Could Nov. 2 be another Independent’s Day?

Posted June 29, 2010, at 6:57 p.m.

While the Democrat and Republican candidates for governor have been in the spotlight for months, another political force has been gathering that’s as potent in Maine as it is anywhere in the country: the independents.

In a nation based on partisan politics, only a handful of states have elected independent governors, and Maine has done it three times with James Longley in 1974 and Angus King in ’94 and ’98. Whether the cause of that has been a middle-of-the-road electorate, unappealing big-party candidates or a convergence of forces is up for debate, but the potential potency of a nonparty candidate is not.

The November ballot will feature five choices for governor: independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott, Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell. All three independents, each of whom gathered signatures from 4,000 registered voters to win a place on the ballot, told the Bangor Daily News that they are gearing up for an intense general election campaign.

Making history

Political independents in Maine are just what the name implies, meaning they are not members of any political party, including the Maine Green Independent Party. Technically, they are unenrolled.

Maine made history in 1974 by making James Longley, an insurance salesman from Lewiston, the first popularly elected independent governor in the United States in the modern era. Longley was a newcomer to elected office who had served on a commission for Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis aimed at making government more efficient and cutting costs.

According to the book “This Splendid Game: Maine Campaigns and Elections, 1940-2002,” written by Bowdoin College professor and pollster Christian Potholm, Longley’s candidacy was not taken seriously until he began to gather major traction in October — just a few weeks before the election. He ended up with 40 percent of the vote, edging out second-place Democrat George Mitchell by 3 percentage points and far outpacing Republican Jim Erwin.

Potholm gave much of the credit for Longley’s groundbreaking win to his press secretary, James McGregor. Now a lobbyist for the Maine Merchant’s Association in Augusta, McGregor called his role in Longley’s win “minor,” though he said his previous exposure to third-party candidates in the southern United States certainly helped.

“With Longley it was not a question of leading him, it was a question of being able to keep up,” said McGregor. “I told him that what he had to do was to break the mold and get out of the last paragraph of political roundups [in newspapers]. Obviously, he was able to do that.”

Not unlike today, according to McGregor, the state in the mid-1970s was plagued with a general dissatisfaction among the electorate about the direction Maine was headed. Longley’s message struck a chord.

“He demonstrated that if you get out hard enough and try to do something, you can break the party system,” said McGregor. “It’s tough for an independent, but Longley and Gov. King have demonstrated that it’s doable in the state of Maine.”

Despite Longley’s success, King entered the race in 1994 weathering a certain degree of doubt from the political establishment.

“When I was running 16 years ago, there was a lot of talk about, ‘can an independent govern?’” said King. “I like to think that notion went to bed, and that people realized an independent can govern. It’s more about the personality of the governor.”

In some ways, according to King, being an independent is easier than trying to cater to an established partisan base. As a candidate, an independent can voice his or her own ideas without trying to conform to a party platform. As a governor, an independent can appoint people of any political persuasion, which King said leads to a more talented and diverse administration.

But a major disadvantage, according to King, is that an independent has no “natural allies,” particularly in the Legislature.

“I used to say that I’ve got 186 skeptics in the Legislature,” said King. “There wasn’t anyone I could call and say ‘I need this issue.’ It didn’t make it easy but it wasn’t impossible, either.”

Potholm, who worked for King in the 1990s as a pollster, said that not surprisingly, the biggest factor in an independent’s success or failure is the other candidates.

“In this case, if Paul LePage runs a good campaign and Libby Mitchell runs a good campaign, then it will be very hard for an independent to be successful,” he said. “It’s particularly hard if there are two or more good independent candidates.”

With three independents in this race, Potholm predicts that they will work against each other. Cutler, a lawyer and former energy administrator in the Carter administration, has demonstrated that he has money to spend and will use it aggressively. Moody has contributed $500,000 to his own campaign and along with Scott, brings a small businessman’s perspective to the race. Moody owns a chain of collision repair centers in Maine, and Scott operates an employee recruitment firm.

