In the event that the people actually running for office this midterm season aren’t upsetting enough, here’s something to consider: In January, Maine’s Paul LePage, the worst governor in America—you’ll perhaps remember him from the time he called a state representative a “son of a bitch, socialist cocksucker,” or as the man who said black people “come up the highway” and “kill Mainers”—will come up against his two-term limit and be released from state politics for the first time in over a decade. And he will be looking for a new job.
LePage has been uncharacteristically low-key about his plans for the winter. He has, however, made attempts to soften his public image this year, shocking the local press by answering the occasional direct question, a complete departure from eight years of habitual hostility. With frequent, well-publicized trips to Washington over the last year and a stray comment this spring on Fox about “overtures” by the Trump administration (there’s “nothing concrete at this time,” he reassured viewers) it’s entirely possible LePage could be in the White House, in some capacity, next year.
LePage’s aspirations to join the Trump White House began before the president was even elected. Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Maine told Splinter that as they understand it, LePage is aiming for a Cabinet-level appointment after his term, which has so far been deemed too politically risky. One said they believe he’d been offered a less high-profile position than he’d prefer, and has so far refused to take a lesser job. Another rumor circulating around Augusta has LePage hoping to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which is just horrifying enough to be plausible, particularly given the administration’s short-term plans for social services and its penchant for plucking notorious local crackpots out of their state-level empires. (LePage’s office, unsurprisingly, has not responded to a request for comment.)
Over the past couple years, some of LePage’s closest staff and advisors have graduated to the federal level. David Sorenson, who advised the governor on health policy and “welfare reform,” went on to work as a speechwriter for the Trump administration in May 2017, but resigned last February after he was accused of abusing his ex-wife. (Naturally, LePage offered Sorenson his old job back.) In January, John McGough, his longtime chief of staff, accepted a job with HHS. And on Monday Mary Mayhew, LePage’s health commissioner for seven years and one of the architects of his controversial Medicaid policy, announced her appointment to head Medicaid at the national level.
As governor, LePage has exercised his veto power and budgetary discretion to punish his enemies and defund social services. He also happens to be wildly and vocally racist. He began his political career serving as a vindictive city counsellor in Waterville, ME, before becoming the town’s mayor in 2003. First elected governor in 2010, he ran on his “compelling life story” (he left home at 11) and solid business sense. (His discount chain, Marden’s, sells goods salvaged from bankruptcy courts and home fires.) Supported early on by the Tea Party and, more recently, by Donald Trump, LePage has not once won the majority vote in his state.
In 2016, he was nearly impeached after he threatened to pull a charter school’s funding because it hired a political opponent—and also, probably, because he’d spent the previous year blaming the opioid crisis on black men traveling from out-of-state to lure white women, calling people of color “the enemy,” claiming asylum-seekers carry “ziki fly” and other diseases, and threatening individual journalists.
Since then, LePage’s similarities with Trump garnered a fresh round of press, which has predictably delighted both men. LePage endorsed Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize and has taken to referring to himself as Trump before Trump. Trump likes watching LePage on TV; he reportedly urged the governor to run against Sen. Angus King this year. (LePage called that report “vile” and “fake news.”) When LePage lost 50 pounds after a bariatric surgery paid for either with a state insurance plan or the governor’s own money (he refuses to specify) Trump took the opportunity to give the governor a puzzling, back-slapping endorsement: “I knew him when he was heavy and now I know him when he was thin and I like him both ways, OK?”
In eight years as governor, LePage has vetoed more than 600 bills passed by his state legislature. His dog, a Jack Russell terrier, is helpfully named Veto, in case you forget his favorite legislative move. He recently enacted a budget freeze in retaliation for a voter-approved measure that raised the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour. Among the 20 bills he vetoed out of spite were wage increases for direct home-care workers and funding for services for the elderly and disabled.
He has also famously vetoed his state’s Medicaid expansion seven times, blocking 70,000 low-income Maine residents from accessing healthcare plans. In July, he said he would rather “go to jail” than sign the expansion, which was approved by Maine voters in 2017, into law. LePage’s distaste for “welfare” recipients has made him particularly productive on this issue during his time in office: If you’re an “able-bodied” childless adult who wants food assistance in Maine, you have to prove to the state that you’re working 20 hours a week. You’re also ineligible for those programs if you have more than $5,000 in assets (say, a car) or cash savings. The state has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees as LePage repeatedly goes to court to deny his constituents care.
The governor has also spent a lot of energy redefining services like Medicaid and Social Security as “welfare” in his state, refusing to call the programs by any other name. It’s a strategy the Trump administration clearly admires: In June, the White House issued a report recommending the reorganization of all assistance programs into a single office called the Department of Health and Public Welfare. Work requirements for benefits like Medicaid and food assistance figure heavily in the plan.
The last time we heard from LePage about his federal designs, it was in that June interview with Fox News. At the time, he implied he’d been offered something rather lowly, but would like to spend the winter weighing his options and conferring with his wife. Perhaps that’s the true end of the story and the Trump administration has abandoned him, preferring to pick off his only slightly less toxic colleagues to run HHS from inconspicuous mantels. Or maybe he’s stalling until he gets the offer he’s waiting for. Unless he’s hoping to keep hawking electronics salvaged from foreclosed houses at Marden’s, a federal appointment, even a lame one, appears to be his best option. It’s hard to imagine anyone else taking him, in his home state or elsewhere.
Have you heard anything about LePage’s plans in the foreseeable future? Do you know what insulting low-level federal job he was offered? If so, please get in touch. I’d love to know.
Halfway to Hell is Gizmodo Media’s project covering the 2018 midterms; you can read coverage from across our network here and subscribe to our weekly newsletter roundup here.