Partisan divide grows as session winds down, elections inch closer

Posted March 28, 2012, at 1:56 p.m.
Last modified March 28, 2012, at 2:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The latest round of political maneuvering in Augusta involved a Senate vote Wednesday to examine whether constitutional officers should run for public offices, such as Congress.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Oxford, introduced an order that would direct the Legislature to explore that ethical argument in light of the fact that three of Maine’s four constitutional officers are seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate: Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Attorney General William Schneider and Treasurer Bruce Poliquin. The order was rejected, largely on party lines.

Patrick said that even though there is nothing illegal about an officer running for another office, for him it’s a matter of a perception.

For instance, he said, Summers has insisted that he has turned over all election duties to his deputy. Patrick applauded that move but questioned it at the same time.

“I’ve never met a CEO that could be 100 percent hands off on anything,” Patrick said.

Other Democrats agreed with Patrick that the constitutional officers are on murky ethical ground.

Senate Republicans, in turn, pointed out that Democrats never complained in the past when members of their party held a constitutional office while running for office.

“I think it’s the silly season,” said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. “Would we be having this debate if voters had decided last November to continue with the [Democratic] majority?”

Raye said he wondered if lawmakers would ask next whether a sitting governor should run for re-election. With all the work left to do by the Legislature, Raye said he was discouraged that this is what lawmakers spent time talking about.

Among those Democrats who ran for office while serving as a constitutional officer was Bill Diamond, now a sitting senator. Diamond ran for governor while serving as Secretary of State in the 1990s but failed to win the Democratic primary.

On Wednesday, Diamond said the Legislature needs to be fair.

“Whether we like it or not, this has been the system,” he said. “If this is going to be an issue, it should be done not when someone has signed up to run.”

When it came time to vote on Patrick’s order, it failed 21-12. All Republicans, plus Diamond and independent Sen. Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth voted against the proposal.

Woodbury said for him the timing seemed politically motivated.

Wednesday’s partisan Senate debate came just one day after Republicans and Democrats sparred over ongoing problems at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Democrats held a press conference alleging that the LePage administration has covered up problems, while Republicans cried hypocrisy since many of the DHHS problems that have come to light started before LePage took office.

If nothing else, the three constitutional officers who are running for U.S. Senate are likely to be under increased scrutiny about how they separate their day jobs from their campaigns.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he didn’t think candidates who have already entered the race should be punished but he does think the issue should be explored further in the future.

“But some things have bothered me since these officers have gotten into the race,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot more press releases from their office. Are they looking for more air time?”

Summers has been in the news this week after he presented recommendations to lawmakers to strengthening teen driving requirements.

Additionally, Schneider scheduled a number of interviews this week to talk about his — and Maine’s role — in the U.S. Supreme Court debate over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The attorney general was in Washington D.C. on Wednesday for the final day of Supreme Court testimony.

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