The Car Repair Kingpin Who Could Be Governor, if He Remembers His Lines

The Car Repair Kingpin Who Could Be Governor, if He Remembers His Lines
Illustration:Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock

Shawn Moody is a really nice guy. Everyone says so: Even the political opponents who consider him something of an empty suit, even the people who have had the uncomfortable experience of watching him answer a question as if he’s reciting the index of a business management book.

Moody, who is hoping to become the next governor of Maine, likes to say, “I’ll roll up my sleeves and go work for you!” with a tight little punch to the air right in front of his chest. His campaign logo is ripped directly from the signs that fly over his local auto-body empire. His favorite “Maine saying,” he tells an audience at an early gubernatorial panel, is that “if you don’t do, you don’t know.” The political analogies he favors are the stuff you’d see in an annual report: He speaks of “remodeling existing departments” and monitoring “transmission and distribution costs.”

Moody has one message, delivered with blunt and sometimes baffling optimism, and it is that the government of Maine can and should be run like Moody’s Collision Centers, an auto-body franchise with 11 locations across the state. According to polls, that message has worked to keep the race tight enough through the fall: It worked for Paul LePage, the current governor and himself a former businessman, who is for most intents and purposes the unnamed architect of this campaign.

Earlier this month, in an auditorium in Westbrook, Moody sat with his three opponents: two independent candidates—one of whom spent most of his allotted time wryly plugging his self-published Amazon titles—and the Democrat Janet Mills. The moderator, a WLOB host, summoned the opioid crisis in his talk-radio baritone, his enthusiastic manner somewhat ill-suited to the subject at hand.

The overdose rate in Maine climbed by more than 10% last year, as the state spends less than half the national average to combat the problem. After a pause, Moody offered his solution: He’d use a “dashboard matrix” like the ones used to track job performance. He’d look at the results “once a quarter,” he said, and make adjustments. “Everyone is always an incubator,” he added.

His primary opponent, Janet Mills, a deeply connected Democratic politician and the state’s current attorney general, smiled faintly through closed lips as he spoke. Mills, a competent if uncharismatic figure, has a detailed 10-point plan, which includes Narcan and higher Medicaid reimbursement rates. Though he doesn’t mention it, Moody’s platform also favors random drug tests for food stamp recipients.

Everyone is always an incubator.

The October debate in Westbrook, one of the first public events of the season, was packed with Moody supporters, many of them from nearby Gorham, where Moody lives and owns so much land he pays more in property taxes than any of his three opponents make in a year. His supporters tell me they trust Moody because “he’s in the mold of Maine people,” with his “working-class background” and quickness to respond to their messages online. (Oddly, he does not respond to several of mine.) Standing outside another event just after dawn a day later—in the part of the state where you’ll see Gadsten flags—Joy Evans, a teacher, tells me Moody’s personal wealth keeps him honest and out of the control of super PACs.

It’s one of politics’ most reliable grifts, using someone with deep pockets and near-unimaginable good fortune as the figurehead of a campaign bent on punishing those without an equal amount of good luck. And more than his money, Moody’s best asset is his life story. He answers most questions with a reference to what he’s learned as a self-made man.

To give a brief summary: The young Moody grew up a self-described “at-risk kid,” in Gorham. He was not terribly fluent in academics but had an appreciation for cars. After his mother was hospitalized in an infamous and now-shuttered psychiatric hospital in Augusta and could no longer work, Moody took charge of the family: He worked odd jobs, he helped his cousin Goodwin Hannaford (of local grocery empire fame) build engines for stock-car races. As a teenager, he bought a lot for his own auto-repair business from a close family friend for $1,000, securing an additional loan from an aunt who worked at a bank. Forty years later, Moody has 150 employees, 11 locations, and recently purchased a 62-acre former race track in the town where he grew up. He and his wife have together spent about half a million on his campaign.

“We’re going to make Maine the best place to work in the county!” he says. Moody’s Collision was named the “Best Place to Work in Maine” this year.

Now, Shawn Moody says he will “die a Republican.” He registered with the party a month before formally announcing his intention to run.

During the commercial break, Moody bounds down off the stage to shake hands with a group of audience members wearing blue Moody T-shirts. He flashes big white teeth at a man in fleece. “Some of that got your eyes a little glazed over, huh,” he says sympathetically, referring no doubt to a dry bit of questioning about state budget caps. He clasps this guy’s hand and slaps him gently on the back. And then it’s back to the stage, where he speaks about getting teenagers back to work and, when questioned about health care, teaching “wellness” in the workplace, habits that employees will be able to take home.

