Maine politics, it is said, avoids the bitter partisanship and incivility seen elsewhere. Former politicians like Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie, Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell are widely respected. People focus on issues rather than highly personal attacks. Even more, Mainers can get things done.
Today we can all think of exceptions, including one very prominent Maine politician who sometimes resorts to vulgarity and hyperbole and often relies on ideology over pragmatism. And, like all stereotypes, our rosy image of Maine politics exaggerates its earlier virtues.
But, even with random ridiculous rhetoric, in campaign ads or outside of election season, Maine politics is doing pretty well.
First, unlike what unfolded in Washington, D.C., last fall, Maine avoided a government shutdown this past spring. As imperfect as that state budget was, by general agreement — no matter one’s ideology or partisan position — it got passed and we managed to do something.
Second, most debates in Maine politics continue to be conducted with civility and mutual respect. Nationally, as we see more name-calling, polarization, and meanness, there remains a lot of politeness and rationality here. Not only is the tone much better than what we see nationally but any nastiness frequently backfires on its purveyors.
Third, this year’s U.S. Senate race involves a keen, fresh candidate on the Democratic side, Shenna Bellows, who combines a concern for privacy with an interest in promoting economic growth and opportunity. Against Bellows is the well-liked, center-right Susan Collins. While the far right of the Republican Party disdains Collins because of her willingness to compromise at times, that wing of the party, unlike in other states, has not been able to field a challenger with any credibility whatsoever.
A fourth Maine advantage is that the moderate center has been preserved. In the Legislature, there’s a real prospect that Medicaid will be expanded, despite the vociferous opposition of the governor and the far right. Moderate Republicans, working with majority Democrats and supported by the Maine Hospital Association, the Maine Medical Association, and the state Chamber of Commerce, are working on a compromise.
Expanding Medicaid would be a major victory for pragmatism and would mark a rejection of bogus, ideologically driven “studies” in favor of reliable evidence and analysis. The sensible coalition for expansion realizes the policy would improve citizens’ lives and expand the economy. As the Maine Center for Economic Policy reported, it would generate $62 in federal funds for every dollar Maine spends, with the associated job and economic growth matching “the jobs at L.L. Bean and the total that all arts, entertainment, and recreation businesses combined contribute to Maine’s gross domestic product each year.”
Fifth, Maine showed a continuing commitment to citizen participation by restoring same-day voter registration in 2011 after the governor and then Republican-controlled Legislature eliminated it. While other states restricted voting, Maine people came together and stood for a very important tradition in Maine: citizen involvement and voting. Every election, we still tend to be in the top five states for voter turnout (we were sixth in 2012), and we are often in the top three.
Finally, Maine is doing well by demonstrating, in some places, a thoughtful but active commitment to “yes.” There are still quite a lot of cases of “Nimby-ism,” where people say, “Not in my back yard! We don’t want development.” But in Bangor, we’ve said “yes” over and over. The downtown has come back, the waterfront has been redeveloped and we have an outstanding public school system.
Bangor’s new growth came about from people going out and getting things done, like starting the American Folk Festival. Bangor also benefits from a city council that cares about recreation, families, business and culture, citizens who voted to fund a new library roof and build the new Cross Center, and entrepreneurial energy.
The 2014 elections will be a real test for Maine politics. Huge amounts of money will flow into the most contested races, and some of what will happen will be ugly, not the kind of politics Maine has touted.
How will Mainers react this time? If people’s characters are impugned and fake issues are presented in divisive ways, will the purveyors of negativity succeed and the textbooks need to revised? Or will Mainers reject the trumped-up resentment and baloney and uphold Maine’s exceptional political culture?