Friday’s events at the State House perfectly encapsulated a persistent gulf between the two highest-ranking Republicans in Maine state government and their behavior and priorities.
One of those Republicans has proven himself a leader while the other fails to fulfill his basic responsibilities. One is concerned foremost with preserving the integrity and proper functioning of state government while the other is more concerned with using his position to settle personal scores.
On Friday, Gov. Paul LePage refused to swear in Democrat Susan Deschambault as the newest member of the state Senate. She had won a special election three days earlier to fill a vacant Senate seat representing six towns and cities in York County. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap had certified the results, and Deschambault’s Republican opponent told the Biddeford Journal Tribune he had no intention of challenging them.
But that didn’t stop LePage, in typical fashion, from tying together two unrelated events and using one as payback for the other. LePage’s office said the governor abandoned previously scheduled plans to swear in Deschambault because of a Thursday afternoon vote by Democrats on a legislative committee opposing a LePage nominee to the Unemployment Insurance Commission.
The two events are entirely unconnected. And LePage’s petty refusal to swear in a newly elected senator (his office said the governor would wait until five business days after the election to administer the oath; the swearing-in happened Tuesday afternoon) is far from an equal and opposite reaction to an unfavorable committee vote.
LePage’s actions, perhaps, would be in order — or at least marginally acceptable — if Democrats had flatly refused to even consider LePage’s nominee. But that wasn’t the case. Democrats on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee considered Steven Webster’s nomination and decided to oppose it. LePage, on the other hand, flatly refused to carry out one of the basic duties of his office.
Which brings us to Senate President Michael Thibodeau.
The Winterport Republican demonstrated Friday that he cares more about the proper functioning of state government than any partisan score. He confirmed to the Journal Tribune that the Senate would take no roll call votes until Senate District 32 had representation in the 35-member body.
It takes courage for a Senate president to so publicly go against the de facto leader of his party, but Thibodeau has demonstrated his willingness to do so time and again over the past year when it counts most.
Last year, as it became clear that budget negotiations were going nowhere, and that Democrats and Republicans were at seemingly insurmountable odds, Thibodeau sounded the call of compromise. In the end, the budget deal that emerged thanks to Thibodeau’s leadership and persistence combined some Republican and some Democratic priorities. It kept government functioning, but it put Thibodeau at stark odds with LePage.
Weeks later, LePage missed the constitutional deadline to veto dozens of bills — including many Thibodeau opposed — and turned it into a constitutional challenge. Thibodeau again took the right stand, teaming up with legislative Democrats to argue for Maine’s constitution and against LePage’s warped interpretation of it.
“I get the fact that the governor had an agenda and he wanted to sell it to us all, but in a representative democracy there’s a lot of people with ideas,” Thibodeau told the BDN last September. “Sometimes folks forget, this is bigger than any one person. This is about our state, our future.”
During the tenure of a governor who shows no interest in good governance or collaborative policymaking, the state needs a leader to stand up for the institutions for which LePage shows no regard. Maine has been fortunate to have Thibodeau take up that role.