Twelve-plus years ago Rick Bennett, now the chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said something about Maine politics and Mike Michaud that would sound really shocking today.
Today, of course, we have a governor who threatened to move his office out of the State House, wouldn’t put together a supplemental budget, and refused to let state agency staff testify before the Legislature. And those are perhaps the most mild of Gov. LePage’s memorable statements and actions.
So what could shock us?
Well, in January 2002, Senate President Bennett said that members of the state Senate were working really well together.
His remarks followed the death of a respected legislator, Republican Sen. Joel Abromson of Portland. This sad event took on greater political meaning because Abromson’s death changed the balance of power in the Senate. From an evenly divided body, with one independent, 17 Democrats and 17 Republicans, Maine’s upper chamber became a body with a Democratic advantage.
But Bennett said, “I don’t really see a great change in the way that the Senate is going to be working.” Things were going so well, said Bennett, that “[t]he Senate has really grown to be more of a family, if you will.”
How did the Senate develop such excellent working arrangements? The previous year Michaud, now the Democratic candidate for governor, was the Senate president. Under a historic power-sharing arrangement, Michaud and Bennett switched positions after the first year. While some might have seen Abromson’s death as an opportunity to take back the gavel, Michaud never challenged the agreement to split the Senate presidency.
When Michaud became Maine’s Senate leader, he brought a philosophy that led to the atmosphere Bennett praised. In January 2001 Michaud said, “I would like to have the session go off smoothly. I have confidence it will go smoothly. Unlike Washington, we will not work to get the headlines on every single issue and show that the other person is bad. With some compromise and common sense, we can get along and get things done. We may not get everything we want, but we still can accomplish a lot.”
By then, Michaud was an accomplished legislator who had headed the powerful, budget-writing Appropriations Committee. According to BDN reporter Emmet Meara, under Michaud “the committee cut budget time in half and eliminated regular midnight sessions that burned out members and staff.” As Senate president, Michaud said he would be committed to educating new members of this key, budget-writing committee.
Moreover, Michaud pledged to respect every legislator, no matter her or his positions or party. Michaud said, “I don’t view myself as a highly partisan individual. I like to get the work done and move on. I will work with the other side of the aisle, not inflame them. I wish the Democrats were in majority and I had the presidency for two years. But if that was true, I wouldn’t do things much differently. Every legislator was sent here by their constituents to represent their district, and they all should have a voice.”
A few days later, Michaud showed his ability to bridge partisan divides when he, with Bennett, offered independent Sen. Jill Goldthwait the position he used to hold, chair of the Appropriations Committee. “Bennett and I reached the same conclusion independently,” Michaud said. “Naming Jill as chair was clearly the best, and only, thing to do.”
Recently Michaud’s actions demonstrated how mutual respect creates good working relationships and outcomes. With U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Michaud helped negotiate the bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. He won praise from a bipartisan group of legislators, including the Republican committee chair, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida. The law passed with almost no opposition.
We all have a sense of how LePage’s governing temperament is different from Michaud’s, but what of independent candidate Eliot Cutler?
Cutler, who never held public office, is singularly self-confident. The other day Cutler said of his opponents, “One doesn’t belong and one simply isn’t qualified.” Cutler didn’t say which was which.
Not only does neither characterization apply to someone who has actually been governor, but how could they apply to Michaud, who has shockingly shown his ability to work across the aisle so well that the opposition party’s leader credited him for his key role in making the Maine Senate “a family”?