America’s Capital of Divided Government
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
Update: LePage and legislative leaders finally met on Feb. 4.
AUGUSTA, Maine — Divided government has become a rarity in statehouses this year, but Maine is practicing it with a vengeance. Its leaders are attempting to run the state without actually speaking to one another. When Republican Governor Paul LePage delivers his state of the state address tonight, his words will be the first he has addressed to the legislature’s Democratic majority since the obligatory swearing-in ceremony in December.
What began as a standoff over a Democratic “tracker” who is paid by the party to videotape LePage’s public appearances has evolved into a new way of doing business that few expect to change anytime soon. The governor abruptly canceled a meet-and-greet with the new Democratic leadership on December 4, demanding that they call off the tracker. The next day, during the swearing-in ceremony, the governor berated Democrats for hiring a “paparazzi” even as he vowed to work with them. “I think it’s vulgar, I think it’s vicious, and I think it’s vile to me and my family,” he told legislators. “I say that to you, for the lack of respect that the office of the governor of the state of Maine is receiving. Having said that, we have to go to work. I want to work with each and every one of you.”
But that’s not what happened. Senate President Justin Alfond, whom the governor once called a “little spoiled brat” in a radio interview, has made plenty of overtures to LePage, as have other Democrats. Alfond’s hand-written dinner invitation to LePage only exacerbated the governor’s fury after it found its way into the local newspapers.
“It's awkward,” Alfond says. “It's unprofessional. It doesn't really make government look good when you have leaders not even able to meet. I'm not saying we have to agree on everything or even anything, but he hasn't even had the time or felt the need to meet with us."
Tracking the Governor
Reactions to the “tracker” issue have been mixed in Augusta. Maine is a small state where politics remains a deeply personal business, requiring long days of door-knocking and sidewalk campaigning. To some Republicans, a professional videographer recording the governor’s public appearances is a disruptive and unwelcome change. "We're not like the normal states where there's lots of money and nobody ever sees these people,” says state Representative Kenneth Fredette, the House Minority Leader. “To bring that level of national politics to Maine is a little bit shocking.”
Seasoned Democratic politicians have reacted by sarcastically welcoming the governor, who previously served as mayor of small-town Waterville, to the big leagues. “Nobody likes to have constant monitoring and supervision, but we're not forced to run for office; we choose to run for office,” says former Democratic Governor John Baldacci, who is mulling a run against LePage in 2014. “My mom used to say, ‘John, don't complain about it, you ran for it.’ … I think that it's important to develop tougher and thicker skin.”
Others point to the governor’s gruff leadership style and history of making incendiary public statements as justification for filming his public appearances. Last summer, he made national headlines by referring to the Internal Revenue Service as “the new Gestapo” and speculating that it is headed in the direction of killing a lot of people soon. He also famously declined a NAACP invitation to attend a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration with an invitation to “kiss my butt.”
Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant says those incidents and other like them have led the governor’s office to restrict access to LePage to prevent future embarrassment. “When he's in the statehouse, he's in a very controlled environment and his press people are able to really limit people's access to whatever is going on in his head,” he says. “We know that when he gets out and speaks to the public at events, that's when he really reveals who he is and what he believes and what he's trying to do … I think he believes in some things that most Maine people disagree with. That's our job: to make sure they know that. The fact that he can't handle even the smallest amount of scrutiny isn't my problem."
The governor’s office blames the media for many of his woes and has shifted its strategy in an effort to diminish the press’s traditional role in policy debates. In an interview, the governor’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor’s time is better spent communicating directly with the people through social media, speeches and radio addresses. “The governor, he wants to speak with Mainers,” she says. “He's not necessarily interested in speaking with the media for Mainers to only receive one sound-bite, which is taken out of context.”
His long-term strategy also appears to involve curbing the circulation of newspapers by discouraging children from reading them. Last year he told a group of eighth graders that reading a newspaper is like “paying someone to tell you lies,” and last Friday he told students he was reading to at a Catholic school that newspapers are his “greatest fear” as governor.
As the legislative session gets underway, LePage plans to take his policy proposals directly to the people in public appearances around the state. The governor will rely on those dialogues to help fine-tune and sharpen his proposals. “If there's something that maybe we missed in presenting a bill, we want to fix it,” Press Secretary Bennett says. “The best place to go to get that to happen is directly to Mainers, it is not to the media.”
Separation of Powers
Bennett argues that the media is making too much of the governor’s decision not to meet with Democrats. Other administration officials have been in regular communication with the legislature, she says, and some separation of powers is helpful. "There's been a lot of talk about the governor not working with Democrats,” she says. “He works down here [in the governor’s office]. He puts forth proposals and the budget and bills and it's a process.”
Most in the legislature seem to be OK with conducting their business relatively independently from the governor. The question hanging over the entire session is just how independent the legislature will be. Both the House and the Senate need only for independently elected legislators to vote with Democrats and a handful of Republicans to defect to get to a veto-proof two-thirds majority that would make the governor’s opinion irrelevant.
Independents have become an important force in Maine politics, and independent-minded politicians who are willing to vote against their party on important votes exemplify the state’s political culture. "It doesn't mean that we don't all share principles,” says Senate Republican Leader Mike Thibodeau. “There are principles that drive us to be Republicans or Democrats and because of that there's the perception that there's party discipline. But folks in the state of Maine are pretty independent thinkers.”
To most Democrats, collaborating with Republicans in the legislature seems like a far more promising strategy than persuading LePage to sign off on their work. “Given the success we had in using LePage in the last election, I think that might give some Republicans some motivation to not go with him lock-step like they did the last two years," says Democratic chairman Grant.
Both Republicans and Democrats have a lot of difficult political questions to consider in advance of the 2014 election, in which LePage will be up for another term. The state has proven to be among the most politically volatile places in the country in recent years. In 2010, Maine Republicans took over the governorship and both chambers of the legislature for the first time since the 1960s, only to see the Democrats reclaim both chambers in 2012. In Maine, state representatives and state senators are all up for re-election every two years, so everyone in the statehouse – the governor and the entire legislature – will have to answer to voters in 2014.
“This isn't just 186 people and the governor down there figuring out how do we pay the bills, how do we raise money and what not,” says Fredette, the House Republican Leader. “Ultimately all the actions down here are going to be about whether we can work together and get the job done or are we going to play politics to make the governor look bad going into an election cycle."
Fredette is frustrated that Democrats seem all too eager to make the first Republican governor in 20 years look bad, even when they agree with him, and believes that voters will look more kindly on everyone in office if Republicans and Democrats can find a way to collaborate. "If they see the gridlock in Augusta like the gridlock in Washington, quite frankly, there's going to be hell to pay,” he says. “They expect us to come down here and work together for what's in the best interest of the people of Maine.”
There is a major effort under way to keep the lines of communication open between Republicans and Democrats in the legislature. Democrats say they’re putting the focus on issues such as workforce development where there’s a likelihood of reaching consensus and hope to build trust through that approach.
In sharp contrast to the state of affairs with the governor, the Democratic House speaker and Senate president and House and Senate Republican leaders are in the habit of going out to dinner together every Thursday night.
“Things that happened during the day or week might come up, but it's really an enjoyable time of the week for all of us to really connect with one another,” says House Speaker Mark Eves. “It's about relationships. We have all agreed that while we're going to have differences—and we will— we are going to keep the commitment that we made early on to not take things personally.”