Q&A with Paul LePage

Governor Paul LePage talks about being a homeless teen, the importance of mentors, and the value of work.

This is the full edited version of our interview with Governor Paul LePage, which appears in the December 2013 issue of Down East. Interview by Virginia M. Wright and Kathleen Fleury. 

We have a feature story about the Shaw House and interviews with some of the young people there —

I used to bring kids (to the shelter in) Rockland. I was on the board at Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville for years and years and years. When we had kids come in, I’d drive them over to Rockland or Skowhegan or Bangor, wherever there was a room. This one young girl, fifteen years old, was from Seattle, Washington. She had AIDS. It was the saddest day. What a ride that was. What she went through is just horrible. She contracted AIDS because she was being used as a sex slave. She was just thrown to the curb, you know?

That’s why we were interested in talking to you — because you personally experienced homelessness and you’ve obviously come a long way since. 

That’s why I work with homeless shelters and mental illness. Because when I’m done here, I have a place to go. [laughs]

How did you become homeless?

In my house it was physical violence. My father was a small man, but he was very violent — violent to my mother and violent to myself and a couple of my brothers. I just reached a breaking point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was hospitalized. He came to the hospital and told me to tell the doctors that I fell down the stairs. He gave me a fifty-cent piece, and that’s where my life began. I just walked.

You never went home?

Ever again.  Ever again. Except to visit my mother when I was in college, but I never slept there again.

How old were you?

Eleven.

Where did you go when you got out of the hospital?

First place I went was Dick Robinson’s house, a friend of mine. Stayed there for a couple of days. Then word got around in school, and I just sort of hopped around to different homes, different friends who would have me, and eventually onto the streets. I was there for a couple of years, had different places to stay. I’d stay in cellars and hallways, with friends, anyplace I could that was warm in the winter.

Families knew about what was going on and offered me jobs. I worked as a helper on a Pepsi-Cola truck, and I worked in a restaurant. Actually, the funny thing about how I got into the restaurant is my brother was ill in the hospital, and they needed someone to fill in on a Sunday. He told me about it, so I went in and that was the start of a new home — because once they figured out that I was on the streets, Eddie and Pauline [Collins] took me in. The days I worked, I slept there; Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I’d stay over at Bruce Myrick’s. And so it ended up from the time I was about fourteen on, maybe early fifteen, I’d stay three days in one home, four days at the other, and then we’d switch. I learned to make a couch into a very comfortable bed.

Bruce Myrick was the Pepsi-Cola driver?

Yup, Bruce drove for Pepsi-Cola. Eddie and Pauline Collins owned Therriault’s Café in Lewiston. Now, strangely enough, the restaurant is a homeless mission. It’s the [Hope Haven Gospel] Mission, at the corner of Cedar and Lincoln Street.

Can you remember a night when you were fearful or when you didn’t know if you were going to be able to eat or find a place to sleep?

There was one time when I went to a friend’s house and they weren’t home and it was really, really cold out. I said, where the heck am I going to stay tonight? I found out you could “go to the Holly and be jolly,” so I went down there. That was a strip joint down on Main Street, and if you walked in and went to the right, that brought you to where the dancers were, but if you went to the left there was a flight of stairs to a hallway where you could sleep, and it was warm.

How did you manage to drag yourself out of that situation?

Pauline and Eddie Collins and Bruce Myrick were probably the most influential people in my life, no question. And then I worked at the fairgrounds, and there was this old, old gentleman and he’s the one who sort of instilled in me that “if it is to be, it’s up to me” — just stop crying and figure out a way to get out of it. And he said, there’s nobody else going to do it for you, you’re just going to have to do it.

You give credit to mentors, but obviously you have to give credit to yourself, too. Can you identify the personal characteristics that allowed you to be helped by mentors?

There’s no such thing as “no.” There’s no such thing as “can’t do.” That’s my whole life. “Why?” I must say the word “why” fifty times a day. I just can’t understand why things can’t be done right, and I haven’t my whole life.

Even as an eleven-year-old?

Even as an eleven-year-old. Now, have I had a lot of setbacks? Have I made a lot of mistakes? Unbelievable. I make more mistakes than most, but failure is just unacceptable. Just unacceptable. I haven’t ever failed at anything — I just haven’t got it done yet! [Laughs]
If you were to visit the Shaw House, what would you say to the kids?

