When Paul LePage was elected Governor in 2010, members of the state’s Franco-American community recognized the significance of this political milestone. Long treated as second class citizens, and excluded from the halls of power, a member of their community had finally been elected to the most powerful statewide office. Several articles were written marking the occasion. I was part of an event at Lewiston’s Franco-American Center welcoming the Governor “home.” Eight years later, the impact of the state’s first Franco governor on the community is mixed.
Being a “proud Franco-American” was a consistent part of Paul LePage’s campaign and backstory. Having grown up in Lewiston, and served as mayor of Waterville, he had roots in two of the state’s Franco population centers. More than that, his childhood and adolescence oozed Franco elements. He grew up in a large family in one of the iconic apartment buildings in Lewiston’s Little Canada. The governor himself remembered “88 kids” in the twelve-unit building. Though born in 1948 and a 3rd generation American (his grandparents were immigrants from Canada, but both his parents were born in the US), LePage’s story was something of a throwback to prior generations of Franco American experience. A native French speaker, LePage attended bilingual parochial elementary school in Lewiston, but noted that the English class was poor. He attended the public high school, but struggled enough that his initial SAT results weren’t enough for him to go to college. According to the Governor’s account, he was admitted to Husson University (then Husson College), only after being allowed to take an aptitude test in French.
LePage’s adult life and career also included Franco-American elements. His first wife was a native of New Brunswick, and LePage’s early career included stints working for forest product companies in the Canadian province, where his bilingualism apparently came in handy. As governor, LePage continued to promote connections between Maine and its Canadian neighbors. He made trips to Québec, where he charmed officials with his ability to speak fluent French. He supported the idea of a new east-west highway through Maine that would boost trade with New Brunswick and Quebec, as well as buying more hydroelectricity from Quebec’s publicly-owned utility company.
On the campaign trail, LePage did not shy away from his heritage; indeed he embraced it, mentioning it frequently, and even speaking in French in some public events. The trend continued through his administration, with LePage even conversing in French with a Franco-American college student during his 2014 State of the State address. According to some accounts, LePage performed well among Franco-American voters, and it may have helped him win Lewiston and Waterville, traditional Democratic strongholds, as well as come close in Biddeford.
But LePage also used his Franco-American identity as a shield, which sometimes caused controversy. During the 2010 campaign, he claimed Democratic staffers had said he was unfit to be governor because he was a “French Catholic,” in a dispute that was primarily about his belief in creationism. In 2014, he excused his habit of making contentious and sometimes offensive statements by saying, he would do better in future, and that “even a Frenchman can be taught to cool down.” Other attempts at self-deprecating humor which played to historic stereotypes included comments like “even I can understand it and I’m French.” The trope of the “dumb Frenchman” has a long and sad history in Maine. LePage is not the only Franco-American to play along with the idea, but in doing so, he reinforced a harmful cliché.
Similarly, in defending his administration’s attitude toward immigrants in Maine, LePage would sometimes cite his own background as a descendent of an immigrant community, while also insisting that today’s immigrants presented a “different dynamic.”
In another signature policy area – cuts to the state’s safety-net programs – LePage also leaned on his boyhood experiences and upbringing. As someone who grew up, by his own description, on the streets escaping an abusive father, LePage was well positioned to talk about the realities of poverty. The lessons he drew from his childhood, however, were similarly controversial, reinforcing his belief in the value of “hard work,” and downplaying the role of state assistance. Ron Currie, a fellow Franco-American who grew up poor in Waterville wrote about what he sees as similarities in the way being raised in poverty impacted their own view of the poor:
Growing up, I despised these people in the same way I believe Governor LePage does — and that meant, in a way that a child can’t really understand, that I despised myself. Like LePage, I sought escape: in books, in the friendship of children who lived in other, better parts of town. Like LePage, I eventually did escape, in real terms and for good. And like LePage, I continue to carry more of that time and those people within me than I’m comfortable admitting, even to myself.
As for policy or actions explicitly directed at the state’s Franco-American community, LePage’s legacy is pretty thin. This is perhaps to be expected from a Republican governor, given that party’s current disdain for anything seen as “identity politics.” The state’s legislature did establish a task force in 2012 to examine the status of Franco-Americans in Maine (disclosure: I assisted the commission informally with some data gathering and analysis). However, the task force’s main recommendation, that public schools track the status of Franco-American students, was rejected by the legislature. Likewise, an effort to require teaching of Franco-American history in Maine schools failed to pass. The Maine Department of Education did produce a resource guide on Franco-American history for teachers to use (based on a pre-LePage law passed in 2009), but even that guide appears to have disappear from the current iteration of the DoE website.
When the World Acadian Congress came to Maine in 2014, its success was tainted by the allegation that LePage threatened to withhold state funding unless the group fired its director, over a political spat.
Like much of the rest of LePage’s legacy, his time as the state’s first Franco-American governor has been overshadowed by his controversial and sometimes offensive statements. While he campaigned as a Franco-American and has never shied away from that part of his background, it’s difficult to find policies or initiatives that were targeted specially at the Franco population, or to address any of its historic disadvantages. History will remember Paul LePage as the state’s first Franco-American governor, but he’s unlikely to be remembered as a Franco-American champion or advocate.
A request to Governor LePage’s office for an interview for this piece was declined.