PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A Democratic legislator from Aroostook County has announced that he has switched his affiliation to the Republican Party.
Michael Willette of Presque Isle, who was elected to a second term in the Legislature on Nov. 2 as a Democrat, told the Bangor Daily News on Friday that he has labored over his decision to switch since he couldn’t convince himself to support a tax reform proposal earlier this year that was supported almost exclusively by Democrats.
He also didn’t support other major Democrat-led initiatives: enactment of a 2008 law that allowed same-sex marriage as well as a bill that would have required businesses to offer paid sick time to employees during last year’s outbreak of the H1N1 flu. Neither measure nor the tax reform package ended up as law.
“It seemed like every time something major to the Democratic Party came up I just couldn’t vote for it,” said Willette during an interview Friday with the Bangor Daily News. “They were just bills that, to me, didn’t make sense and wouldn’t have worked for my district.”
Willette’s switch brings the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to 78 versus 72 Democrats, according to a press release from the House Republican Office. The advantage could be tilted further toward the GOP if recounts reverse the results in three races won narrowly by Democrats.
Willette, who helps run a Presque Isle-based real estate company, said he has always been middle-of-the-road politically, but decided to run as a Democrat during his initial election in 2008 because the Republican side of the ticket was occupied.
“I’m an independent who leans right on fiscal issues, for all intents and purposes,” said Willette, who added that he does not intend to seek a chairmanship on a legislative committee, which the majority parties in the Maine House and Senate have the privilege of appointing. “Socially, you can do whatever you need to do as long as it doesn’t involve me.”
Willette said his decision was cemented when Maine placed last on Forbes magazine’s list of most business-friendly states and the Maine Heritage Policy Center ranked it the second-place welfare state — both of which have happened since September.
“Those two lists really just drove it home to me,” said Willette, who beat Republican Jessica Chase Smith for the District 5 seat in the Nov. 2 election with almost 56 percent of the vote, according to unofficial election results compiled by the Bangor Daily News. District 5 represents part of Presque Isle.
Chase Smith said she wouldn’t have sought office in the first place if Willette announced his intention earlier because she wouldn’t have challenged an incumbent.
“I’m always happy to have more Republicans representing the people of Maine,” she said. “I just wish he had done this years ago.”
Asked for a statement for constituents, who thought they elected a Democrat less than two weeks ago, Willette said he hoped they had judged him by his performance as a legislator, not by his political affiliation.
“I just needed to be with a group of more like-minded people. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I had,” he said. “In a sense, this is going to give [Democrats] a chance to field a candidate who is more in line with their political views. I know there are going to be people who are upset, but, hopefully, also an equal number who have been happy with how I’ve served them. [Party affiliation] is just a label.”
In a press release generated by the House Republican Office, Willette’s tone was harsher.
“The Republican Party has the clear vision for our economic recovery,” Willette said in the release, in part. “The Maine Democrat agenda is too focused on the bidding of various special interests, to the detriment of the people of Presque Isle, and the people of Maine.”
Arden Manning, who led the Maine Democratic Party’s Victory 2010 campaign, said he viewed Willette’s defection as unfair to voters.
“It would have been fairer to his constituents that he run as a Republican,” said Manning, who didn’t see the switch as a huge coup for Republicans or a major loss for Democrats, with the House balance as it is.
“It would have been one thing if it had been a year into his term and he decides ‘My ideology is changing,’” said Manning. “Two weeks after the election begs the question, ‘Why didn’t you do this earlier?’”
Republicans struck a much happier tone. Rep. Joshua Tardy, R-Newport, who was the House minority leader in the just-ending legislative session, said Willette would be “a tremendous addition to our caucus,” according to a press release.
“We believe Rep. Willette has shown a great deal of courage in his willingness to put the people of his district ahead of partisan interests,” said Tardy.
Rod Thompson, chairman of the Aroostook County Democratic Committee, did not return a call seeking comment by press time.