Ronald Schmidt, who chairs the political science department at the University of Southern Maine, said the question of whether any of the independents will be serious contenders or merely spoilers for another candidate remains to be seen.

“In most parts of the country and in national politics, the only real role that an independent plays is as a spoiler,” he said. “Here in Maine we have a history of independent candidates running and winning. There are opportunities here for independent candidates that there wouldn’t be in other states.”

Three serious contenders?

Cutler, Moody and Scott certainly don’t think they are spoilers.

They all said they believe voters will recognize their unique skill set for solving Maine’s biggest problem — namely a budget crisis that already has triggered vast cuts in government spending and could bite as much as another $1 billion out of the next biennial budget. Whoever is elected in November will face the immediate task of writing a budget proposal that will be much leaner than the current one.

Scott, who hails from the western Maine town of Andover, is positioning himself as an everyday Mainer who has the skills and ideas to make a difference in Augusta.

“I think people are ready for a true independent, someone who is actually a citizen governor,” said Scott. “Someone who is one of us.”

Scott said he would fix Maine’s economic situation with solutions that will reap benefits long beyond his time in the Blaine House. Part of that plan would be the aggressive promotion of Maine’s agricultural industry, including putting more local foods in schools.

“If our children are eating healthier foods from kindergarten through 12th grade, that lessens the burden on the health system,” he said.

Scott also favors reducing the size of state government by instituting widespread 32-hour workweeks for state employees. The program would be introduced as a voluntary pilot program, but could grow — along with the savings — as new employees are hired.

“This is not a heads-rolling scenario,” said Scott. “If we do not work for a fundamental improvement in the structure of our state government, we’re doomed to repeat these same old problems.”

Moody, who lives in Gorham, touts his self-made entrepreneurial success, which began when he was still a 17-year-old senior at Gorham High School. He borrowed $6,000 from a bank and built his first garage, which has grown to a chain of five Moody’s Collision Centers in Maine. Moody hopes to bring his business’s lean practices, including a consolidated management structure, to state government.

Part of his proposal is to develop a program that rewards state agencies and departments for identifying and implementing efficiencies.

“The state budget process is obsolete and dysfunctional because there’s no incentives to save money,” he said. “That can be a powerful thing.”

Moody also advocates a more detailed system of delivering social services that gives people only the help they need and not “the whole smorgasbord” of assistance programs. “We need to start treating our taxpayers like customers,” he said. “I’ve learned the power of listening to people before you jump to conclusions about what they need.”

Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth, has made the biggest splash of any of the independents so far and said he has no intentions of pulling back. He already has purchased major newspaper and television advertisements, intensifying his campaign dramatically earlier this month on the day after the primary election.

This week, Cutler also claimed the support of two notable Democratic legislators.

Sen. Dennis Damon of Trenton, who has co-chaired the Marine Resources and Transportation committees, and Rep. Leila Percy of Phippsburg, a Marine Resources co-chair, announced their endorsements Sunday. Their announcements did not mention their party’s nominee.

Though Cutler has been a Democrat for most of his life, he said he became disillusioned as the Democrats went from being “a party of reform to the very narrow, distilled essence of what it used to be.”

He said he’s a vastly different choice from LePage and Mitchell, who he characterized as a “slash and burn, dismantle and divide approach” and a “status quo candidate,” respectively.

Cutler said the key to Maine’s economic recovery is taking advantage of the state’s natural resources and breaking down barriers that stand in the way of economic development — ranging from high taxes and oppressive regulations to a not-in-my-backyard attitude.

“One challenge is remaking the bureaucracy to help people get to yes,” he said, suggesting abolishing the Board of Environmental Protection and redefining the role of the Land Use Regulatory Commission. “The second challenge is persuading people in Maine to share a set of goals in this state that we all subscribe to.”

McGregor, the former spokesman for the late Gov. Longley, said his old boss still has a following in Maine more than 30 years after he left office — and that there’s little doubt that the state’s political landscape was forever changed with his election.

“It’s become sort of a Maine thing to be independent,” said McGregor. “Everybody’s got an equal shot to be elected. It’s about who goes out and works the hardest.”

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