AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats campaigned in 2012 with a promise to end the authoritarian rule of Republican Gov. Paul LePage. That message resonated last November with voters who returned Democrats to majority status in both the House and Senate after giving Republicans control of the Legislature in 2010, the same year LePage won the Blaine House.
LePage and Republicans’ two years of political dominance was over, but the mandate from voters didn’t translate to Democratic victories on some of the issues that matter most to left-leaning Mainers who take credit for helping restore Democrats’ legislative control.
Raising the minimum wage: vetoed.
Enacting background checks for gun sales to felons, domestic batterers and people with mental illness: vetoed.
Requiring warrants for the use of drones for aerial surveillance: vetoed.
Changing the funding mechanism for charter schools: vetoed.
And in Democrats’ biggest disappointment of the session, expanding Medicaid: vetoed.
Much has been made of LePage’s record-setting 82 vetoes and Republican lawmakers’ willingness to sustain all but five of them, which is sure to be a frequent theme in next year’s election. But whether it was a case of one party’s stubborn partisan obstructionism or the other party’s bombardment of an ideological wall with nonstarter policy initiatives depends on your political stance.
Republicans said Democrats tried too hard to undo their accomplishments from the previous Legislature, which thwarted any chance for collaboration on legislation that otherwise might have been open to compromise.
“The governor is not going to sign on to something that is just the polar opposite of what he believes is good policy,” said Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport. “There should have been a lot of work done to make sure that both sides bought into this stuff before it was shoved through. … I think they missed the fact that everything was going to take a two-thirds majority or it was going to take having some bipartisan buy-in. They just missed the mark.”
Democrats reacted angrily to that assertion, including Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick.
“That we should be blamed for getting our bills vetoed, it’s ridiculous,” said Quintero. “The fact that we got the Republicans to raise revenue and reject the governor’s budget was a huge win. The fact that the government didn’t shut down, that’s a huge success. To me, 82 or 83 vetoes is a failure of leadership to help fix bills beforehand.”
Mike Tipping, a political blogger for the BDN and spokesman for the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, said part of the problem with Democrats in Maine is that they sometimes fail to communicate their ideology effectively to voters — including during the 125th Legislature when Republicans held the majority.
“At times (during the 125th Legislature) I wished they were a lot more like the Republicans were this session,” said Tipping. “I think they could have been better at communicating on some things. What I think everyone would agree on is that Republicans definitely used their minority and their ability to back up the governor to the fullest extent. This session I thought they did a much better job. It was really LePage and Republicans who were the obstructionists.”
Matthew Gagnon, a conservative BDN blogger who works for the Republican Governors Association, agreed that Democrats struggle when it comes to messaging but said they’re stronger than Republicans when it comes to party unity.
“They didn’t have a lot of inter-party strife like the Republicans do,” said Gagnon. “From where I sit, the Republican party has always been fractured but we just haven’t noticed it as much as we did this session.”
Though legislative Republicans voted together for most of the session, their alliance crumbled on some major issues, most notably the biennial budget and its tax increases. Democrats heavily amended LePage’s initial proposal, providing more funding for public schools, Head Start and programs that support prescription drugs for the elderly. They also softened LePage’s attempts to suspend municipal revenue sharing for the next two years and drastically curtail property tax rebate programs.
“Despite the unprecedented challenges of this divided government, we averted a state shutdown crisis, passed a responsible budget and managed to make a difference for the people of Maine,” said Eves. “Working Maine families will not see a massive property tax hike proposed by the governor, Maine kids will have more funds for their classrooms and Maine people will have access to lower-cost medicine and see their heating costs reduced.”
Assistant House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan acknowledged that his party suffered significant defeats during the just-concluded legislative session but said Democrats in the Legislature will continue to push their agenda when lawmakers return to the State House in 2014.
“We had good wins and tough losses,” he said in a written statement. “We came further than we ever expected on many issues, especially efforts to accept federal health care dollars to cover more Maine people. We will continue to fight that next year.”
But what’s the value of pursuing issues such as Medicaid expansion or increasing the minimum wage with a governor firmly in the opposition? Ronald Schmidt, a left-leaning assistant political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said that strategy often pays dividends during the campaign season.
“It’s possible to move the debates forward and move the debate toward your ideals if you force a public discussion of the issue,” he said. “Another possibility would be to try to get the opposition to vote down things that in the abstract would be popular. When election time comes, it can be very valuable to be able to say your opponent voted down the ‘save puppies’ bill.”
Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party, said Democrats did manage to slow LePage’s agenda.
“We served as a block for Republicans and the governor,” she said. “In 2014, we’re focused on what we weren’t able to accomplish because of that.”
The minimum wage bill will provide Democrats with that type of campaign fodder in 2014, just as Republicans will use Democrats’ votes to defeat a bill requiring schools to allow uniformed military recruiters to meet with students as a way to portray them as being on the wrong side of an issue that the GOP believes has strong popular support.
More evidence of progress by Democrats came from LePage during a rare, extended question-and-answer session with reporters after the Legislature overrode his budget veto on June 26. LePage acknowledged that he and Republicans had failed to protect their ideals in the budget bill and disrupted their own goals for cutting government spending and bringing economic prosperity to Maine. He even said the GOP in Maine “is not a very strong party."
“In the 125th Legislature I thought we took two steps forward,” he said. “Today I think we took two steps back. … I’m only one. There’s 181 of them (in the Legislature).”
LePage’s apparent distance from Republican legislators — despite their votes to sustain more than 90 percent of his vetoes — and Democrats’ inability to form coalitions with moderate Republican lawmakers creates an unclear path to the 2014 legislative elections, which will occur in redrawn districts.
For one thing, there’s another legislative session between now and then, providing another chance for the political parties to work together — or dig the partisan divide deeper. For another, the political landscape in Augusta is of little interest to many Mainers, according to Tipping and Gagnon.
“If you ask people, a scary number don’t even know what the majority is in the Legislature,” said Tipping. “If people remember something from this session, it’s going to be some of these big bills that were talked about for a long time or the ones that got a lot of media attention for other reasons. And I think people will remember that the governor was very angry about some things.”
Gagnon agreed that some voters would remember LePage’s coarse rhetoric and perhaps let it sway their votes. Past that, he believes there were few issues that would be of much concern to the electorate.
“It’s a difficult question to predict how the average Maine citizen will react,” said Gagnon. “It will really depend on what they believe fundamentally and whether or not they’re OK with the idea of paying a higher sales tax. I have a hunch that Maine voters will be OK with how everything ended up.”
Schmidt predicted some degree of backlash against Republicans and LePage in particular.
“He isn’t necessarily an effective spokesman for the party,” said Schmidt, who said the governor’s penchant for angry outbursts and personal attacks on Democrats could hurt Republican candidates’ chances in 2014. “If you’re allied with the governor, there has got to be something frustrating about his ongoing performance.”