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Eliot Cutler has a leadership problem

Maine gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler
Maine gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler Buy Photo
Posted July 06, 2014, at 11:46 a.m.
Last modified July 06, 2014, at 9:45 p.m.

I supported independent Eliot Cutler for governor in 2010. Part of his appeal was that he was a fresh face. He said he would do things differently. Those of us who voted for him hoped for the best, even though we didn’t have a record against which we could test our hopes.

Cutler is running again.

This time, he is no longer a fresh face. He has been around Maine as a candidate for governor — announced or unannounced — for the last three years. He has a record of sorts. And this time, I am unable to support him.

Last fall, Cutler published his plan for Maine’s future, A State of Opportunity,” in which he wrote that “our politics are broken” and that “overwhelmingly, Mainers want their leaders to focus on solutions, not on scoring political points.”

This also was the mantra for the Cutler campaign in 2010. The results of the 2010 election gave Cutler something of a mandate to demonstrate this leadership. Based on this standard, has Cutler been the kind of leader he believes Maine needs?

For three years, the Maine Legislature has grappled with difficult issues involving education, health care, reproductive rights, the environment, taxation, spending, equal opportunity, voting rights, civil liberties and much more. But, apart from announcing his position on some of these issues and providing some financial contributions for some of the causes he supports, Cutler was nowhere to be seen.

Arguably, Cutler’s only substantive contribution to Maine politics from 2010 until he announced his candidacy in 2013 was the creation of the advocacy organization OneMaine. Its stated goal was to foster political leadership in Maine that negotiated pragmatic, bipartisan solutions to Maine’s many problems. From its founding to its demise, OneMaine under Cutler’s leadership was remarkably ineffectual.

As a member of OneMaine, I witnessed the lack of leadership as OneMaine’s mission drifted. At first, OneMaine intended to form a political action committee that would fund candidates in the 2012 election who favored pragmatic solutions over ideological conflicts. Having failed to raise the necessary funds, OneMaine then shifted its focus; it would endorse and campaign for Republican and Democratic candidates it could not afford to fund. Having endorsed a slate of candidates, however, OneMaine — and Cutler — for the most part avoided any active campaigning or advocacy.

OneMaine and Cutler promised to work with legislators in 2013 to help forge pragmatic solutions. Instead, after the 2012 election, Cutler and most of his staff left OneMaine to plan his latest gubernatorial campaign. Pragmatic, bipartisan solutions would have required active participation in complex negotiations. OneMaine did not participate. It vanished.

Cutler played no public role in countering the political conflicts in 2013 or in finding bipartisan solutions to Maine’s challenges. As a leader, he was AWOL. As OneMaine morphed into the Cutler campaign, its primary goal became increasingly obvious: to position Cutler as the best partisan alternative to Gov. Paul LePage.

With respect to OneMaine, it is a fair question to ask whether leadership on Cutler’s part was ever there. If OneMaine was not simply an opportunistic effort on Cutler’s part, I think it is fair to say that, as a leader, he failed.

Voters in 2014 should take this failure into account. Voters should ask, “Where was the leadership?”

In recent months, Cutler’s misunderstanding of what leadership entails has become unpleasantly evident. Should a supporter of Equality Maine really be bitter because Equality Maine chose not to support him for governor? Cutler’s anger provides the appearance of unexamined egotism rather than leadership.

However they vote in the fall election, supporters of Equality Maine, Cutler included, should be able to affirm the sea-change in Maine politics that the Mike Michaud candidacy represents.

I am one Cutler supporter from 2010 who will not be voting for him again. Through my work with OneMaine, I have had the chance to see Cutler clearly enough to take his measure. He has proven that he is candidate, not a leader. Again and again as a leader, he has been absent without leave.

This time, I hope none of us will be fooled. I wonder if any other candidate for governor in recent Maine history has ever made greater claims based on fewer accomplishments?

Tony Brinkley, who teaches English at the University of Maine, served on OneMaine’s advisory board and its Penobscot County committee until the end of 2012.

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