WASHINGTON — Sound familiar? A millionaire businessman heads a special task force to fix a major state fiscal crisis. Then he runs for governor.
Some Republican insiders, fearful that their party’s gubernatorial nomination may slip by default to religious activist Jasper Wyman, recently have begun urging Robert A.G. Monks to follow the strategy employed by the late Gov. James B. Longley to win the Blaine House in 1974.
“Describe me as a person who’s being asked by a lot of people to consider running for governor,” Monks said Thursday. A decision to run or not, he insisted, won’t come until after he finishes his work as head of a bipartisan group of businesspeople empaneled last September by Gov. John R. McKernan to help fix Maine’s shaky pension system for state workers. Auditors say the retirement plan is underfunded by between $2 billion and $3 billion. The shortfall began two decades ago when lawmakers established the state-run system, but never made the funding adjustments needed to pay 100 percent of future benefit liabilities.
Republican sources say Monks is much closer to running than not, but is concerned that rumors of his candidacy might politicize the work of the pension commission. That’s his single focus now, the Cape Elizabeth financier said.
“I am in a position where I know a great deal about a subject matter where the impact on the state is very large. I am telling anybody who will listen that my absolute priority is the integrity of the work of the commission, and I will not consider the prospect of a political career until the group’s last meeting,” Monks said.
In Monks, Republicans would have a “big foot” candidate comparable to former Gov. Joseph E. Brennan, the Democratic front-runner. Monks has twice run and lost U.S. Senate campaigns — against Margaret Chase Smith in 1972 and Edmund Muskie in 1976. Each campaign was the most costly in Maine history for its time. A Monks gubernatorial campaign almost certainly would set another record, according to GOP sources.
After losing the Senate races, Monks moved to Washington and served as a member of the Synthetic Fuels Corp., the quasi-public agency established to develop alternative energy sources to replace oil, and later headed the Employee Retirement Income Security Agency, a 1,000-employee bureaucracy within the Department of Labor that regulates the nation’s private pension plans.
Monks’ approach to politics has some parallels to those of Longley and Ross Perot. The 59-year-old Republican has written two books detailing a philosophy one political consultant termed “corporate populism.” Monks formed a company named Lens, which buys stock in corporations and then attempts to force management changes from within. One target was corporate salaries. Monks has blasted the nation’s biggest companies for paying multimillion-dollar salaries and bonuses to their chief executives. The shareholder revolts, Monks said, generally have resulted in better-run companies, driving up stock prices and earning a tidy profit for Lens. Perot often compares American voters to “shareholders” in the country, and urges them to wrest control of the national government from two-party politicians.
Monks’ most famous corporate battle was with Sears and Roebuck. Claiming that Sears had become hopelessly saddled with sideline companies outside its retailing expertise, the Maine financier spent $250,000 attempting to win election to Sears’ board of directors so that he could push to streamline the chain store. The Sears board budgeted $5.5 million to fight Monks’ shareholder revolt.
Although Monks lost the election, his proposals were eventually adopted by Sears. Recently the retail giant sold its insurance, real estate and financial subsidiaries. Sears stock and profits have risen sharply. Monks has claimed there were similar results in subsequent moves to “democratize” American Express, Eastman Kodak and Westinghouse.
Republican strategists believe that Monks’ resume — and his deep pockets — represent their party’s best chance for the Blaine House in 1994. They have concluded that any of the current GOP field of Wyman, the longtime leader of the Christian Civic League of Maine; former McKernan administration official Susan Collins; state Reps. Sumner Lipman of Augusta and Judith Foss of Yarmouth; Paul Young of Limestone; and state Sens. Pam Cahill of Woolwich and Charles Webster of Farmington, would enter the race as underdogs to Brennan and independent Angus King. In field crowded with GOP moderates, Republican strategists expresssed concern that Wyman’s religious coalition could win the party’s June primary, but stand little chance against Brennan and King.
GOP sources said that Monks in recent days has informed the other Republican candidates that he is seriously thinking of entering the race. The financier won’t make his move until after the pension task force completes its recommendations.
“I’m not going to screw this thing up by letting it become politicized,” Monks said. “We have a lot of first-class people doing a lot of good work on this subject. … This problem represents huge claim on the annual budget of the state,” he said.
If he does run, Monks will be following a winning strategy employed by the late Gov. James B. Longley. Former Gov. Kenneth M. Curtis named Longley, a millionaire insurance executive from Lewiston, to head a task force of Maine businesspeople to make state agencies run more cost-effectively. When state legislators voted down most of the recommendations, Longley denounced them as “professional politicians” and won the governorship in a close three-way race with Democrat George J. Mitchell and Republican James Erwin.