I would give them my coin. I have a governor’s coin, and I give it to a lot of kids —  in fact, I prefer to give it to kids more than anyone else. [The governor takes a coin from his desk and displays it.] It says, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” That’s the LePage sign. I just believe, I really do believe, that you can’t let things that adversely affect you or that put you down keep you down.

For instance, one thing I constantly resent is when I hear people say if you’ve been abused, you will abuse. I think that is so wrong. That is the worst message you could ever give anyone. I have five kids — you ask them if I abuse. If you’ve been abused, you don’t have to abuse, you learn from it. The only people who go to abusing don’t learn from their experiences. If you learn from it and remember how it felt, you sure as heck don’t want to instill that on anyone else.

Frankly, people say it’s a bad thing — it’s actually what saved my life. Being on the streets saved my life, because by the time I got to college I was mature. I was the one that everyone came to for advice because I had already learned so much at such a young age that I could decipher some of the problems they were facing. I had the reputation being the matchmaker in college. I was! All the gals would come to me and ask, “Is he okay to go out with?” Because I was their age, but I was different than they were. I was far more mature than they were.

Besides Bruce Myrick and the Collinses, your mentors included Peter Snowe [Senator Olympia Snowe’s first husband), who helped you get into college. Who
else guided you?

I’ve had three business mentors: Peter Snowe, Dean Crabbe — he’s a gentleman from Canada, he’s passed away now — and Mickey Marden. I tell you, I worked with Mickey Marden from 1996 until his death in 2002 and those six years were worth ten times what I learned in any school. He just was a man with phenomenal common sense, phenomenal doing. He could get things done.

Is it possible for kids today to find mentors the way you did? And if not, how do we facilitate that as a society?

That’s a great question, and I don’t have the perfect answer, but I will tell you this: the closest thing I’ve seen coming to a mentoring program in this country is Big Brothers.
It’s an avenue where you can get young kids with adults and they can look for things.

Bruce, Pauline, Mickey, Dean, Peter Snowe all said one thing about me: they could see I had a lot to offer. Who knows what that was? I had no idea where I was going to end up.
The one thing Bruce Myrick always told me is, “You were never afraid to work.” And that is the key. I believe that is the key to fixing our society.

The problem with Maine is you cannot go to work and get a permit until you’re sixteen. It is too late. It’s like riding a bike. It’s much easier to learn to ride at eight years old than sixteen years old. We tried to get a bill in to allow young kids to get part-time jobs like busing tables — do you know you can’t get a job busing tables until you’re sixteen? You can’t wash dishes until you’re sixteen!  I was washing dishes at eleven. I was delivering newspapers, I was working in grocery stores, I was shining shoes. You can’t do that in Maine anymore until you’re sixteen years old, and you have to have a permit from your superintendent in the summer months!

Some Maine families used to instill that work ethic on farms.

Exactly. Farms were exempt. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In Aroostook County, they still start schools early in August and they close them for three weeks in October to harvest potatoes. However, federal law says you can’t work on equipment until you’re eighteen, so unless they’re hand-picking potatoes, they can’t have jobs anymore. There are only a handful of farmers with ten or fifteen acres who are picking by hand. All the big farmers, they don’t pick by hand anymore. So they close the schools for three weeks, and the kids can’t do anything. Too much time on their hands and they get in trouble.

We need to go back to allowing children to be taught how to work. When I was at Marden’s, Ham Marden, one of the owners, had a son about fourteen years old. He’d follow his dad all around the stores during the summer months because he wants to work for his dad, but he couldn’t work. His dad would put stuff on the shelves, and the son can only watch. How insane is that? That’s what I’m talking about.

That’s one big ill we can clean up — if we allowed our children to be able to work at an earlier age, part time, be taught by their parents, be taught by their relatives, and if you would allow schools to have a broader curriculum. We have a system in Maine where every child is going to go to college — boohey! I have seventeen brothers and sisters; I’m the only one that graduated high school. Only one. That doesn’t mean that they all failed. Some failed, some didn’t. The point is, not everyone is going to learn through books. Some learn through hands. Some learn through seeing. Some learn by hearing. Others learn by all of the above. I think it’s just sad that we sit there and we allow adults that have never been there to tell us how they’re going to improve things.