In 2010, Moody ran for governor as an independent, disavowing two-party politics, “mystifying” voters and the political class alike: “I’m not a liberal. I’m not a conservative,” he said at the time. He had no experience in politics, and friends were baffled at his sudden interest in a government seat. In fact, his political aspirations were incubated during the McCain-Obama debates: Offended by all the references to “Joe the Plumber,” he decided to run and represent tradespeople in his state. At the time, his family volunteered to hand out signs and his 22-year-old daughter scheduled campaign events. Now, Shawn Moody says he will “die a Republican.” He registered with the party a month before formally announcing his intention to run.

Today, when you try to ask Shawn Moody a question, an interesting thing happens: You get Lauren LePage, the current governor’s daughter, who signed on a year ago to manage this campaign. She is joined in his camp by Brent Littlefield, the engine behind Paul LePage’s re-election campaigns, and Mike Hersey, who runs the Welfare to Work PAC, a LePage-affiliated committee formed to oppose a 2017 ballot measure to expand Medicaid in the state. Opposing Medicaid expansion has been the current governor’s tormented obsession for years: He has said that rather than expand it, he would prefer to go to jail. As the debates roll on over the next weeks, case managers will continue to re-file appeals for low-income people denied insurance coverage by Lepage in batches of a couple hundred, though they know until the November election it’s unlikely anything will change.

Janet Mills, a longtime opponent of LePage’s, has made Medicaid and access to health care a central component of her campaign, promising to approve the expansion on her first day in office. Moody offers opposing views on the subject, having softened (or rewritten) his position, as many Republicans have in recent months. Early in the campaign, he promised to repeal a Medicaid expansion, referring to it as a “government bailout for insurance companies.” By mid-October he was noting that the expansion had, in fact, already been voted into law.

“I won’t kid anyone,” Tom Saviello, a Republican lawmaker in Maine’s rural 18th district, told Splinter. “I like Shawn Moody. But I think Shawn is struggling with the answer to that question” about healthcare. “Because he’s got Lauren LePage.”

Eight years ago, Brent Littlefield, a GOP political consultant and Moody’s current campaign manager, concocted plan to elect a deeply outspent small-town mayor and local businessman as the governor of Maine. The campaign would focus almost exclusively on what he referred to as the “onlys”: Paul LePage, who grew up in poverty with an abusive father, was the “only candidate who had a compelling life story.” He was the “only candidate who was the executive of a prosperous Maine businesses,” a reference to Marden’s Surplus and Salvage, a discount store selling items picked up at foreclosures and literal fire sales. (Moody describes himself as the “only candidate” with 40 years of executive experience. He is also, consequently, the only candidate who has declined to release his tax returns.)

Moody describes himself as the “only candidate” with 40 years of executive experience. He is also the only candidate who has declined to release his tax returns.

LePage won twice on the power of his business reputation, and he has run Maine much like an executive with a grudge against employees he considers less hard-working, vetoing more laws recommended by the legislature than every other governor combined since 1917. One of the more spiteful politicians operating on a local level, the governor has threatened to yank funding for institutions that hire his Democratic opponents and withheld state budgets for perceived slights like an increase in a minimum wage. His distaste for people living in poverty—as he himself once did—has spurred him to pass a torrent of laws restricting access to assistance programs in Maine. Most notably, the governor has refused to implement a Medicaid expansion approved by voters in 2017, denying up to 80,000 of his constituents coverage by personally vetoing the law seven times. The battle over Medicaid expansion in Maine has been unlike any other in the country. The expansion, which has already been enacted in 34 states, would provide coverage to adults under 65 with incomes below 133% of the poverty line—say, an individual making less than $16,146 a year. Nearly three out of five Maine residents voted for the measure. Still, the people in questions have not yet been permitted to enroll.

LePage’s most visible enemy in this and other battles has been Janet Mills. As attorney general, Mills refused to represent LePage in a number of cases he’s attempted to bring against the state, including for his attempts to deny general assistance to asylum-seekers. Last year, LePage filed his own lawsuit against Mills, alleging she had abused her authority by refusing to represent him. He lost, but is, as of this writing, in the process of pursuing an appeal. This year, Mills declined to represent LePage in a suit, brought by Maine voters, over the Medicaid expansion itself. “I think [Moody] is clearly an extension of LePage,” Severin Beliveau, a lawyer and longtime Democratic lobbyist, told Splinter. “But I also believe that this is all motivated in great part by the governor’s dislike for Janet.”

