Baldacci credits family as governor tenure ends

Posted Jan. 03, 2011, at 8:18 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 04, 2011, at 8:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA — When Gov. John Baldacci was asked what he would like included in his official portrait that hangs in the State House, Maine’s outgoing chief executive had two requests.

The first request was pictures of his family. The second was for a favorite saying of his father’s that the governor claims has guided a 32-year political career that — according to Baldacci, at least — will end Wednesday.

“What have you done for the people today?”

It is a saying Baldacci recalls hearing quite often from his father, Robert Baldacci Sr. — such as when his father would question the then-state senator when he stopped by the family restaurant to help out after driving back from Augusta.

Impatient to help around the restaurant, Baldacci recounted recently how he told his father he didn’t have time to talk politics.

“And he would say, ‘Look, I wash dishes here all day so you can go down to Augusta. The least you could do is tell me what did you do for the people today?’” Baldacci, 55, said recently in his increasingly bare-boned State House office.

“That was a good wake-up call, so I sat there and talked to him about the issues that we worked on,” Baldacci said. “He always wanted me to get into the right frame of mind for the work I was doing. So I always had a very wonderful mentor, teacher, someone to look up to.”

John Baldacci’s tenure as a public servant will end Wednesday, when Gov.-elect Paul LePage officially takes over as Maine’s chief executive. After 12 years in the Legislature, eight years in Congress and eight years in the Blaine House, Baldacci is moving to Holden with his wife, Karen, to begin the next phase of their lives.

The Bangor native has said he does not plan to seek elected office again. He talks about teaching at the college level, staying involved in programs for at-risk youth, and potentially getting back into the restaurant business with his family. He also is widely expected to continue his focus on renewable energy and decreasing Maine’s reliance on fossil fuels.

But other than his upcoming vacation in Florida, he is mum about specific plans.

“The first lady is first, making sure she is comfortable … because she has given up eight years as a teacher and dietitian,” Baldacci said. Then, he adds one more plan for life after governor: “looking for that perfect golf swing.”

It’s hard to imagine Baldacci leaving politics altogether, especially considering his upbringing.

Growing up in the Baldacci household in the 1960s and ’70s, talking politics was no mere pastime. It was practically an obligation.

“There was a lot of change and political turmoil going on,” said his brother Joe Baldacci. “I think we grew up in an atmosphere where my parents expected us to know what was going on, to read about what was going on, and to have an opinion on it.”

Although the physical location of the restaurant changed several times, Momma Baldacci’s became the hub of Penobscot County politics. Locals gathered for coffee and political discussion in the mornings, and candidates stopped by for some grub and face time with voters during lunch or dinner.

All of the Baldacci’s eight children went into public service or worked in politics in some form. John Baldacci’s interest in politics was evident early on, according to several of his siblings.

In high school, he ran for governor of his American Legion Boy’s State class. While at the University of Maine, he formed a Republican-Democratic state committee in an attempt to encourage more bipartisanship.

He was in his early 20s and working alongside his father at the restaurant when the two decided it was time for John to run for office. The son ran to succeed his father on the City Council.

“I was only 23, and I was still being introduced as ‘Bob’s boy,’” Baldacci said. “My father had a great reputation and a tremendous amount of integrity, and people regarded him very well.”

Like his father, Baldacci would serve on the City Council. He ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 1980 but was victorious two years later, winning his first term in the state Senate.

By 1994, Baldacci was the chairman of the Taxation Committee in a Democrat-controlled Legislature. He was, in his own words, “comfortable” with his political position. His father, on the other hand, was pushing him to run for Congress.

“I told Dad I didn’t want to do it. I said, ‘I’m very comfortable,’ and that’s when he began to read me the riot act,” Baldacci said. “He said, ‘It’s not about you being comfortable. It’s about the people being comfortable.’”

Then, his father added, “You either move up or move out.”

“That sounds like my father,” said Peter Baldacci, a longtime Penobscot County commissioner, when told about the father-son interaction. “He wasn’t ever satisfied with the status quo.”

Baldacci won in a seven-person primary and a four-way general election in 1994, during an anti-Democratic year when Republicans won control of Congress and Newt Gingrich became speaker of the house in Washington, D.C.

The elder Baldacci would never see his son achieve the lofty goal he had set for him. He died the summer before. But John Baldacci still credits his dad for his victory.

“I had every reason not to win, and I ended up coming out on top,” Baldacci said. “I truly believe it is because of him and his drive and determination to believe in me. Somehow, he just parted the clouds and created the opening.”

After eight years in Congress, Baldacci beat three other general election candidates to win the governorship in 2002. He was re-elected in 2006, this time in a five-person election.

The past eight years have been anything but easy for the Democratic governor, however.

Baldacci inherited a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, the first of several revenue gaps during his time in office. But contrary to political rhetoric, especially during campaign season, Maine has not increased broad-based taxes during Baldacci’s term.

In fact, Maine dropped from No. 1 in the conservative Tax Foundation’s ranking of state tax burdens to No. 15 during Baldacci’s time in office. The Tax Foundation ranks Maine No. 31 — with No. 1 being the best — for business tax climate in fiscal year 2011.

On his very first day, the stability of Maine’s largest industry was severely undercut when Great Northern Paper Co. declared bankruptcy. Great Northern was the first of many instances of the administration having to scramble — often successfully — to prevent a paper mill from closing or finding a new business or buyer for those that did.

“What happened with Lincoln Paper, what happened with Great Northern, I’ve learned that as one door closes, another door opens,” he said.

It is unclear which door Baldacci will be walking through next, but it is sure to be one with fewer public obligations and more time for family.

“We’re looking forward to having our brother back,” Peter Baldacci said.

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