Some who have followed the recent career move of Dan Demeritt ’94, communications director for Maine Governor Paul LePage, might say that Demeritt, owner of an Augusta pizza shop, jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
You wouldn’t know it by talking to Demeritt. A longtime staffer for Sen. Susan Collins, the spokesperson for Maine’s outspoken governor is calm where his boss can be volatile, cautious where the governor sometimes shoots from the hip, unflappable where his boss, well, is not.
“When you spend time running a small business,” Demeritt said, “you’re much better at taking things in stride, knowing to focus on the stuff that really matters. My approach has always been, with the governor, to try to put as much information out as I can and try to make it as easy as possible for the press to tell the whole story. So it doesn’t just turn on a phrase.”
The governor’s turns of phrase have made news across the country and beyond, provoking widespread protest and some praise. “Paul’s very free-spoken, and there were a couple of stretches there where he’d free-spoken himself into a little trouble,” Demeritt said. “I think I came in at a time when I was able to help with the message discipline a little bit. And provide some energy to the campaign.”
This was in September 2010, a few weeks before the general election. The Colby government major (he recalls attending a rally for then President George H.W. Bush, and hosting a political talk show on WMHB radio “at seven o’clock on Friday mornings”) moved back to Maine a decade ago from Washington, where he had worked in Collins’s Senate office. Demeritt had been with Collins for seven years, since her unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1994, and was political director for Collins’s successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1996. But he’d returned to Maine and now was married with twins, almost 3, and a 6-month-old baby. After a stint working for the House Republicans in Maine, he’d opened a restaurant, owned rental properties, and his only political aspiration, he said, was a notion to someday run for the Maine Legislature.
Then word came through the Republican grapevine that the LePage campaign needed some communications help. Two hours after he got the tip, Demeritt was back in politics.
He’d never been the public face of a politician before, but his experience as Collins’s political director was brought to bear—along with his years running his own business. “I think I have a good handle on Paul LePage, and I think it’s been because I’ve been an entrepreneur myself,” Demeritt said. “I get it.”
LePage, former general manager of Maine’s Marden’s Surplus & Salvage chain, won on a platform of cutting spending and making Maine more business-friendly. He also showed a penchant for off-the-cuff remarks that sometimes overshadowed his policy goals. His comment telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt” went viral, as did his remark that BPA, an ingredient in plastics that mimics estrogen and is believed by many to be hazardous, particularly to women and children, would only cause “some women to have little beards.”
Demeritt landed in the news after these flash fires, though he sees his job as managing what other people say, not standing in front of a microphones. “This job is like a baseball umpire,” he said. “If you know the umpire’s name at the end of the game, he probably didn’t do a good job.”
He said the LePage critics who only know him from sound bites aren’t seeing the whole governor. “They don’t get the Paul LePage who’s in here on Saturday mornings for his constituent hours,” Demeritt said. “They don’t get the Paul LePage who goes to Preble Street Resource Center and talks to advocates and clients who have been homeless, who are homeless. You can’t put that on YouTube.”
That day the governor was presenting his proposed budget to a legislative committee, explaining why he feels the state needs pension reform. State employees in purple union shirts had turned out to criticize the governor’s plan and television cameras were set up in and around the State House.
Demeritt was interrupted once by a staffer who said he was needed, that “things were happening.” The communications director nodded and continued talking, focusing for the moment not on the comment du jour but on the big picture of the governor’s platform. “I’ve said it to him,” Demeritt said. “He can’t be a successful status-quo governor. He either works and gets things done and people embrace the results, or if it’s just status quo—I think he’s not the right person to lead a status-quo administration.
“I think the plainspoken-ness works if you’re getting stuff done. I don’t think it works if you’re just minding the store.”