Dick Hewes and why it’s not hard to find a parking space in our state capital

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Like many people who live in central Maine who occasionally interact with agencies of our state government, I find myself driving to the State House from time to time. Though it can be exasperating at times to deal with our government, what is not that frustrating when one travels to its nerve center in Augusta is trying to find a parking space. It is as if some place, some decades ago someone took note of Will Rogers’s observation that “Politics ain’t worrying this country one tenth as much as where to find a parking space.”

When the three-level parking garage that accommodates hundreds of spaces in a lot that is just a few steps behind the Blaine House was built, somebody must have been thinking about what is really important in the day-to-day interaction that citizens have with their government. The unusual consolation I feel about trying to locate a parking space in such situations has provoked my curiosity as to whose brainchild it was to make our government so approachable.

Meet former Maine House Speaker Richard Hewes of Cape Elizabeth. When I met with Hewes, the retired Maine trial attorney who in 1973-74 was the last Republican to lead Maine’s House of Representatives and his wife, Betsey, at their home recently, I found that the person who fought the hardest for this facility was one of the more accessible, user- friendly and amiable people to lead Maine’s Legislature in modern times. Characteristically enough, it is a man who once observed that “I prefer to be remembered as the Listener of the House rather than the Speaker of the House.”

Befitting the personality of a man who was so enlightened as to push for creation of a building that has perhaps done more than anything else to keep Maine government as symbolically accessible as it is, Hewes, now 77, has lost none of the personable touch that made him one of the more popular figures at the various levels of public service on which his talents for many years were brought to bear.

Today, few people in Maine can point to as many diversified experiences in elective public office. Whether it be making tough decisions on the local school board, his five terms in the Maine House, a term in the state Senate as well as nine years as a County Commissioner, Hewes has certainly seen it all and is as well prepared as any to offer insight and guidance to those in Maine government today. When asked about the differences in issues he had to confront three decades ago compared to those paramount today, Hewes observed, “The philosophy of the legislators seems to have changed money wise. When I was first in the legislature, balancing the budget was a very important factor. I think as the years have gone by the legislature has become more liberal,” a philosophy which to Hewes means “driving business out of Maine.”

Hewes has great praise, however, for the decorum by which the legislature continues to conduct its business citing the strong civility of dialogue among state legislators.

As the only living Republican to have wielded the Speaker’s gavel in the Maine House of Representatives – the Democrats having occupied the position for nearly 30 years now – an obvious question is Hewes’s advice to the Republicans today if they are to reclaim control. Hewes’s prescription is to find people who are “popular in their hometown” even when such people may not be the most articulate or knowledgeable. An example Hewes gives of such a candidate is the late Tuffy Laffin of Westbrook who as Hewes observed “wasn’t suave, smooth or diplomatic” but was highly popular with his constituents. It was Laffin by the way who was known for colorful and yes, politically incorrect comments supporting the death penalty but nevertheless, was repeatedly elected as a GOP representative from a Democratic stronghold.

When asked to remember a few other memorable legislators with whom Hewes served, the first name that came to his mind was Sumner Pike, the former federal Atomic Energy and SEC Commissioner who wound up serving as a state representative from Lubec, a legislator that Hewes recalls as being not only well versed and exceptional but full of wit.

Also memorable was Lewiston’s Louis Jalbert to whom Hewes credits the now familiar political shibboleth, “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell the name right.”

Nevertheless, Hewes recalls that the ever controversial “Louie” who had been a longtime member of Appropriations brought an impressive array of knowledge about state finances to his job in the Maine legislature and “knew where some of the money was hidden.”

Balancing Hewes’s conservative fiscal views is a dose of suburban moderation. He left the Speaker’s rostrum to successfully urge Maine to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973, for example, and advocated stronger and more equalized state funding for education. He also points to pride as having been the temporary presiding officer of the Senate on the enactment of the 1977 law that effectively banned commercial billboards.

When asked what his favorite forum of public service, Hewes has no hesitation in pointing to his years in the Maine House, a venue clearly less inhibiting than the more constricted environs of a three member board of County Commissioners, where Hewes had to grapple with management of a county jail, a school board where he had to help deny tenure to one of his best friends or a Senate where he found party discipline handcuffing his own freedom of choices more frequently than in the House.

The parking garage? Yes, that was “my baby to build that,” Hewes soft spokenly acknowledges. Moreover, Hewes pointed out that he helped make sure its reinforcements had sufficient strength to accommodate two more decks above the three that are there now. Future access to our state leaders will thus be assured, much befitting the image of one of the more accommodating and farsighted public officials of the last generation in Maine.

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