Political patronage amiss

Posted Nov. 13, 2008, at 5:56 p.m.

Mainers may be surprised that there’s still a political campaign going on. Although it involves the state’s top legal officer, the public has no say and likely isn’t even aware of who is competing for the job. This is a poor way to choose an attorney general and other constitutional officers.

Maine is the only state where the Legislature picks the attorney general; most are elected by the public with a handful appointed by the governor. Maine is one of three states that has the Legislature select the secretary of state. The state treasurer and auditor are also chosen by the Legislature.

There are many shortcomings to this approach.

A major one is that it severely limits the pool of people considered for these jobs. In practice, lawmakers look to their colleagues, especially those about to leave the State House due to term limits, to fill these posts. Because the majority party — Democrats for most of the past three decades — controls who is elected, that limits the pool even further. There must be people other than Democratic legislators who would make a good attorney general or treasurer.

Worse, Maine’s system severely limits accountability because those selected for these positions don’t answer to voters or the governor. District attorneys and sheriffs, who are elected by the public, are more accountable this way, points out Tarren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The center is looking at ways to change the system, which he says is based on patronage, not the candidates’ qualifications or vision for the office.

Three state representatives are seeking to replace Steve Rowe who must step down as attorney general after eight years due to term limits. They are Sean Faircloth of Bangor, Janet Mills of Farmington and John Brautigam of Falmouth. All are Democrats.

The other constitutional officers — Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, Treasurer David Lemoine and Auditor Neria Douglass — are seeking second terms.

Another benefit to choosing these officers through a general election is that it develops a “farm team,” says Richard Powell, a political science professor at the University of Maine. With the governor the only statewide elected official in Maine, there is a very narrow pathway to Congress and the chief executive’s office. A statewide election for attorney general and treasurer, for example, would enable voters to get a closer look at several candidates who may later aspire to the governorship or the U.S. House or Senate. This benefits the public and aspirants to higher office.

The major stumbling block to changing the system is the Legislature itself, where a two-thirds vote is needed to change the system. A decade ago, the State and Local Government committee voted 11-1 to have the secretary of state popularly elected. It voted 10-2 to have the attorney general popularly elected. Both were rejected by the full Legislature.

The benefits of changing this system — larger pools of qualified candidates, more accountability and new routes to higher office — outweigh the negatives.

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/11/13/opinion/political-patronage-amiss/ printed on September 17, 2014