Gov. LePage’s nasty tactics reveal deeper issues

Gov. LePage’s nasty tactics reveal deeper issues

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, report on Governor LePage and Goodwill-Hinckley had no real surprises in it, unless you can still be surprised by just how nasty Maine state politics have become. The governor did, indeed, threaten to withhold money from a school for at-risk-students in order to cost Speaker Mark Eves his job as the school’s president. The removal of the $530,000 in state funds led the Harold Alfond Foundation to reconsider millions of dollars in grants that they had planned to direct to Goodwill-Hinkley, so the governor’s attack was as strategically well-aimed as it was nasty.

Targeting children to hurt one of your political enemies is pretty awful. But that news, as I said, could hardly be considered surprising to anyone who has followed the governor’s career. He essentially did the same thing to Maine’s community colleges and, it seems, the World Acadian Congress.

And, of course, partisan retribution is hardly a LePage innovation. American politicians have used the powers of their offices to punish members of opposing parties since before we even officially had parties.

The effect of LePage’s behavior toward Eves and Goodwill-Hinckley, however, has larger consequences for our state. The scheme could have a chilling effect on future legislative leaders long after we have a new governor, and that is, in part, a result of some well-meaning reforms that have turned out to have some very unfortunate unintended consequences.

The problem stems from our attitude toward the people we elect to public office. I suppose people can’t be blamed for taking a dim view of professional politicians, when the politicians themselves often define themselves against the very offices they serve. But that attitude doesn’t help the residents of Maine at all; if anything, cynicism about the actions of elected representatives only helps to provide cover for LePage and others like him.

(One is reminded of Richard Nixon’s “all presidents do it” defense. Nixon’s bland assertion of universal presidential corruption, repeated after his death by countless talking heads, did more damage to our political system than the famous “second rate burglary” at the Watergate.)

But we need to reconsider our suspicions regarding those who choose to make their careers in public service, and then we need to reconsider two key aspects of our commitment to non-professional political leadership:

First, term limits. A 1993 Citizens’ Initiative to forestall “careerism” in electoral politics resulted in our current system. It is completely unclear to me why we would want doctors, plumbers, and professors who have invested years of knowledge and experience toward careers in their professions, while passing legislation to avoid the same thing in our elected officials. But in doing so, we sacrifice professional expertise on the part of our representatives, and, worse, we disadvantage ourselves in comparison to the people — I’m thinking here primarily of lobbyists — who don’t have term limits, and who can send years figuring out how to make the system work for their clients.

Secondly, the pay for legislative work is quite low.  Again, this may reflect laudable commitments against professionalization in legislation (though, again, I have no idea why that is a good thing) or a desire to keep the influence of money out of public service, but it merely increases the spending power and the long-term influence of the people in Augusta who aren’t directly answerable to the public, and it leaves newly retired legislators, like Eves, particularly vulnerable.

Term limits force out lawmakers who should be nearing the height of their skill and influence, which leaves them vulnerable to political retribution, as the OPEGA report suggests; and the low salary leaves them even more so. This has a potential chilling effect on new members of the legislative leadership, who don’t have time to master the system and must fear retribution to themselves and their families for doing their jobs, and I imagine that was precisely the point.

I was at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association meeting last week, and everyone I ran into at the lobby bar wanted to hear the story about our governor and the pocket veto fiasco. One blogger assured me the it was the “funniest story in American politics in recent memory.” Maybe so, but the Governor’s attack on the children of Goodwill-Hinckley is something else — a vulgar story of bullying and improper influence, yes, but also a story whose severity has something to do with our own attitude towards professionalization in politics.

In a lot of states, Governor LePage’s heavy-handed scheme would have been a nasty story, but one with limited impact. In Maine, these tactics can do a lot more damage, in part because of reforms that we have put in place. The time has come for us to rethink term limits, low legislative salaries, and the other symbols of our aversion to professionalism in government before we once again wind up as accomplices to some nasty gubernatorial tactics.

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Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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