In other words, we’re setting some kids up for failure?

You’re setting them up for failure from the time they are eleven years old. By the time some kids are eleven years old, the age when I left home, they have failed already.

Are you saying, then, that addressing youth homelessness is a multi-faceted problem?

The quickest way to address it is if we could get society to say this: Let’s put our kids first. Kids are number one, and we’ll work all the programs to see that the child is successful.

I tell the education system, if you all come into the office — the unions, the teachers, the superintendents, the principals, the parents all sit around and we have one thing only: the success of the child. We’re not leaving here until we solve that question. We’d be out of here in fifteen minutes. Because we all agree: As you long as your focus is “the child is first,” then every decision you make has to touch the child.

Is there a role for state government in helping homeless youth?

No. It’s parents, families, and communities. Not state government, not federal government. Years ago we had far more services than we have now, far more effective services than we have now, but they were community based, church based, organization based. Alfond Center, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA — they had the programs. The only thing government can provide is funds. That’s all it can do.

Now there are some public policies we could do that allow the communities to be more successful. For instance, allow our children to work at a younger age with a permit and some community supervision. I’m all for not allowing a twelve-year-old to work forty hours. But a twelve-year-old working eight to ten hours a week or a fourteen-year-old working twelve to fifteen hours a week is not bad. I used to shovel snow, mow lawns, shine shoes. I mean, man, I did more things  — I made shoes, I worked in a shoe shop. I was sixteen. Nowadays they’d arrest the owner and probably lock me up.

We would better off if, instead of putting dollars into brick and mortar, we put dollars into developing a mentor network because the mentors would take the kids and bring them home.

One thing I did leave out that I think is really, really important in Maine, and we failed to get in fixed:  We have youth [mental health] programs, we have adult [mental health] programs. Youth programs end at eighteen. Adult programs begin at twenty-one. We in Maine have a real gap, a three-year gap. We have a young man who graduates at noon and we bring him to the homeless shelter at four because he falls out of the system. We’re working very hard at trying to get it fixed, but the legislature for some reason doesn’t want to deal with mental health issues for teenagers.

Mental health seems to be a hot topic for the whole state. 

Mental health, I tell you, is a major, major issue the state of Maine has ignored for twenty-five, thirty years. We’re on a consent decree. Anytime we try to make headway there, they kick it to the side. Nobody wants to talk about it. I’ve been working on a program for fifteen years called the Clubhouse Model for people with mental illness, so they have a place to go, a place to learn how to work, a place to learn how to socialize on a daily basis. There was only one in Maine, in Waterville, for years and years and years. Now we have five. It’s so important because it does two or three things. One, it takes pressure off emergency rooms because that’s where they go when they are scared and lonely. Now they have a place to go with people who are there to help them — volunteers and paid professionals. They learn how to live independently, they learn work skills and they learn to socialize — all three things are so vital to be a contributor. And people are so afraid of it. I don’t understand this.

How would you move from a system where social services are very dependent on government funds to the kind of supportive culture that you’re talking about?

You lower taxes and let the money flow back to the communities. We used to have baskets of food at Thanksgiving and Christmas — never came from the state. There was a program back then — the war surplus, all the war surplus from World War II, the cheese, the powdered milk and the powdered eggs, and all that was distributed through the state to the communities, and the families would pick it up at a certain location.

There is room for the state to give funds, but the funds should be going to the communities.

So I say, let kids work younger. Allow them to be taught to work, a work ethic at a younger age. I think schools need to have a broader curriculum. I think we need to develop a local mentoring system. Now, the danger with a local mentoring system is pedophilia, but a good system can prevent that.

Certainly the Catholic Church has been plagued by that.

I would suggest we don’t go to the church to do it.

A mentor program has to have oversight from someone who’s objective — and that sounds like we’re talking about government involvement.

Well, I agree with you.

We in Maine have three forms of government. We have state government, we have county government, we have local government. We use local government and state government, but truly, instead of having oversight at the state level, we should have oversight at the county level. If you look at the states that have prospered the most — the southeast, southwest, mid-Atlantic states — all use county forms of government. That’s where a lot of the work is done.

