Charlie Webster, the governor and an eventful career

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News earlier this month that Gov. Paul  LePage had tapped former state GOP chair Charlie Webster to be a Franklin County Commissioner has put the spotlight on two of the state’s more redoubtable public figures. Interest in LePage’s actions in naming a one-time adversary to the position showed that the governor does indeed have the capacity to bury the hatchet. (LePage and Webster had been at odds over administrative control of the state committee during the last two years of Webster’s tenure as the state party chair.)

The appointment also gives rise to renewed attention to Webster, a landmark figure in the annals of some of the more celebrated — though controversial –episodes in Maine government of the last generation. Webster’s ascension to his new role also comes at the same time as his 60th birthday and just 35-years after his first arrival on the Maine political scene in 1980. It’s thus a fitting occasion to sit down with Webster to gather a sampling of his own insights on some of the signature developments of his eventful career.

The 17-day shutdown of state government

The drama of the 1991 shutdown of state government is one that still resonates today. Talk of a shutdown — the Maine legislature’s own version of a “nuclear option” — often rises to the surface when as with the most recent session, the two parties have intractable positions on how best to keep the store of state government open for business. It’s a political bomb that’s only been unleashed once, however, in the last two centuries and it was Webster who was chief of the command module at the time.

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As the 1991 session drew to a close, recession-wracked state governments across the country were scrambling for ways to avert default. Maine was no exception: a $300-million shortfall threatened the existence of even the most basic of government services. Majority Democrats proposal of a one cent increase in the sales tax met with a rejoinder by Senate GOP Leader Webster that Republican support could only be achieved if the Democrats agreed to reform the state workers compensation system, one that itself was near collapse when the only insurance carrier still writing such policies was threatening to leave the state if benefits weren’t reduced.

As with most major tax increases a two-thirds vote and thus GOP cooperation was required. Enough Republicans in the House were siding with the Democrats so the focus shifted to the Senate. It was there that its Republican leader, Charlie Webster, stood his ground and with him was arrayed the united backing of his 13-member senate GOP caucus, among them: the father of future U.S. Senator Susan Collins. As Webster recalled for this columnist a few days ago:

“I had built a relationship with the candidates and I recruited most of them (the GOP senators) who were friends of mine and we had personal relationships and we came to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do.”

With stalwart opposition backing him, the state senate was unable to muster the two-thirds vote required to enact the budget, something the Webster forces refused to vote for until workers comp reform was also passed. Such an impasse occasioned the shutdown of all but emergency services for Maine state government for the first 17 days of July 1991, a stalemate that did not end until Democrats went along with the reduction in workers comp benefits.

Webster also recalled recently for this columnist his view that rank-and-file citizens did not seem to be closely affected by the shutdown. “I went down to Augusta a couple of months ago and had discussion with some influential Republicans in the Legislature about the shutdown of ’91 and what I believe is that very few people cared… The average working guy just did not care, [about the shutdown] because it did not affect them.”

Webster also recalled that all of the GOP senate incumbents seeking re-election the next year, including himself, retained their seats, despite admonitions that the shutdown was politically suicidal.

Webster also maintains today that “Republicans should be willing to use this vehicle if needed” in the future and that “sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.”

The 2010 peoples veto of the sales tax expansion

One of the more far reaching changes in state taxation ever passed by any Maine legislature was the bill passed in 2009 that would have broadened the Maine sales tax to several dozen of such previously exempt services as car, shoe and furniture repair, dry cleaning and movie tickets. To be sure, the proposed expansion of the tax was to be offset by a two percent reduction in the income tax. But this palliative did not sedate the anguish Webster — who by then was state GOP chair — had over the impact of the sales tax changes.

“I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my wife and hearing on the news that they were going to put a tax on car repairs on labor and I remember telling her, ‘If they do this we will appeal it,’” he recalled.

Launching a referendum-based assault on an already-passed tax to keep it from going into effect is an extraordinary undertaking in Maine. In the 50 years before Webster led such an effort against the 2009 bill, only one such attempt against a tax had even made it onto the ballot in time to do this. That’s because the People’s Veto as it’s called, requires not only some 60,000 voter signatures but the petitioners have only 90 days within which to gather and file them with the state, a deadline that is not required of the typical citizen initiative to which Mainers are more frequently treated.

Moreover, GOP leaders in the legislature that passed the law — even those that opposed it — were not eager to deploy such an arsenal. This left Webster in the vanguard of a seemingly quixotic errand to take on the law and gather the signatures — at a time when voters were distracted by summer vacations — to block it before the September effective date. Webster’s state committee and college GOP supporters quickly transformed what started out as an almost solitary mission into a crusade that garnered the required signatures before the law would otherwise have gone into effect. Also on board , Webster recently recalled, were “hundreds and hundreds of people that drive a truck and work in the woods — just regular Maine people, not lobbyists or rich or business people — who did not feel it was right for the government to tax them to fix labor charges.”

The movement also found Webster in a strange bedfellows alliance with the Green Party which helped put the petition drive over the finish line.

Once on the ballot, the law was decisively rejected in voting that occurred at the same time as the June 2010 GOP primary that also nominated Paul LePage for governor.

Though Webster played no role in the gubernatorial primary, he feels today that the People’s Veto campaign provided crucial campaign impetus for GOP state legislative candidates he recruited. It also helped pave the way for that fall’s upset that gave Republicans an electoral triumph in both houses of the legislature for the first time since 1972 and the first time such an election had been paired with the election of a GOP governor since 1962.

Webster’s newest political hat, that of a Franklin County Commissioner, will not likely be the only one the Farmington Republican will likely wear in the coming months. It’s also a fairly sure thing that he will continue to play a role in recruiting and campaigning for GOP state legislative candidates and then offering his insight and guidance to those that may be elected.

Though the present administration has not been significantly hospitable to Webster, Gov. LePage’s decision to favor Webster over three other aspirants for the commissioner’s position may be a hint that Webster’s influence with some key GOP legislators may also at some point spill across Capitol Street to the Blaine House.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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