As much as we may want to believe governing is all about ideas and policies, personality is always in Augusta. Politics can be defined as the relationship dynamics that play out among the diverse people who share responsibility for governing.
There are real issues at stake in the Bruce Poliquin, Dale McCormick State House saga. But there also is an element of personality conflict, a clash of loyalties and values.
Mr. Poliquin is the state treasurer, elected by members of the Legislature, which is now controlled by Republicans. Mr. Poliquin ran for the GOP nomination for governor, but lost to Paul LePage.
Ms. McCormick was the state treasurer under the Baldacci administration, elected by the Democrats who controlled the Legislature then. The former governor appointed her to head MaineHousing, a quasi-state agency.
Mr. Poliquin has led the charge in changing the nature of the housing agency; specifically, he wants the director to work at the behest of the board, and not be able to stay on until her term expires. In recent months, the treasurer has kept a break-neck schedule of public speaking events and press conferences, blog posts and email blasts, all aimed at highlighting what he says is the housing authority’s wasteful spending and poor results.
Now, Democrats in the Legislature are waging what can only be understood as a retaliatory war against Mr. Poliquin. They have called into question his business dealings which are, it seems, expressly forbidden by the state constitution. Rep. Mark Dion wants the state’s highest court to issue an opinion on the treasurer’s active hand in his business ventures while also being responsible for the state’s finances.
What started this fight, and what’s it really about?
The governor, while on the campaign trail, heard repeated complaints from building contractors about the difficulty of doing business with MaineHousing. Contractors who carried good health insurance for their workers and who paid good wages won points in their bids for MaineHousing projects. Gov. LePage and his supporters believed that approach had more to do with furthering a liberal agenda than with building affordable housing at a good price.
The counter argument, though, is that those standards are set by the board and are within its purview. Since the pressure from Treasurer Poliquin and a change in the makeup of the board — the governor has appointed several new members — the housing authority has changed its standards.
Treasurer Poliquin is ambitious, clearly wants to be a high-profile official and sees himself as a warrior for the governor. Mr. Poliquin and others have been egged on by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center in this quest. They may have hoped to find the kind of corruption uncovered at the Maine Turnpike Authority, but to date, that seems not to be the case at MaineHousing.
Ms. McCormick, for her part, is unabashedly liberal and pulls few punches in advocating for the Democratic agenda. She, like Mr. Poliquin, won her job through party loyalty. But she has grown into a strong advocate for the LIHEAP program and for the kind of housing that Maine’s rural poor need.
Democrats in the Legislature — supported by Republicans — now are arguing the treasurer’s business activities put him in conflict with the state constitution. It’s not likely that inquiry would be made had Mr. Poliquin been as low profile as previous treasurers.
Personality, ideology and political point-making are key parts of the Poliquin, McCormick conflict. Regrettably, these have drowned out what could have been an intelligent discussion about what kind of housing we want built through bond funding.
It’s too late to clear the decks for such a discussion. That should be a lesson to the treasurer, who continues to blast out emails about his crusade, driving a political wedge into the debate. And the lesson MaineHousing’s director seems to have learned is that elections do have consequences, and that a new way of doing housing comes with a change in party control.
Both Mr. Poliquin and Ms. McCormick will be personally and politically damaged by this tussle. It didn’t have to be this way.