We have local control. I like local control, but it’s a very costly way of providing services because it’s very labor intensive. You can have oversight at the county level so you don’t have to micromanage every little thing, and then you have your local government — they know best what’s going on on the street.

We choose not to do that. I think Maine and New England as a whole will be forced there eventually because we are forcing ourselves out of being competitive for business. You don’t see a lot of business attraction to the Northeast anymore. It’s all going to the southeast, southwest, mid-Atlantic states. You’ve got South Dakota, who just found a lot of gas and oil. They’re the number one state in the country. Number two state in the country is Texas. After Texas you’ve got Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia …

But the poverty levels in some of those states are also the highest.

I will agree with you that in ’08, once everything crashed, there’s no question. But if you look at the recovery since ’08, all of those monies are going where there’s less intrusion. And I’ll tell you, Maine is starting to become pretty poor. We’re at about 12.8 percent. We’re right about the national average. There are states that are worse, no question. We’re on the heels of Mississippi. Mississippi used to be the poorest by far. We’re right on their heels.

When you were homeless, you were on the streets of Lewiston. Lewiston is a whole lot different today than it was then —

It’s worse.

You are French-Canadian, and at the time that was the immigrant population. Now the immigrant population is very different.

We’re the supervisors now. That’s the way I looked at it. The Irish came first. They were the bottom of the barrel. Then the French came, and the Irish became the supervisors and the French were the workers. The French were put in the canals to dig them. Now the French are up on top of the soil, and we have other groups that have come in, some who have language barriers far more severe than we had back then. When I was growing up, you had to be bilingual, no question. You couldn’t get a job if you weren’t bilingual. Now it’s all English. The poor people who are coming in from Somalia, Sudan, and some of the other nations are not integrating with the languages as quickly as we did. In our case, we came down for jobs; we had to do it quicker. They’ve come down for slightly different reasons — they’re political refugees. It’s a little different dynamic. When we came, there was a big abundance of work. When we came to the U.S., it was basically Civil War. We all went into the linen mills to make uniforms for the Union army. That was a big thing.

It must be harder for those kids from Somalia on the streets of Lewiston to get a mentor.

Yes.

That’s a real challenge in fostering the kind of community you’re talking about.

I just gave out of my contingency fund $10,000 to Ethan Strimling for his school [LearningWorks] to help the immigrants assimilate into the language because that’s one of the big barriers. When you can’t speak with someone, there’s a mistrust automatically. Somebody like myself, when I go to Quebec, for instance, I’m accepted much more quickly than someone like Adrienne, who doesn’t speak French [the governor is referring to Adrienne Bennett, his press secretary, who sat in on the interview]. We noticed it so quickly — the last forty years the relationship between Quebec and Maine has been nonexistent. Now we’re on a first-name basis. We call each other all the time. Language has a lot to do with that.

Are the days of the community support systems you remember gone?  Do you really think we could build a mentoring network to serve the more than nine hundred kids who are homeless in Maine every year?

Easy. It’s not a lot. Let me tell you where another problem lies. You say those days are gone. Take your schools — when I was growing up, you could have woodworking, home economics in school. Nowadays, you take an eighteen-year-old girl, where does she learn her parenting skills? On her way out of the hospital after she’s delivered. They give them about a ten-minute session on parenting. When I was in school, I was babysitting, I was staying home at seven years old. Back then, when a woman gave birth, it was five days in the hospital. I would be the one who was kept out of school for five days to take care of the family — at seven years old.

So, what you’re saying is, teen homelessness starts with parenting.

Starts with parenting, and when parenting fails, then there has to be some mentoring systems around for kids to go to. There is a real gap in Maine. When I say eighteen to twenty-one, it’s a serious gap.

You once said in an interview that “dependency on others at an early age in life becomes a crutch.” Can you elaborate on the difference between being overly dependent on others and accepting the help of mentors?

I have the perfect example: Open Door Recovery Center in Ellsworth is a mentor. Methadone clinic is dependency. Because one takes you in, it’s cold turkey, they work with you through withdrawals until you’re off the drugs. The other one, you’re there an average of seven minutes because I timed it. I stood there for hours timing someone going in, coming out. In seven minutes, you can’t get a whole lot of therapy. It’s nothing but a maintenance drug — you run in, get your drugs, you run out. That’s dependency. Mentoring is the Open Door Recovery Center. Those people are doing an amazing job. They bring you in, and you go cold turkey and they walk you through the withdrawals.

