AUBURN, Maine — House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, has less than six months left in office before being forced out by Maine’s term limits law, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him lately.
Eves of North Berwick has launched a “listening tour” about senior citizen issues that he says will include 10 stops throughout Maine by the end of 2016. He says his goal is to hand off what has been the marquee issue of his time in public office — providing more support for Mainers as they age — to the next Legislature.
But there may be more going on.
During an otherwise low-key stop Thursday at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, the audience of fewer than 100 erupted in applause when Tony Donovan of the Sierra Club asked: “Would you run for governor?”
Eves has been asked that question many times — including by the Bangor Daily News more than once — but he won’t provide a clear answer. Thursday was no exception.
“My wife is very happy that there are term limits,” said Eves, who is a development officer for Woodford’s, an organization that serves children and adults with developmental needs. “I’m not going to answer that question.”
He was insistent that the listening tour is a continuation of work he’s already started.
“It’s so the Legislature can come back in January and take action,” Eves said.
Eves’ history, including the fact that his mother and 92-year-old father are facing the exchange of their multistory home in southern Maine for something easier to navigate, shows that building policy is likely one motivation. His evasiveness on the question of a gubernatorial run, however, also is telling.
So what’s going on?
Eves has had a prolonged focus on issues affecting senior citizens in Maine. Eves kicked his advocacy on behalf of seniors into high gear in 2013, when he launched a series of roundtable discussions that included a range of experts. That process led to the creation of Eves’ Keep ME Home initiative, which sought to pursue more affordable housing for senior citizens, ease property taxes for senior citizens and increase Medicaid payments for direct-care workers who care for seniors in their homes.
Eves touts progress made on all three of those fronts in 2015, but that progress was incremental at best.
— Eves originally proposed a $65 million housing bond — which would have created about 1,000 new housing units — but that was slashed to $15 million for about 250 units in legislative negotiations. Following voter approval of the bill, Republican Gov. Paul LePage has refused to sell the bonds. His reasons range from their effect, he says, on the state’s credit rating to his argument that too much of the bond proceeds would go into too few pockets. There are about 9,000 senior citizens on waiting lists for affordable housing in Maine, according to Eves.
— Raises for direct-care workers were contained in a 2015 bill that originally proposed more than $17 million in new spending to increase Medicaid reimbursements by 66 percent. The final version of the bill, however, drastically narrowed who received raises and cut the state appropriation to just $125,000 a year through 2019.
— Property tax relief for senior citizens is perhaps the biggest achievement of these three initiatives, though it merely regained some of the tax credits that had been taken away in 2013 budget negotiations that ended the state’s property tax “circuit breaker” program. Still, the Legislature expanded the Property Tax Fairness Credit in 2014 in a bill Eves sponsored, including an extra benefit for homeowners over age 65.
“There is a lot left to be done,” Eves said. “This is work that we’re going to be doing for at least the next decade.”
The problem is real in Maine. As has been well documented, Maine is among the oldest states. Coupled with its rural nature, relative lack of government resources and limited supported living opportunities, that means a lot of the state’s senior citizens face major problems achieving the basic necessities of life. Problems include transportation to appointments and errands, a rising cost of living and affordable access to health care and medication.
But the challenges senior citizens face are known, so why embark on a listening tour? Trying to implement new supports for aging Mainers is a concept that comes back year after year in the Legislature. It’s also a focus at the local level, including through several nonprofit organizations: Maine’s area agencies on aging, the Maine Council on Aging, the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention, Legal Services for the Elderly and others. Aside from the reasons supports like these are needed, senior citizens are a crucial and influential voting bloc.
Nearly 70 percent of people age 65 or older vote compared with about 50 percent for ages 24-44 — and even lower for younger people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Diane Grandmaison of Lewiston, who was at Eves’ meeting Thursday, said political detachment among younger voters puts their futures at risk.
“I have a thing about young people; they get me so upset,” she said. “They just automatically say things like ‘I’ll never get Social Security’ but they don’t raise their voice enough. … The young people just don’t get it.”
There’s little question that Eves also is seeking to elevate his political profile. The fact that Eves won’t commit to a gubernatorial run more than two years before the 2018 election isn’t remarkable. Given that he will be out of office, the listening tour allows him to manage his image before he leaves the spotlight focused on legislative leaders.
Eves’ image could use some sprucing up after having been trashed by LePage for years. LePage has branded almost all Democrats — as well as some Republicans — as being addicted to expensive government services
As a Democratic legislative leader, Eves has received some of LePage’s harshest criticism. Part of that derives from the fact that, as House speaker, he has helped set an agenda that’s contrary to LePage’s. He has spent four years at the helm of a Legislature that’s overridden a majority of the governor’s vetoes, including the two most recent biennial budgets.
Things got more personal in 2015, when LePage objected to Eves being hired as the president of Good Will-Hinckley, an organization in Fairfield that among other things runs a charter school.
LePage called Eves a “hack” and attacked his leadership skills and honesty. Eves subsequently sued LePage, but the suit was dismissed by a federal judge in May. Eves is appealing the decision, but the court battle and LePage’s victory to date have taken a toll on Eves’ reputation.
Still, Eves is among the Democrats who are standing up most firmly against LePage. With the exception of Maine Attorney General Janet Mills — another person mentioned as a possible 2018 gubernatorial contender — Eves is among a core group of Democratic leaders who are pushing back against LePage. But their progress on that front, at least as it appears in the public eye, is questionable and Eves seems reluctant to go on full attack.
The chief public dispute between the two politicians at the moment is LePage’s refusal to release the $15 million in bonds to build housing for senior citizens, which nearly 70 percent of voters approved in 2015.
“It’s unconscionable that the governor hasn’t released those bonds,” Eves said, although he said during another portion of Thursday’s event in Auburn that “I don’t want to make this political or about the governor.”
Democrats have to do something to counter LePage’s town hall tour. The governor shares his message with voters almost every week with stops on his town hall tour, which began in 2015. The events allow LePage to say what he wants to say and leave out what he doesn’t. With the Legislature in recess until January — after the November elections — Democrats are desperate for venues in which they can take their message to the people. They are also seeking to make personal connections with the electorate, like LePage has with his off-the-cuff style and continued emphasis of his personal history as an abused and underprivileged child who rose to Maine’s highest elected position.
Eves doesn’t deny that his motivations are multiple.
“I want to finish well in two ways,” he said. “One with this policy agenda that I care deeply about and two, ensuring that House Democrats retain the majority.”
Eves’ message is resonating with some. Several people at Thursday’s event in Auburn, where the turnout was light compared with most of LePage’s town halls, said they heard about it in a robocall from Eves.
— Diane Grandmaison, Lewiston: “I really think he’s an excellent person to speak about senior issues. I’ve heard him speak a few times and he’s really on target. you need the support of seniors to go forward with these programs.”
— Greg Mann, Lisbon: “It’s advertised as a listening tour with Mark Eves, not a propaganda tour like Gov. LePage puts out. … I heard people really listening to the conversation and a lot of by-play back and forth.”
Eves’ next stop on the listening tour is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 27 at the Elijah Kellogg Church in Harpswell. However many people it attracts, Eves is sure to bring more of the same: A mix of overt policy work and covert campaigning with an eye toward future elections.