Inside Out

Posted May 05, 2010, at 5:45 p.m.

In running for elected office, “insider” is out. The ticket to electoral success in Maine’s gubernatorial race, some candidates believe, lies in claiming to be an outsider, given the anti-government sentiment that rules today. To be an “Augusta insider” is to be tainted, maybe even corrupted, by the very government the candidates hope to lead.

The insider-outsider distinction falls somewhere between genuine substance and political expediency. Voters must consider if they want their next governor to have to learn not only how state government works, but how to effectively deal with its layers and nuances. Yet they should also consider if an “insider” candidate is more likely to accept the bureaucratic inertia and lack of accountability endemic in such a large institution.

If candidates are insiders, the more telling distinction should come when they explain how their state government experience helps them effectively improve its effectiveness, not be complacent about its worst elements. And if they are outsiders, they must explain how they will not be flattened by its lumbering but inexorable growth.

Three of the four Democrats vying for their party’s nomination are the consummate Augusta insiders.

Pat McGowan, who twice ran as his party’s nominee for the 2nd Congressional district, has been a legislator and state conservation commissioner. Libby Mitchell, who has run for her party’s nomination for Congress and Senate, has been a legislator for more than 20 years, and most recently was president of the Senate. Steve Rowe was the state attorney general and a legislator, where he served as speaker of the House.

Rose Scarcelli has never held elective office, but has run a subsidized housing business that taught her, she says, to deal with government and how to create efficient and effective systems that could be replicated in state departments.

On the Republican side, state government outsiders outnumber the insiders. Les Otten has never held elective office, though he recently served as chairman of an energy independence task force convened by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Paul LePage, a general manager for Marden’s, is the three-term mayor of Waterville. Steve Abbott has never held elective office, but knows his way around the lawmaking and political processes, having served as chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins for 12 years and run her campaigns.

Bruce Poliquin, Matt Jacobson and Bill Beardsley have never held elected office, but Mr. Beardsley has worked in the state governments of Alaska and Vermont. Both Mr. Poliquin and Mr. Jacobson can credibly claim that their business experience put them in contact with government.

Peter Mills has been a legislator since 1995 and ran unsuccessfully for his party’s nomination for governor in 2002. He argues that his insider status will help him neuter the very worst legislative ideas, while at the same time allow him, as governor, to work with what will likely remain the majority party.

The appeal of the outsider is easy to understand. But in weighing the candidates, voters should consider that sometimes the outsider status is a liability and sometimes the insider is the best bet for change. More important questions are where the candidate wants to take state government, and whether he or she can achieve that goal.

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