PORTLAND, Maine — With fewer than three months under his belt as CEO, Matt Gagnon is laying out an agenda that he says will see the Maine Heritage Policy Center leading a charge for conservative policymaking in Augusta.
During a luncheon Thursday at DiMillo’s on the Water, a floating restaurant in Portland, Gagnon told more than 100 of the organization’s supporters and donors that the state’s conservative movement has a moment of tremendous opportunity, thanks to big GOP wins in this month’s elections.
The Republican Party swept Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and governor’s mansion while securing a majority in the state Senate. GOP candidates also made a dent in Democrats’ majority in the state House of Representatives.
Gagnon said that it’s not just the Election Day wins that provide an opening for MHPC to influence the state’s political agenda, but the fact that Republican candidates led a charge for welfare reform — a political anathema for Democrats — and voters came along with them.
“There’s a mandate on this issue that was not there before,” Gagnon said. “This is one of those issues where I anticipate you’re going to see something happen rather easily in the Legislature. There will be a deal at some point, and we’re going to be at the forefront of that. The Democratic Party, specifically, is going to be trying to triage the damage from this election, and show they can confront this issue head-on.”
The MHPC enjoyed a high level of support — and access — during Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure. The group has also served as a pipeline of sorts for LePage’s administration. Several governor’s office staff and even a Cabinet-level official, former Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, have moved directly from the center to high-level state government jobs under LePage.
Aside from welfare reform, Gagnon previewed a legislative agenda that includes proposals to make Maine a right-to-work state, a change in Maine’s constitution to see the attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer popularly elected, tax cuts and other policy goals to be expected from a conservative, free-market think tank.
While those proposals aren’t unusual for ideological think tanks, it’s Gagnon’s plan to achieve them that could represent that biggest changes for the organization. He said he wants to put the “policy” back into Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Gagnon said supporters could expect more research and analysis from the think tank than took place under his immediate predecessor, J. Scott Moody. To that end, he’s hired Patrick Marvin, a policy analyst and former GOP campaign hand in New Hampshire.
Marvin and other staffers will take the reins of The Maine Wire, the MHPC’s media outlet, Gagnon said. Steve Robinson, The Maine Wire’s former reporter and editor, had been the public face of the MHPC before Gagnon’s hiring, but has since left to work for right-wing talk radio personality Howie Carr.
Robinson’s modus operandi was to attack liberal politicians and Democratic sacred cows, such as welfare and Medicaid, and he was unafraid to use controversial techniques, such as secret recordings, to do so. In an interview Thursday, Gagnon said The Maine Wire would take on a less combative tone.
The research and policy analysis, legislative proposals and published reports won’t mean much, Gagnon said, if the center doesn’t have the political muscle to convince lawmakers. Getting ideologically similar conservatives will be easy, but it will be hard to convince Democrats and moderate Republicans to come on board for some initiatives.
Just think back to 2010, when efforts to make Maine a right-to-work state failed despite Republican majorities in the both chambers of the Legislature and LePage, a champion of the cause, in the Blaine House.
Gagnon said that to win those battles, MHPC needs a sophisticated and sizable grassroots machine — a tall order for an organization known more for funnelling personnel into the governor’s administration than packing the halls of the State House with activists.
“I’m talking about something that has people in every town in this state,” Gagnon said. “These are things the left has done very well, and it has a long history of affecting legislation. We don’t have that. It’s a major priority of ours to build that capability.”
Gagnon said that with Democrats only holding a small majority in the House, conservatives may be able to win major victories by swinging a handful of moderate legislators. But to do that, it’s going to require the kind of pressure that only comes from grassroots support.
“The right has a pretty long history of doing well in elections, fighting them and winning. But we also have a long history of going home afterward. We need to change that. This needs to be a battle we’re always fighting,” he said.
Politically savvy observers will note that sounds pretty similar to the tactic used by Maine People’s Alliance, the state’s top progressive advocacy group. Gagnon wrote a column last year lamenting that the right “has absolutely no answer” for MPA.
Mike Tipping, MPA’s communications director, said Thursday that it will be hard for a free-market, conservative group like Gagnon’s to get a grip on the grassroots. He said MHPC’s policy agenda is taken straight from the playbook of big business.
“It’s great that he wants to get people more involved, but it’s going to be difficult when he’s pushing policies for a wealthy few instead of a majority of Maine people,” Tipping said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.