Less than 48 hours after the polls closed on Nov. 6, Mainers knew that two of the state’s most polarizing political figures for more than two decades, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, would be stepping back from the fray, at least for now. Martin lost his re-election bid in House District 1, and Webster announced he would not seek the leadership position when the state committee meets to elect new officers on Saturday.
More than 20 years ago, Martin and Webster squared off as the leading legislative protagonists — antagonists? — in the workers ’ compensation reform showdown that shut down state government for 16 days. That fight in July 1991 solidified each man’s status as a symbol for the type of politics that places personality over policymaking.
For years, Republicans and Democrats vilified Martin and Webster, respectively, as larger-than-life icons whose name or image could provoke outrage. Their departure from the forefront of Maine’s political scene leaves Gov. Paul LePage without competition as the state’s most volatile political personality. It gives the governor an opportunity to reconsider whether his style of governing by agitation — as he described it Nov. 9 in Wells — best promotes his agenda or whether it distracts from policy initiatives by drawing more attention to his delivery than his message.
As speaker of the Maine House of Representatives from 1975 to 1994, Martin lived in the limelight. He wielded political power forcefully, rewarding loyalists and punishing those who crossed him, even members of his own party. As the squire of the State House, he intimidated Democrats and infuriated Republicans. During his final years as speaker, Martin became the human embodiment of personal political power’s corruptive influence on governance. His speakership became the position paper for term limits.
Shortly after Republicans won the Blaine House and legislative majorities two years ago, Webster’s bluster about out-of-state college students voting and other inflammatory statements about alleged voter fraud focused the same-day voter registration debate on the way Webster presented his accusations. Webster recently drew the ire of those within and outside his party when he made claims, without evidence, that unknown black people voted in rural Maine towns.
Being a combative personality may help rally supporters during campaigns, but extending the fight beyond Election Day can impede good government, especially when Maine’s Republican governor must share the State House with incoming Democratic legislative majorities. North Berwick Rep. Mark Eves, the presumptive speaker of the House, during his first two terms has been the type of low-key legislator who put policy before personalities.
Will the simultaneous retreat of two seminal Maine political personalities, and the impending election of a Democratic House speaker who appears to understand reconciliation, offer the governor an opportunity to shift public focus off his words to the ideas behind them? Doing so would foster a State House environment in which the best ideas can win.