A good State of the State address inspires. Its primary purpose is not to lay out specific policy ideas but to build enthusiasm. So tone and emotion are key. People listening to a State of the State want to be moved. If they have devoted time and energy to supporting the governor, they want to come away reassured that their efforts are not in vain.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage did well on Tuesday night to rejuvenate his supporters. As he walked into the Maine House chamber he greeted people on both sides of the aisle and smiled and waved. He looked energetic in a dark suit and blue tie. That tie provided the basis for his first joke, as he explained how Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, liked the color — a symbol for the Democratic Party.
He opened his speech with another joke: “Everything’s fine. Thank you for coming, good night.” When everyone stood to recognize the military members seated in the gallery, LePage gave them the thumbs up sign. He thanked his wife, Ann LePage, “from the bottom of my heart,” which wasn’t in the written draft of the address. In fact, he broke from his prepared speech nearly constantly, making it more personal and more him.
LePage’s speech will rightfully receive much scrutiny. He criticized the Public Utilities Commission’s recent decision to allow Statoil to test the feasibility of generating electricity from floating turbines off Maine’s coast. He said he is directing the Department of Education to develop a ranking system for Maine schools, to give each school a grade of A, B, C, D or F. And he lauded the 125th Legislature’s vote to cut income taxes without addressing the fact that there is no plan to pay for the cut.
But no matter whether you agree with everything LePage said, he delivered the speech with enthusiasm and even charm. Democrats and Republicans laughed at his self-deprecating humor. Several times he referred to people’s perception that he is angry. He’s not angry, he said, but passionate. He spoke personally: He said that, growing up on the streets of Lewiston, it never occurred to him, “not even once,” that he had a chance to become a businessman, a mayor or governor. “I looked forward to becoming a Pepsi Cola truck driver,” he said, to laughter.
But the most touching part of his address came at the end, when he talked about domestic violence. Last session, Democrats and Republicans amended Maine’s bail code and required abusers to pay into the victim’s compensation fund. “These programs are not necessarily the big answer. They’re not going to eliminate domestic violence, but what they do do is they’re a long-term approach to fixing the problem,” he said.
He proceeded to talk about his abusive childhood. “I wasn’t the spouse, but I was the child … We, the men in this room, need to stand up and shout loud and clear that we are going to protect our women and children,” he said, to an ovation. He then, rightly, addressed the issue of guns: Police do not have a good way to make sure that people who are prohibited from possessing guns actually give up their guns. “We have to get guns away from abusers,” he said.
There was plenty of rhetoric, and several statements needed more context to be completely accurate. But his personality shone clearly. Whether you agree or not with the governor’s policies, or whether you even think it was a good speech or not, it was delivered with, yes, passion.