He’s cleaned out what little he brought to the governor’s mansion he never lived in. All of the trinkets, including the mechanical wooden moose that pooped M&M candies, are gone from their places of honor on his desk in the State House.
It may be hard to believe eight years have passed since Angus King was first swept into office, riding a tidal wave of voter discontent over bitterly divisive partisan tactics in the State House.
King promised to bring a unique leadership style to Augusta at a time when the political atmosphere could not have been any more diverse – an independent governor, a Republican Senate and a Democratic House of Representatives. Through consensus and compromise, the governor and competing chambers hoped to end the budget crisis and mandatory state employee furlough days while rebuilding the state’s lackluster economy.
Nearly a decade later, Mainers have swung to the opposite end of the political spectrum, opting for one-party rule in state government by electing Democrats to control not only the governor’s office, but also both houses of the Legislature. Curiously enough, when Gov.-elect John Baldacci and the Democratic majorities roll up their sleeves later this month to begin the work of governing, they still will face a budget crisis, mandatory furlough days and a lackluster economy.
What they won’t have is a commanding and extremely articulate central figure like King, who by most accounts was unrivaled among a large cast of State House characters in his ability to reach out and connect with Maine people.
“I think he’s really been striking,” said MaryEllen FitzGerald, a pollster who runs Critical Insights marketing services in Portland. “He’s got a lot of credibility and has by and large used that capital wisely. He’ll be remembered as a popular governor who made Mainers feel good about themselves.”
Bombarded almost constantly for the last six months by reporters seeking to know what he felt his legacy would be, King frequently dismissed the inquiries as trivial.
Yet in a recent interview, the former lawyer, businessman and television commentator demonstrated a genuine affection and belief in Maine’s people that may very well be the legacy that has been the object of so much speculation.
“Maine has this peculiar sort of dual attitude where its people are very proud of Maine but at the same time, in the backs of their minds, there’s this sort of inferiority complex,” King said in describing the motivational theory behind his leadership. “If you’re negative and pessimistic, bad things will happen and if you’re positive and optimistic, good things will happen. We started that in 1995 with our ‘Maine is on the Move’ campaign. It was a conscious strategy to try and lift people’s spirits, which in turn would have concrete results.
“If people feel good about themselves and their future, they’re going to buy something extra, fix the house or hire somebody. If they’re sort of cramped and feeling worried, none of those things happen. It’s just a kind of semipermanent recession that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
King’s shining moment of leadership arrived at the end of his first term during the 1998 ice storm that paralyzed most of the state. During those two weeks of power outages, King was everywhere: with power linemen, with state transportation workers, at hospitals and shelters. He launched his neighbor-to-neighbor appeal in an effort to get people to check on each other in the state’s largest cities and smallest towns. King spoke daily to Mainers who, for the most part, could only listen to him on battery-operated radios.
“That was all instinct,” King recalled. “There’s no way to learn how to react to that situation. I realized that the role of a leader in a situation like that was to provide reassurance by being seen and providing reassurance that we were working on the problem and that everything would be OK – even though we had a true crisis for the first 48 hours of the storm. The neighbor-to-neighbor program was simply a case of a strategy born of necessity. There just weren’t enough resources for us to do it at the state level alone.”
As popular as he was with many Maine residents, King’s normal amiability could turn testy quickly if he felt the administration’s policies were being questioned unfairly. On more than one occasion, those rare eruptions gave rise to the perception among some State House reporters that the governor was a little thin-skinned. Although those incidents usually took place privately during weekly media opportunities King called “press time,” there were also more public flare-ups of King’s Scottish temper.
In the aftermath of the investigation into the death of 5-year-old Logan Marr at the hands of a former state child welfare worker, state Human Services Commissioner Kevin Concannon and his agency increasingly became the focus of negative publicity. As the governor entered a packed Cabinet Room for an unrelated press conference, he passed State House reporter Paul Carrier of the Portland Press Herald who recently had written a Logan Marr story that King thought treated his commissioner unfairly.
Doing an about-face when he noticed Carrier, King pointed his finger at the reporter and said, “That quote about Kevin – that was lousy, Paul.” His voice rising, King repeated, “LOUSY!”
King frequently tried to pursue a balanced approach in budget negotiations, giving both parties a reason to work with the administration. But some Republicans were hard to please, and in two instances during King’s tenure budgets were passed by a simple Democratic majority. Despite eliminating more than 1,000 state positions under his Productivity Realization Task Force and approving about $140 million a year in tax cuts, King’s accomplishments fell short of the mark for some conservatives like former state Rep. Debra D. Plowman, R-Hampden.
“He promised he would make the hard choices to bring state government down to size and not spend more than what we earn,” Plowman said. “He made all those promises and look where we are: The state budget has grown by nearly $3 billion in eight years to pay for a bigger and more expensive state government.”
