LePage ran for mayor in 2003, backed by a circle of area businesspeople and the city's previous Republican mayor Paul Laverdiere, who'd served 20 years earlier. He won in much the same way as he would later capture the Blaine House: opponents split their vote between a strong independent and a weaker Democrat, allowing LePage a narrow, 163-vote victory. "Paul and I both got elected because we had French names, and getting those people on your side can make a big difference," adds Laverdiere. "He worked hard and he politicked hard for the city, just as I did way back. It's a matter of getting people to believe that what you are telling them is something you believe yourself." He was reelected in 2005 by a 16-point margin and again in 2008 by 2.6 percent.
"Scott Paper, Hathaway Shirts, and all these businesses on Main Street were closing, and people were looking for someone who could take a hard look and see where we could save money in the city budget," says attorney Thomas Nale Jr., who donated to LePage's later mayoral campaigns. "That's where Paul could have an immediate impact. If you're a Democrat or a Republican and someone can save money for you, that's the right person at the right time to assist your city."
Even his critics credit LePage with minding the city's balance sheets. During his seven years in office, Waterville's tax rate declined, due in large part to a shift in the way state funds were allocated for education. Spending increased, but so did the city's reserve, and its relatively weak Standard & Poor's bond rating ticked upward. "I give LePage a lot of credit for using money in a wise way," says local Democrat Kenneth Gagnon, who was a state senator at the time, and helped increase revenue for service centers like Waterville. "But where did all the extra money come from? It came from the Democratic governor and legislature. What we resented him for was taking all the credit for it and then criticizing us for being big, bad Augusta." LePage kept Democratic legislators at arm's length, Gagnon said, ending a longstanding mayoral tradition of meeting at the Waterville House of Pancakes to coordinate efforts for the Elm City. He was also churlish toward Democrats on the city council. "I beat them and they're looking for payback," LePage told a reporter in 2004. "I travel light and keep a full tank of gas."
His conduct was not as broadly appreciated. "As you can see as he runs the state, Paul is kind of a bully, and no one in the city government was willing to stand up to him on that," says Erik Thomas, a Democrat who has served on the city council and planning board. "Paul seemed to think the most important thing was to keep taxes low, but the reality was the city suffered for it. People were afraid to argue for raising taxes or speak up in general because Paul would rail against them in city council meetings or to the papers."
"He can be loud and boisterous, and he preferred confrontation over negotiation," Gagnon says. "In Waterville, people get involved in politics because they care about it, but it's a hobby on the side, rather than a lifelong career. It's just not worth being chastised in the press or in public and I think a lot of people just stepped away, so we had fewer people involved."