AUGUSTA — To those who followed his weekly televised interviews on “MaineWatch,” Angus King was the consummate moderator whose personal opinions remained inscrutably cloaked in professional neutrality.
Running as an independent candidate for governor, the journalist-turned-politician now constantly strives to impress voters with his point of view. He knows better than most the importance of clarity in an election campaign.
“As governor or as a candidate, my job is now just the opposite. I have to make my position known and be very upfront,” King said Thursday. “The governor has a moderating role in bringing people together and bringing ideas together. In the end, though, he’s got to make a decision.”
These days, as King travels from Bangor to Aroostook County and back down to Augusta, voters are asking when hard times are going to end for Maine. King doesn’t tell them what they want to hear. He doesn’t promise that, if elected, there won’t be hard-fought battles with the Legislature or that state entitlement programs won’t be further curtailed.
“The next governor is going to face another budget crisis because for the last four years, we’ve been doing nothing but avoiding the problem by pushing it into the future through one-time fixes,” he said. “We’ve run out of one-time fixes.”
Describing projections that place the state’s economic growth at around 5 percent over the next two years as “pretty optimistic,” King said the next administration will have to be prepared for economic consequences that are far less rosy.
“If that doesn’t occur, you’re going to see a gap between $50 (million) and $100 million,” he said. “I feel that we’re at a crucial time, and if somebody doesn’t step forward and start talking about reality and try to solve these problems on a long-term basis, the state is going to be sunk.”
King believes there’s rough sledding ahead for Maine residents who choose to rely on business strategies of the past. Innovative approaches to marketing the state’s resources, he said, must be found to prevent Maine from turning into a gigantic state park as a means of survival.
Pointing to the state’s hardwood resources, King said there is no reason Maine couldn’t become more aggressive and competitive in such industries as furniture construction. In addition to increasing the value of goods now being produced using existing natural resources, King said Maine’s quality of life environment is a marketable commodity.
“There’s significant growth potential in outward-looking service businesses that can locate anywhere in the world and want a nice place to be,” he said, citing the MBNA credit card telephone center in Camden as an example. “If you stop and think about it that business could have been anywhere, so Maine stacks up well for that kind of business. … Have you driven through Hartford lately?”
Persuading national firms to relocate in Maine will require an active, well-calculated effort which King says is part of the reason he is running for governor.
“We’ve got to say that one of our niches is the information-based business,” he said. “We’ve got to go after them and be prepared to supply them with workers with the training. The bottom line is that it has to be done consciously and deliberately.”
King, who will turn 50 next year, divides his weeks among campaigning, fund raising and study. Relying on his journalistic background as a television interviewer, he frequently assembles focus groups consisting of representatives from various associated professions to gain greater local insight into statewide social issues such as law enforcement. Participants in these round-table discussions at times must be half-searching for a camera as King alternately assumes the familiar role of probing questioner and thoughtful listener.
Making the transition from television journalist to candidate has not yet proved to be an awkward jump for King who denied that he ever intended to exploit whatever familiarity or credibility he may have attained during his 15-year run on Maine Public Television.
Recognizing that some of his colleagues might raise the issue of ethics, King decided to leave his program nearly two years before the election to avoid the impression that he was capitalizing on celebrity. Still, he admits that his recognition precedes him in many areas of the state where residents immediately associate him with the television show he abandoned in February.
Maybe, he offered, it’s not such a bad thing — adding that there are no guaranteed dividends from being a known commodity.
“If we had a rule that said no journalists could ever go into politics we’d have missed some very good people like Winston Churchill, Al Gore and Mike Dukakis and Jesse Helms,” King said. “If television itself were enough to elect you, Doogie Howser would be president of the United States.”