Liberals also have taken their share of jabs at the King administration. Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is a former Green Independent Party gubernatorial candidate who opposed King in 1998. She said recently that King has been overly concerned with business interests and has failed poor Mainers by supporting tax increases on gasoline, take-out meals and cigarettes. All of those increases, she said, are shouldered disproportionately by low-income residents.
“Maine has a lot of high taxes, but they’re always higher on the poor,” LaMarche said. “If you’re buying a pack of cigarettes and putting gas in your tank today, you’re paying a lot of taxes. I think the situation is pretty bleak.”
Although the governor is most closely associated with the school laptop program – which could be threatened next year by declining state revenues – King said much of the progress his administration has made is in areas taxpayers take for granted. When King took office, state government agencies coped with a hodgepodge of antiquated computer services making intra-agency electronic communication almost impossible. King hired a new state information services officer and took advantage of budget surpluses to literally rebuild technology in state government from the ground up.
Interestingly, high-tech makeovers and a massive cash infusion for law-and-order initiatives were not major priorities outlined by King in his 132-page “Making A Difference” essay he published in 1994 to introduce himself to the voters. A civil practice lawyer, King was no career prosecutor who might be expected to push hard for expensive anti-crime and rehabilitation policies.
Yet, during his two successive four-year terms, he became the first governor to:
. Demolish and rebuild the Maine State Prison.
. Construct two new juvenile facilities.
. Construct a new Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
In addition to renovating dilapidated state facilities, King also found money for programs designed to provide some hope of criminal rehabilitation. In 1994, only about 15 percent of the juvenile offenders at the Maine Youth Center were attending five hours of school per day. King said the number now has increased to 100 percent. Prison inmates used to try and gain marketable skills in wood shop making coffee tables and toys. Today, they’re repairing computers.
“It hasn’t just been bricks and mortar, we’ve moved light years ahead programmatically on what we’ve been able to do,” said Martin Magnusson, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections.
“I didn’t come into office saying that we needed to redo the prisons although I did know there was a problem,” said King. “Here we are today with a brand new system. If I had done nothing else, what’s happened at Corrections would be a pretty damn good record.”
King continued to reside in Brunswick during his eight years in office, eschewing the Blaine House mansion for being “too much like a museum” for his two active young children.
Living in the shadow of the state’s economic powerhouse, Bath Iron Works, the governor watched as manufacturing jobs – most of them in eastern, central and northern Maine – disappeared from the state in the thousands.
The widening gulf between the so-called “two Maines” was accentuated by the booming economy in the state’s southern three counties and, in many cases, the paycheck-to-paycheck existence of those living elsewhere. King tended to trumpet new business openings or expansions in Maine with press conferences that more often than not were staged somewhere in southern Maine. The comparative absence of similar announcements elsewhere in the state sometimes prompted residents living north of Augusta to conclude King’s economic agenda had a decisively southern Maine tilt.
State Sen. John L. Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he thought King had worked hard to pursue a fair and balanced economic strategy for the state. The former veteran speaker of the House and longtime player in State House politics pointed out that the governor was not the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company with massive resources for investment.
“The governor has to go begging to companies to move to Maine,” Martin said. “People have to take it upon themselves if they want to move forward. The governor can’t do that on his own.”
King said he was aware of the perception among some that he didn’t give a hoot about northern Maine.
“I think it’s a bad rap, because I think I’m being expected to cure a 100-year-old worldwide phenomenon that’s happening everywhere else,” King said in describing the decline of natural resource-based industries in the United States. “So I do feel that I’m being asked to solve a problem that’s way beyond the means of the governor, the Legislature or even the president – having said that, it is my job to try and solve the problem.”
But the governor’s charisma and his stated desire to confront difficult problems did much to secure him the support of Mainers statewide. His popularity also gave a boost to other independent bids for political office in Maine. While the Legislature routinely has had at least one independent in the House, three were elected to that chamber this year. And, as a group, independent voters actually increased in number during King’s two terms to become the dominant voter preference in Maine.
Politically, King cannot claim to be Maine’s first independent governor. That title was won in 1974 by Gov. James B. Longley of Lewiston. Unlike Longley though, King was the first independent governor to win re-election and work well with a Legislature dominated by two political parties.
As he prepared to leave office and head out on a cross-country trip in his new luxury motor home, King remained concerned, however, that Republicans and Democrats still have not learned to work together – that they continue to lay the underpinnings of mistrust that opened the door for his independent victory in 1994.
“I continue to be surprised by the vitality of sheer partisanship, these enmities, that frankly I can’t understand,” King said. “These are all Maine people, but to see them sit around a table and trade insults and leave the room and [their inability] to do things surprised me. My mind just doesn’t work that way. I always try to get to a solution.”