Cooperation sought; challenges remain

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AUGUSTA (AP) – The notion of bipartisanship was stressed a month ago as the 123rd Legislature of Maine was sworn in and legislative leaders from both parties echoed Gov. John Baldacci’s call for cooperation to trump political affiliation.

Now that lawmakers are getting down to work, bipartisanship may be stressed again. This time, it could be a different kind of stressing.

New Republican Party Chairman Joe Bruno, a former House minority leader whose friendly relationship with the Democratic governor soured during Baldacci’s first term, issued a sort of New Year’s statement over the weekend in advance of this week’s inaugural events taking to task Baldacci, Democratic lawmakers and even, it appeared, at least some voters.

Bruno focused not so much on the next two years of governing at the State House but on voting at the polls two years hence.

“As I sit here writing this column just before the New Year emerges,” Bruno wrote in an e-mail message distributed on Dec. 29, “I am left wondering what went wrong with the electorate. After four years of an administration in Augusta that kept falling over itself with ineptness, and a Democrat-controlled Legislature that solves every single problem we face with a new tax or fee increase, they get re-reelected and actually pick up seats in the Maine House.”

Bruno promised “to hold everyone accountable for what they said on the campaign trail” and predicted that “the Democrats won’t have the backbone to reduce spending or taxes.”

Bruno concluded: “Maybe they will prove me wrong (tongue in cheek), but be assured I will be watching and commenting. May 2007 be the happiest year for all of us. The Republicans in the Legislature must understand if they do not stand together then they failed all of us. We are counting on them to prove to the Maine voters that 2008 will definitely be a time for change.”

Bruno, who served in the Maine House of Representatives for five terms between 1992 and 2004, takes over as party chairman in the wake of a rugged round of elections for Republicans, who lost the contest for Maine governor, sustained notable losses in the state House of Representatives and saw Democrats take majorities in Congress.

In recent years, even as ranking Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature occasionally have expressed personal fondness for one another and publicly pledged to work together as much as possible, good fellowship has not regularly reached to the offices of the party organizations.

The most heated partisan rhetoric has in effect been outsourced from the State House halls to be launched from Democratic and Republican headquarters nearby.

Assistant House Majority Leader Sean Faircloth, D-Bangor, said there is “nothing wrong with making strong statements from the party office,” provided they are kept within bounds.

, and House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said there was always a question of coordination between lawmakers and headquarters, which she added had been satisfactory on her side during the tenure of Democratic Party Chairman Ben Dudley.

House Minority Leader Josh Tardy, R-Newport, credited Bruno with being “very accurate about the past being a predictor” of how lawmakers were likely to approach policy decisions.

Tardy said declarations of intent to work harmoniously were natural at the beginning of a legislative session and that he was “not very concerned” by Bruno’s blunt talk.

Indeed, Tardy went on to say, “I think we need to be realistic and temper our optimism going forward.”

Pingree suggested session-opening pledges of bipartisanship could bring results.

“It’s time for legislators to work together and I hope that’s what parties chose to do,” she said.

Already, there have been expressions of preference on both sides for bipartisan development of a biennial budget.

Tardy said he regarded the likelihood of that as reachable.

“I don’t take it as a certainty, but I take it as a probability,” he said.

AP-ES-01-03-07 1347EST

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