CLEARWATER — At a public hearing every few months, a man from Clearwater with a wicked talent for cryptic cuts rises to the lectern.
Whether Joe Paige, 52, is taking on the Clearwater Council, the Pinellas County Commission or most recently, Tampa Bay Water, he leaves no doubt about where he stands.
He's a conservative.
"Joe is remarkably consistent," said Clearwater Vice Mayor Paul F. Gibson.
Paige's message may be tempered with humor, but his viewpoint is forged in steel.
"With a conservative philosophy, you view everything through the prism of conservatism," he said. "That way these decisions become a lot more clear."
When he sees taxes increasing or tax money swirling down the drain, he speaks up.
"I'm a pretty vanilla guy who just kind of got fed up with the direction that our country is going in," Paige said. "I'm not vindictive and I'm not malicious, either.
"I get my point across with a gentle wrap on the knuckles."
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Paige got his turn of a colorful phrase from his mother, he says, if not his politics.
His parents, the late John and Jean Paige, ran a resort on a small lake in Wisconsin. He grew up ice fishing and riding a snowmobile in winter, swimming and water-skiing in summer. "I got to be on vacation all year long," he said.
He enlisted in the Air Force after high school and worked as a jet mechanic.
"I served six years in the Air Force defending our country while my peers attended college," he said.
His views diverged from those of his parents.
"My parents were both rock-rib Democrats, but I saw how hard they had to work to pay their taxes and it kind of sunk in," he said. "Hard work is essential, but taxes are too high."
Now he's a residential contractor who specializes in remodeling and says he loves to get up each day and go to work. Off the lectern, he's a surprisingly milder guy, prone to starting or ending his sentences with your first name.
He lives in Clearwater with wife Mary Jo Paige, a Realtor. He says she disagrees with his viewpoint sometimes, but that's okay. He likes listening to different arguments and searching for the logic that will shut them down.
"She's a lot smarter than I am," he said. "It's all relative. It's all who you talk to."
No matter your bent, talk with him long enough and he may tell you there's a conservative in you "screaming to get out."
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Paige's philosophy is broad enough to encompass all levels of government and public concerns from taxes and property rights to how to help homeless people.
"Every person has value; every person has worth," he said. "So every person can contribute. But we do need to help the neediest among us. That's the start of the conservative philosophy right there."
Help homeless people find their talents and build on them, he said, but don't enslave them by making them rely on the government for everything.
"Conservatism empowers people," he said. "It's what you have in you, not what you can take from your neighbor that's going to make you successful."
Once Paige starts talking about Clearwater, he rails about the purchase of the Royalty Theatre, now the Capitol Theatre; gold-plated benefits for city employees; dog parks; and last year's property tax rate increase.
"I guarantee you, Clearwater is going to try to raise the millage rate again," he said. "This economy has us on our knees. People don't have the money."
The city plays a shell game, he says.
"When property values go down, they inch up the millage rate so that the net result is a lower tax bill," he said. "Proportionately, you are still paying more."
He said he lit into the City Council at two budget hearings and some council members gave him a chilly reception.
He recalls that Mayor Frank Hibbard once told him he could disagree without being disagreeable. The next time he spoke before the council, Paige replied, "It's nothing personal, Mr. Mayor. We just can't afford it."
Paige said Vice Mayor Gibson's views may be the closest to his on the council.
"He once addressed the Clearwater City Council and stated that we were comprised of two liberals and three socialists," Gibson said. "He declined to tell us who were the liberals and who were the socialists."
Gibson said last year's millage rate increase was minute, and it's too soon to say about next year.
"The real way to measure what's going on is to look at the spending level," Gibson said. "Our spending level went down last year and in my opinion, it's going to go down this year."
The County Commission gets a softer glove when Paige puts up his dukes.
Commissioners greet him warmly when he rises to the stand. Former Commissioner Bob Stewart once complimented his use of humor. Paige said thanks, but he hoped the humor didn't distract from his message.
"They agree with some of the things I'm saying, but they wouldn't dare say it themselves," he said. "I can see the nods."
Paige is there to offer some insight and his ideas, Commissioner Karen Seel said. She may not agree with him, but she said she likes the way he presents himself: well-spoken and respectful.
"I like hearing his perspective," she said. "Sometimes, he has an out-of-the-box idea. I'm always open to hearing what someone has to say, because it can change my perspective."
Paige has been considering a run for the Clearwater City Council, he said, campaigning against those who think government is a candy store.
"I don't know how many people think like me," he said. "I have the feeling there are a lot."
He already has a slogan: "Nothing for everyone."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.