One year, four governors and a forgotten Republican

Posted July 17, 2009, at 5:54 p.m.

A “Clickback” question posed in Tuesday’s BDN editorial column asked for reader opinions of the chances for a Republican to win the governorship, and said that a candidate succeeding as a Republican would mark the first time since John McKernan in the “past 50 years.”

Fact is, there have been two Republican governors of Maine during the last 50 years: McKernan (1986-94) and John H. Reed (1959-66).

The Reed era is an interesting one with some unusual sidebars.

In 1958, Democrat Clinton A. Clauson, a Waterville chiropractor, upset former Gov. Horace Hildreth in the election to succeed Edmund S. Muskie, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate. It was the last September election held in Maine after a long history of “first in the nation” elections for state and national offices.

In order to assume his new Senate seat at the same time as other freshman senators, Muskie resigned the governorship on Jan. 2, 1959, five days before the inauguration of his successor. The short interim between Muskie’s resignation and Clauson’s inauguration was filled by Senate President Robert N. Haskell of Bangor, a Republican.

Clauson served as governor only until Dec. 30, 1959, when he unexpectedly died in his sleep at the age of 65. Senate President John Reed, of Fort Fairfield, was whisked from his home in a state police car to Augusta to take the oath of office at a rate of speed he once described as “frightening.” He also once described it as “the midnight ride.”

Reed was only 39 at the time of his swearing-in and was the youngest governor in the nation at that time. Ken Curtis, who defeated Reed in 1966, was just 35. Youth had taken the reins of power in Maine.

All of these events: Muskie’s resignation, Haskell’s interim governorship, Clauson’s foreshortened term, and Reed’s swearing in resulted in Maine’s having four different governors in 1959. Thanks to my former broadcast partner, Charlie Horne, for reminding me of this interesting fact.

There was a previous instance of a governor who had been elected to the U.S. Senate resigning as governor before his term expired in order to take the Senate oath with the entire “freshman class” of senators. Frederick G. Payne of Waldoboro resigned on Dec. 24, 1952, two weeks before his term officially ended. Senate President Burton M. Cross would be sworn in as the new governor on Jan. 7, 1953.

Cross assumed the interim governorship on Dec. 24, 1952, but there was one small problem. His term as Senate president ended on Jan. 6, 1953, 25 hours prior to his inauguration as governor, making him ineligible to serve the final day of Payne’s term. The new Senate president, Nathaniel Haskell, therefore, became “governor for a day,” Jan. 6 to Jan. 7. It’s fascinating that the two men who filled unexpired gubernatorial terms between 1953 and 1959 were both named Haskell and not related to each other.

Since my birth, in 1937, there have been ten Republicans, five Democrats, and two independents serving as Maine’s governor, but in the past 50 years, as noted, only two Republicans have been elected while Democrats have won it three times and independents twice.

In the 189 years since Maine became a state, the Republican Party holds a 37-23 edge over Democrats, but since the governor’s term was extended from two years to four in 1958, Democrats have occupied the Blaine House for a total of 25 years to just 15 for the GOP, with 12 years of independent governors. And, incidentally, no former governor has ever been successful in regaining the office.

Who will be the next governor? Right now there’s no shortage of aspirants, but who can know how Maine will go?

Hal Wheeler lives in Bangor where he serves on the City Council.

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