There was a time, not so very long ago, when Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was a frequent visitor to Maine and a top-tier presidential candidate.
Nationally and in New Jersey, Christie’s star has fallen largely because of the Bridgegate charges.
When Christie came to Maine to support Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election efforts, five times altogether, the two men often looked and sounded comfortable together. Both shared a reputation for sharp language and for pushing the envelope to achieve their goals.
Today we see both administrations’ tendency to disdain people who don’t stand with them, although in Christie’s case his close allies went beyond tough talk.
Late last week, two of Christie’s staffers were indicted on charges related to the bridge scandal. Another pleaded guilty.
Bill Baroni, Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein were involved in an effort to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had the temerity to not endorse Christie for re-election. The mayor’s endorsement was desired because it would demonstrate bipartisan appeal, thus boosting Christie’s reputation as a candidate who could attract voters from across the political spectrum.
But because Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich did not endorse Christie, a plan was hatched. In mid-August 2013, Kelly emailed Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied, “Got it.” They then waited for a busier time of year to strike, and put their plan into effect on the first day of public school.
As the indictment explains, terrible traffic was unleashed, leading to pleas from Sokolich and difficulties in responding to a missing child and a medical emergency. But still the Christie staffers did not respond to the mayor or the town’s public safety officials. Instead, they gloated about the problems they had caused. Kelly messaged to Wildstein, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Wildstein replied, “No.”
Christie has not been indicted, although Wildstein’s attorney claims there is proof that the governor knew about the lane closings that led to the traffic disaster the day it occurred.
We’ve seen no similar dirty tricks in Maine. What we have seen from LePage is a lack of respect for our political norms.
Political systems are based in constitutional provisions, laws, rules and regulations, but there are also mutual understandings, norms, that contribute to them working and addressing public problems.
In his last term, LePage restricted executive branch members from testifying to the Legislature.
Lately, LePage broke with Maine’s usual way of operating by holding up land conservation bonds voted on by the people as leverage for an unrelated bill regarding forestry and home heating.
By the way, these sorts of bonds are quite successful at the polls.
As a recent research paper by Professor James Melcher of the University of Maine at Farmington notes, between 1990 and 2014, Maine had more bonds on the ballot than any other state. During that period, 81.6 percent passed. Bonds for natural resources passed at an even higher rate (82.4 percent) than the average, with an average of 58.4 percent of the vote. And while transportation bonds are also quite popular, their pass rate during this period was below natural resources bonds.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz has not only objected to the governor’s strategy regarding bonds. He also introduced a bill (LR1053) to mandate that governors put out the bonds voters approved within five years, unless the project is cancelled, alternate funds are available or certain financial situations hold.
Katz, a fellow Republican from a family with a strong political pedigree — his father, also a Republican, was the majority leader of the Maine Senate — has been pilloried by LePage and his allies.
After Rep. Ken Fredette suggested Katz “wants to fight with the governor,” LePage called Katz’s bill called “the most repulsive thing he’s ever done in government.” In the same radio interview, LePage suggested of Katz, “the man doesn’t like poor people, he’s my enemy.” A Westbrook Democratic office holder’s comment on assassinating LePage is likewise hyperbolic.
Politicians who see others who differ from them as enemies fuel dirty tricks and divisiveness. With a budget deal still to be crafted for Maine, that attitude makes it harder to prevent our own traffic problems, not on the streets but among political leaders.