits, including Medicaid.

“She made the decisions on who is essential and who is not,” LePage said, “Let me be clear Janet Mills, let me be clear. Everyone is essential and every Mainer is essential.”

While Mills moved forward with an expansion of Medicaid that was approved by voters in a statewide referendum that LePage had stymied, she has not increased taxes.

LePage touted his efforts to limit the use of welfare benefits, including prohibiting the purchase of tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets with electronic benefit cards and a controversial move to place recipient’s photos on those cards.

“We had to fight tooth and nail for these reforms,” LePage said, “but it should have been easy because they are common sense. They are common sense reforms.”

LePage said Mills wants Mainers to be dependent on government instead of themselves. He vowed a return to office also would come with a strategic effort to not only lower the state’s income tax but to eliminate it entirely – an effort he focused on during his eight years in office. He also highlighted his push that led to a lowering of the state’s top tax rate and elimination of the state income tax for nearly 70,000 of the state’s lowest wage earners.

Supporters of Paul LePage cheer during his speech at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

He also called for an elimination to a state cap on charter schools and called for a “parents bill of rights.”

MILLS CAMPAIGN RESPONDS

Mills’ campaign responded Wednesday to LePage’s charges with a news release refuting a number of LePage’s claims, including that state government finances were in more dire straits then they were when Mills took office or that she had only pandered to the political elite in Augusta.

“Since Day 1, Gov. Mills has delivered for hardworking Maine people and Maine families,” her campaign spokesman, Michael Perry said in a prepared statement. “Under her leadership, Maine has expanded health care to more than 80,000 people, invested an historic amount of funding into our public schools, delivered property tax relief, expanded broadband and is fighting climate change.”

Are you glad to see Paul LePage back in the running?

Perry also noted that Maine had some of the best health statistics for the pandemic, including one of the highest vaccination rates in the country and one of the lowest case and death rates among all states. “The stakes of this election could not be higher. Now is not the time to go backward,” Perry said.

LePage also said he was here to “move Maine forward,” a theme repeated by others who spoke in the wind-up to LePage’s nearly 35-minute speech that hit on several conservative goals including school choice, voter identification and road fees for electric vehicles.

Margaret Shaver, a volunteer from Lewiston, hands out LePage signs as people begin to arrive at the Augusta Civic Center for the kickoff of his campaign Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

LePage’s effort to unseat Mills started unofficially just weeks after he left office in 2019, when he said he would take Mills on in 2022 if he disapproved of her job performance. Mills has yet to make a formal campaign announcement, but has said she will seek a second term. She says her current focus is on managing the state during the COVID-19 pandemic that’s now claimed over 1,000 Maine lives.

During a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday afternoon with state health officials, Mills was asked twice about LePage’s rally and whether she definitely planned to run again. But Mills said that “this isn’t the proper venue or the time to talk about elections.”

“I don’t intend to talk politics,” she said. “I think it is way too early to be talking about campaigns, and don’t think the people of Maine want to hear about campaigns at this stage of things. We are fighting a pandemic. We are trying to save lives and keep people out of the hospitals, out of the ICUs, off of ventilators. We are trying to reopen our schools. We are getting our economy back on track. That is what I am focused on right now and really nothing else.”

The enthusiastic LePage crowd, many adorned in American flag attire or wearing the red “Make America Great Again” hats popularized among conservative Republicans by former President Donald Trump, went largely unmasked, even as COVID-19 cases in Maine continued to cause a spike in hospitalizations statewide.

The event’s organizer, LePage’s top campaign strategist Brent Littlefield, said an estimated 2,000 people had signed up to attend the event, which included two small sections of limited seating and standing room on the main floor of the Civic Center’s arena.

Former Gov. Paul LePage looks back at his wife, Ann LePage, as he kicks off his campaign at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

LEPAGE BUCKING THE ODDS

No recent two-term governor has managed to win back the office after being out for four years. The last to try to reclaim the job was former Gov. Joe Brennan, a Portland Democrat, who finished his second term in 1986. Brennan then served two terms in the U.S. House before trying to unsuccessfully reclaim the governor’s office in 1990. Brennan also made a fourth bid for the office in 1994 coming in second in a three-way race won by independent Angus King, who now serves in the U.S. Senate.

LePage on Wednesday also gained the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who touted LePage and his wife, Ann LePage, in a prerecorded video.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, shown in June, made a video endorsing Paul LePage for Maine governor. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Collins, who is serving her fifth consecutive term in the Senate, won re-election in 2020 with 51% of the vote.

“As Maine recovers from the pandemic, Paul is the best candidate to grow our economy,” Collins says in the minute-long video, which was released to the Press Herald on Wednesday afternoon.

“Paul and I believe that Maine’s small businesses are the backbone of our economy,” Collins says. “We must support our job creators and Maine’s hardworking families. Paul is a job creator, that’s his background, he’s done it before and he will do it again.”

She and LePage have not always seen eye-to-eye. LePage once said her decision to join with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in 2016 to help Democrats defeat a Republican bill that would have undone most of the reforms in the Affordable Care Act, “really cooked her goose.” LePage also told WGAN radio host Matthew Gagnon that Collins, was, “done in Maine.” 

But LePage eventually came to Collins’ side, endorsing her in her 2020 re-election campaign against challenger Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat and former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

COLLINS, LEPAGE ALIGN

The two also have held competing views on a variety of issues, including support for Trump. Collins openly criticized Trump in a letter to the Washington Post in 2016 saying she wouldn’t be voting for him for president that year. LePage, meanwhile, stumped for Trump in Maine, appearing with him at four of his five campaign stops in the state that year.

The endorsement by Collins is one more indicator that LePage will be the likely nominee for the Maine Republican Party, although at least two other candidates, Martin Vachon and Michael Heath, have registered as Republican candidates with the state’s ethics commission. If they stay in the race, LePage could face a three-way statewide primary in June 2022.

A pair of Republican state senators spoke in advance of LePage’s speech as did his wife.

Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said Maine was suffering from two viruses. One was COVID-19 and the other was socialism, Stewart said.

“We’ve had enough, in fact, we have had more than enough of this nanny state government that’s infected our lives,” Stewart said.

He said LePage was the vaccine for socialism.

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