And you support government funding for places like Open Door …

I gave them fifty grand.

So you fully support government funding for those kinds of places?

Yeah. I took fifty thousand dollars out of my emergency contingency fund [in July]. I’m all for that. I’m death against methadone because every physician that I talk to says methadone is nothing but a maintenance drug that will never solve the problem because there’s no therapy in it. My point is, all you’re doing is you’re killing them early. There’s no real approach to cleaning the person out. It’s not like a twelve-step system. It’s not like a system.

There’s a bit of a misconception about who these homeless teens are. Some people do jump to drugs and get in trouble, but for a lot people, it’s circumstantial, it’s family. 

Oh, it’s family. Family conflicts, severe poverty, mental health issues, and substance abuse are the four big causes of homelessness. And those parents are the number one factor, not the kids. It’s not the kids, it’s the parents. It’s getting worse now, and it’s going to continue to become worse because it’s going to become generational. The problem the people don’t understand is, generational poverty feeds itself, and it gets worse and worse and worse. You’ve got to have a break in there, and the only break there is, is a mentor. It can’t be clinics, it can’t be groups, it can’t be houses.

But income equality, the growing disparity in the top earners and the bottom earners, also contributes to generational poverty. We’re getting farther and farther apart.  

I would say to you that as a nation I won’t argue with you, (but) in Maine, we’re all poor. In Maine, twenty-five years ago, we had two thousand millionaires. Today we have about four hundred. Millionaires don’t stay in Maine because they go protect their revenue, their income, and their sources.

But that makes mentorship harder. You have to have two working parents to make it in Maine, and we don’t have tons of resources.  

Okay, so how do you solve that problem?

Well, I know how you would solve it!

How did Texas become the number one most prosperous state in the union? How come Texas has the most the millionaires? How come Texas’ per capita income is almost 30 percent higher than Maine? Because of the way I think.

But are all those millionaires mentoring homeless teenagers?

I’m not going to say they’re mentoring. I’m not going to say they don’t have their own problems. What I’m saying, though, when we talk about paying top income tax at $19,000, they’re not paying any taxes.

You’re saying that if they wanted to mentor, they have more means to do it than people do here?

They have more means.

The communities in Maine are extremely close-knit, so what you’re talking about may be doable, but it’s a long road.

I agree. I think it’s doable. I think it’s a lot shorter road than you think it is, because it’s a frame of mind. It really is a frame of mind. I will tell you some of the brightest things I’ve seen: When I was the mayor of Waterville, we started the [High Hopes] Clubhouse. It was like pulling teeth to get an employer to hire a mentally ill person or person with intellectual challenges. Marden’s did it. We were the first ones to do it and we won a national award. In fifteen years, we had forty-seven employees come out of that system. Now Waterville has about twenty-five people from the program who are working. Last year these young people earned $400,000 of income. They had never earned any money before.

And that was a fairly fast cultural change.

Yes, and now Augusta’s doing it, Bangor’s doing it, Sanford’s doing it, Lewiston’s doing it. And once you get one or two people working, it’s exponential. In five years, it’s going to quadruple, because it does happen fast.

The other thing we need to be cautious about in this whole process is we — government — can solve a lot of it by helping the needy with a tiered system. In Maine, we have young people — let’s say you have a single parent, she goes out to work, she’s trying to get ahead, she gets up to twelve dollars an hour, and they come in to offer her $12.50. -She’s going to lose all her benefits if she takes $12.50. How perverse is that? Why don’t we give her the $12.50, and instead of taking all the benefits, take a little bit. And when she makes thirteen dollars, take more, but let her get ahead. Or if you earn fifteen dollars you lose all your Medicaid, all your food stamps.

There’s a disincentive to work in Maine. And for three years now, I’ve been trying to get my colleagues upstairs to put in what is called a tiered system, so they can earn more, so that every dollar you earn, instead of losing a dollar in benefits you lose twenty cents of benefits, so at the end of the year you have a net gain.

Virginia M. Wright is the senior writer at Down East.

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