Building Better Candidates

Posted Sept. 01, 2009, at 5:59 p.m.

So far, 18 people have formally declared their intent to run for governor. Most of them you’ve never heard of. Fresh faces and new ideas can be a good thing, but at a time when the state faces unprecedented financial challenges, major changes in energy policy and infrastructure and ongoing debates about the shape and cost of government services, the qualification for being the state’s chief executive should include a demonstrated record of strategic vision and making tough decisions.

Because Maine has only one statewide elected office — the governorship — there is limited opportunity for Blaine House aspirants to develop and showcase their skills. Electing the state’s attorney general, secretary of state and treasurers — as most other states do — would broaden the path to the governor’s office, which would benefit both the public and candidates.

Maine is the only state in the country where the Legislature picks the attorney general. It is one of only three to have lawmakers choose the secretary of state. The state treasurer and auditor are also chosen by the Legislature.

The practice of choosing from among lawmakers, usually those who are about to leave the State House because of term limits, in the majority party severely limits candidates for these jobs. In most states, the people in these posts are elected by the public or appointed by the governor.

Either would be an improvement over Maine’s system.

A popular election to fill these posts would also broaden the pool of candidates, it would create new and needed stepping-stones to higher office, including Congress and the Blaine House. A statewide election for attorney general and secretary of state 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.

Elections, of course, have their downsides. Money sometimes determines the outcome and records are distorted. But this leads to the other major shortcoming of Maine’s current system — accountability.

Because the state’s constitutional officers don’t answer to the public or the governor, they’re accountability is limited. Having them elected or appointed by the governor would improve this.

The benefits of changing the selection method — larger pools of qualified candidates, new routes to higher office and more accountability — outweigh the negatives. Because they have long controlled the Legislature, Democratic lawmakers have resisted any such changes and will continue to do so. This mindset is holding the state back at a time it can least afford it.

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