A controversial, reform-minded Republican governor who’d received national attention running for reelection. A congressman, a pillar of the Democratic establishment who’d been in various offices for decades, running against him. An independent who couldn’t win, but who could nevertheless get enough votes to affect the outcome.
The year? 1990. The governor? John McKernan. The challenger? Joe Brennan. The independent? Andrew Adams, who drew enough votes that he was able to give the Libertarian Party official status after the election.
Of course, the parallels aren’t perfect: none ever are. Then the economy was in the middle of a recession; now we’re in the middle of a lengthy, if stalled, recovery. Then the governor shared the party of the president, who was still in his first term; now it’s the opposite on both counts. The independent at the time, Adams, didn’t have nearly the status (financial or political) of today’s independent, Eliot Cutler.
Still, while it may be hard for new observers of Maine politics to believe now, McKernan had a difficult first term, just like LePage. Both had a challenging relationship with the Legislature, with then-Speaker of the House John Martin (who is seeking a return to the Maine House this year) stymieing him at every turn. They faced down over the budget and McKernan’s workers compensation reforms it contained, leading to a state government shutdown.
LePage has had a similarly eventful first term. Thanks to a friendlier legislature, he was able to not only avoid raising taxes, but pass the largest tax cut in state history. He also retired the hospital debt, implemented pension reforms, started the state’s first charter schools, and expanded natural gas to help reduce energy costs. These reforms have saved taxpayers millions and begun to put Maine on a more fiscally sustainable path.
Mike Michaud, on the other hand, speaks in platitudes, with no real solutions to Maine’s problems, as the debates showed. His policy ideas are recycled party-line talking points that he doesn’t even pretend to know how the state can afford. An acolyte of John Martin, he invented the parliamentary gimmick of a partisan majority budget, and he is more the vehicle of his party’s special interests than he is his own man.
They know that, were he elected, he would be even less independent than John Baldacci, the previous Democratic governor. He likely wouldn’t make any attempt to restrain tax increases, as Baldacci occasionally did. A central part of his campaign has been attacking the bipartisan tax cuts passed during LePage’s first term; he seems to have little regard for the burden that taxpayers of the state face day in and day out.
As governor, Baldacci all too frequently refused to fight bad policy ideas his own party floated in the Legislature. A prime example of this was the tax shift initiative, which was later repealed by voters at the ballot box. Though he’d claimed before to be against tax hikes, Baldacci stayed out of that fight until the 11th hour, when he interceded to rewrite a few specific sections.
A likely apocryphal quote often attributed to French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin describes Michaud perfectly: “There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”
Next Tuesday, Mainers don’t face a choice between two different styles of leadership. They face a choice between strong leadership and no leadership. That’s the real reason Paul LePage is labeled controversial: he’s an actual leader after 16 years of followers in the Blaine House. Mainers should vote to keep that leadership for another four years, not hand off power to another empty suit.