AUGUSTA, Maine — As governor for eight years, John Baldacci was buffeted from the start by huge revenue shortfalls brought on by a teetering economy, which shut down businesses and threw thousands of Mainers out of work.
But looking back as he completes his tenure, the 55-year-old Baldacci is not resentful that his watch saw the worst times since the Great Depression. In fact, he says it was an opportunity that helped him to leave Maine a better place than when he took office.
“People say you haven’t had the best of times, it’s unfortunate we just didn’t get the luck of the draw or whatever, and what I say is I had a … very fortunate time,” Baldacci said in an interview with The Associated Press as he wraps up his second term.
Those bad times forced an agenda for changes that make sense in a new, leaner fiscal environment, Baldacci said.
“We could have never made the changes in school administrative consolidation if we had money overflowing the treasury. We’d never have been able to consolidate county jails and the state correctional system under a board of corrections,” he said. “People for 15 years have been talking about this stuff, but nobody’s been do-ing anything, and it was up to us to step on the toes.”
But his work to integrate and realign state agencies, which left state government with 1,000 fewer employees, isn’t the only way Baldacci wants to be remembered. He says a lot was done to make state government more energy-efficient and to encourage alternative energy generation to wean the state from fossil fuels. Baldacci aggressively pushed for land- and ocean-based wind power development.
That said, Baldacci balks when asked to name the high point of his tenure: “It’s like being a parent of a large family. How do you pick and choose which one’s the best one, the one you like the best?” he said.
He recalled his first budget in 2003. A $1.2 billion revenue shortfall had piled up, prompting critics to say he couldn’t balance the books without raising broad-based taxes. But he proved them wrong, stubbornly pushing through the first of many painful cuts despite opposition from his own party.
“I love being challenged and I love overcoming those challenges, just being able to disprove the naysayers,” he said.
Christopher St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal group that advocates for policies affecting low- and moderate-income Mainers, said Baldacci deserves “at least a solid B and maybe a B-plus” for the way he managed the state during difficult times.
St. John said Baldacci’s administration tried hard to minimize the impact of budget cuts on social services by squeezing providers and avoiding cuts on recipients. He also credits Baldacci for taking steps to consolidate schools and corrections, and said Baldacci’s Dirigo Health has set the stage for further health care reforms by expanding coverage and finding ways to provide the most cost-effective care.
Baldacci said he’s proud of Dirigo Health — his effort to move the state toward universal health care — even though it never reached its enrollment goals and will face efforts by Republicans to abolish it. The effort was not a failure, he said, because it insures thousands who wouldn’t otherwise have coverage.
“And if you talk to any one of those people covered, any one of those businesses covered, they’ll tell you it’s the best product they ever had. They tell me it’s the best coverage they’ve ever had,” said Baldacci.
Baldacci found his attention often was diverted from the Capitol to the state’s paper mills, which were hitting the rocks, prompting the Democratic governor to ask his independent predecessor, Angus King, whether he should get involved. “He said if you don’t get involved in it, nobody else is.”
His administration helped to broker deals to bring new life to the former Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town and helped the Lincoln mill to reopen under new ownership. If there’s a high point, Baldacci said it was watching as the Lincoln paper workers returned to their jobs.
“When I went back there that day, the first day, and I saw the steam coming out of the pipe, I saw the tears coming down the faces of the workers, I felt like I had recognized an important job that we had all done together because you saw it in their faces,” said Baldacci. “I’ve got to tell you, it really hits you in a soft spot.”
Stephen Bowen, a former two-term legislator who is now with the conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center, said Baldacci deserves some credit for his leadership in trying fiscal times.
“He was under tremendous pressure from people from his (party) to raise taxes, and he resisted, to his credit.”
But Bowen faults Baldacci for failing during eight years in which he had a Democratic legislative majority to put forth successful policy initiatives, including a restructuring of state government. He also said Baldacci failed to articulate to Mainers a vision for the state.
Baldacci acknowledges that he didn’t always do enough to sell his ideas. The way Baldacci was raised, working in the family restaurant in Bangor, he was used to rolling up his sleeves, getting to work and achieving results. Being a cheerleader didn’t come as naturally to him as it might to some other politicians.
“But being governor requires you to speak out more, to use the megaphone more, to talk about what it is you’re doing,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re a bookkeeper and just going over the ledgers every day, and you need to get out there and put a face to it.”
Given another chance, he would do more outreach, interactive communication with people on major initiatives, more forums, especially on complex and controversial issues.
Baldacci said he has no interest in running for political office “but I’m not slamming the door and locking it.”
“I need to recharge my batteries,” said Baldacci, a former state senator and congressman. “I think my focus now, seriously, is making sure we do all we have to do to get the next governor best prepared, the best transition in Maine’s history.” Republican Paul LePage will be inaugurated Jan. 5.
Baldacci maintains a keen interest in issues such as education and will remain active in the Jobs for Maine Graduates program. He gets fired up by energy issues, saying, “I want a piece of that fight.” Most of all, he wants to devote time to his family, first lady Karen Baldacci and his college-age son Jack.
Looking back, Baldacci called his service “a complete honor and privilege.” And he used a baseball metaphor to illustrate his affection and admiration for Mainers.
“The Maine people and the Boston Red Sox fans have a lot in common, because they always feel the New York Yankees will pull the rug out from under them at the end of the day. … They don’t realize how good they are,” said Baldacci. “I want Maine people to understand they’re the best,” he said.