As the soon-to-be-retired governor’s grudges and policy positions exert heavy influence over the current campaigns, Maine continues to struggle: As neighboring states have seen the poverty rate decrease in the last few years, Maine’s has remained static. Children born to young parents there are more likely to grow up poor than anywhere else in the country. Maine has one of the highest overdose rates in the nation, and its hospitals are suffering, in some cases being forced to shutter maternity wards or close entirely. “I have a district that is very poor,” says Tom Saviello, the Republican senator. “We need to get healthcare to those individuals.”

I can’t wait to vote. I don’t care if Jack the Ripper runs.

In other parts of the state, providers are filling in the gaps left open by the administration’s policies. Alice Haines, a doctor who operates a small clinic in Lewiston, tells me that over the last two years she has begun offering free or discounted care to about one-fifth of her 200 patients, many of whom are young people kicked off of Medicaid when their minimum-wage jobs offer them full-time, rather than part-time, work. “But I can only do so much,” she said. “Important things, like inhalers, are expensive.” As in many parts of the country, people in Maine are cutting their prescription pills in half or finding themselves hit with surprise bills for lab tests performed during a visit to a clinic. And advocates worry about the waivers, introduced by the federal government, that the next governor will be in a position to approve or deny, which could institute work requirements for coverage or weaken protections for people with existing health issues.

“I can’t wait to vote,” says Donna Wall, a 61-year-old former Republican and the mother of autistic kids. “I don’t care if Jack the Ripper runs.” She’s struggled to take care of her children since she came back to Maine in 2004, leaving an abusive husband behind in Florida. (“I packed three children into a damn vehicle, that’s how much I wanted to get away from him.”)

As a full-time caretaker, Wall isn’t covered by existing programs. For a few years, she tried making a little extra money delivering a local paper, the Sun-Journal. But she fell on the job last Christmas and broke her ankle in the early morning hours outside of someone’s house. She says she’s got $64,000 in debt from that fall and some follow-up care. She’s “leery of answering calls,” concerned about debt collectors. “LePage thinks we’re lazy,” she said. “I’d like to trade places with him for a week.”

Wall was among the group of people who sued the administration for its refusal to expand Medicaid. When the last expansion was approved in July, Wall applied for insurance the same day. LePage vetoed the measure; she received a denial in the mail the same week. Case managers at Maine Health, the state’s Medicaid office, tell me they’re still recommending people apply under the expansion, even if they don’t know when exactly the court issue will be resolved. Most of their referrals, they say, are from people who have arrived at a hospital under extreme duress and receive charity care.

Two things are almost certain, no matter who wins this particular election: the lawsuit against LePage will eventually overturn the Medicaid freeze, and the assistance policies the governor has test-run in the state will be elevated by the federal government. Already, a number of LePage’s close advisors—including the architect of his Medicaid plan, Mary Mayhew—have left to work in the White House, and LePage himself is said to be angling for a high-level appointment.

At most of the events I attended, the audience was, like the vast majority of the state of Maine, pale and inching closer to death. If that sounds harsh, here are some statistics: 95% of Maine is white, and five years ago the number of deaths in the state began to outpace the number of births for the first time in recent memory, exceeding projections. You’d think that such a homogenous, aging population might be inclined to take care of its own, but of course it’s still possible to goad voters into believing that 5% of the population is responsible for the opioid crisis. Or that anyone who needs help simply lacks the motivation to, say, open an auto-repair shop.

In a recent debate, when asked if he’d deviate from the current administration on any of its policies, Moody gave a vague, hand-waving answer: a metaphor about the “mezzanine” of a building where someone could rest between welfare and full-time employment. And sometimes, it’s hard not to feel a little bad for Shawn Moody, or wonder if he’s regretting his jump from an independent champion of the vocational man into a cut-and-paste copy of LePage’s last campaign. He does not appear to enjoy the politics bit of politics; when candidates have been asked questions about the Kavanaugh hearing or Naloxone or ranked-choice voting, he is often the only candidate not to respond. He skipped an opioid forum to attend a car show and declined to attend the big Republican dinner this month, when Donald Trump Jr. came to Maine.

The man who would run the state’s government doesn’t seem much interested in the specifics of the job, from anything one can tell. It’s perhaps a good thing for him, then, if not for anyone else, that the forces controlling his campaign very acutely are.

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.

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