Mainers are known for their independent views and opinions: Maine humor is like no other; Maine coastal traditions are rooted in self-reliance and self-confidence; and Maine politicians are celebrated for representing personal integrity and the public good ahead of party loyalty and conformity to “politics as usual.”
Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie, Bill Cohen, George Mitchell, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Angus King each stand apart from their peers and perpetuate an honorable Maine reputation for not only sound leadership but for the courage and confidence to recognize when party politics serve the party more than the public, and to part ways with the party when that is the case.
Party loyalty and extreme partisan conformity today are paralyzing our national government, enormously impeding efforts to improve the Maine economy, environment, education, health care and social welfare. But party affiliation has become the dominant issue in the contest for governor of Maine.
Rather than comparing candidates on the merits of their views or their experience or their consistency of positions, candidates are too often evaluated through the crystal-ball gazing of “Who can win in November?” And in many cases that crystal-ball gazing is fogged by the assumption that an independent candidate cannot win.
That is clearly not the case, as the above roster of illustrious Maine politicians demonstrates. All were or are independent of their party orthodoxy when the chips were down, and that independence is far more vital today when party loyalty is so rigidly stifling.
Snowe retired in disgust with her party’s extremely partisan politics; Collins has become one of the most powerful senators in Washington due to her willingness to support administration policies when they serve the country; and King may become the single most powerful senator if the November elections result in his vote becoming the swing vote in an equally divided Senate, as may well be the case.
“Politics as usual” is preventing progress on the issue I care most about (improving gun laws), which is a good illustration of the problem. Despite nearly universal support for background checks for all gun sales (89 percent support in Maine, about the same in the country as a whole), our “by the book” Republican governor vetoed a background check bill passed by the Maine Legislature last year. (He laughingly said it was “aimed at the wrong target.”)
A background check bill failed in the U.S. Senate because only four Republicans voted for it. (Collins was proudly included in that brave group that defied party orthodoxy.) And in the House of Representatives a similar bill has not even been brought to a vote because Democratic orthodoxy is to try to talk about anything but better gun laws in the hope that the issue will go away without anyone being required to take a stand.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, has ignored that cowardly fantasy and co-sponsored a background check bill ( HR 1565) but Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, has declined to support it and apparently still hopes the issue will go away without having to express his views, let alone take any action.
In the current evenly divided state of national politics, independent congressmen, senators and governors have and will continue to have great ability to appeal to both parties and the entire electorate, as well as private donors and organizations.
Nor is party loyalty necessary for electoral success. In 1975, Gov. Jim Longley was the first independent elected governor of Maine, followed by Angus King, who was elected for two terms. In 2010, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler received more votes than the Democratic candidate and only 1.7 percent fewer votes than the Republican victor.
Cutler, in my view, is a highly intelligent son of Maine, deeply committed to developing the innate strengths of this wonderful state, and experienced at the highest levels of the U.S. business and political environments so that he has the skills to lead Maine into a more prosperous and humane future. He should be evaluated by Maine voters on the strength of his ideas, his policies and his willingness to be tested on those criteria.
Party loyalty and party support are a poor substitute for sound views of one’s own.
Tom Franklin is a retired attorney living in Portland.