Five Maine governors walk into a room…

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Earlier this month, the city of Augusta swore in prominent attorney Roger Katz as its new mayor. As much influence as Katz might have in the near future during his term as mayor, however, it will be hard pressed to compare with the event he and his father, former State Sen. Bennett Katz, sponsored for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in 1997.

During this televised broadcast, five Maine governors engaged in a joint public dialog of what it’s like to be leader of our state. Though there have been other occasions when as many governors were assembled in one room, there are no other times when so many participated in a sustained public discussion of this kind.

This unique congregation of Maine’s chief executives, representing the collective of some 33 years of the John Reed, Kenneth Curtis, Joseph Brennan, John “Jock” McKernan and Angus King administrations, was filmed nearly ten years ago at Augusta’s Lithgow Library. (James Longley, who governed from 1975 to 1979, had passed away in 1980.) Skillfully coordinated by commentator Jim Brunelle, the governors not only responded to Brunelle’s questions but also took turns interacting with each other.

Gov. King, then, was only in his third year of office. All of these governors are still with us in 2007. Moreover, four of them now share the record of longevity in office unsurpassed by any of their predecessors.

Since it’s been almost a decade since the joint interview, and now that we are at the outset of a new gubernatorial term, it’s a fitting occasion to review what these governors revealed, especially with respect to their proudest accomplishments while governor.

John Reed, Republican, governor from 1959-1967

Increased expenditures for education were keynoted in this GOP governor’s reply. “We spent more than any previous administration up to that point.” Reed also extolled his funding for more public highways, and the 1961 inauguration of educational television.

Reed, even though he later served as ambassador to Sri Lanka, joined the others in agreeing that being governor was the most significant part of his career. On this, he quoted Averill Harriman, a former diplomat and New York governor: “One person made me ambassador, but it took a state to make me governor.”

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Kenneth Curtis, Democrat, governor from 1967-1975

Another governor who went on to become an ambassador, in this case to Canada, put creation of the cabinet system at the top of his list. This action installed 16 department heads serving at the pleasure of the governor, in place of a system of disparate boards, commissions, and agencies whose staggered terms were unsynchronized with the governor.

Establishment of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Maine Human Rights Commission, and the Maine State Planning Office followed on Curtis’s recitation. Curtis also mentioned the state’s purchase and preservation of 25 miles of shoreline that occurred under his leadership.

He did not place the enactment of our first income tax on his list, declaring instead that “It was Harry Richardson’s bill. I just went along with it.” (Indeed, though Curtis had proposed an income tax at the outset of the 1969 session, the version the Legislature adopted was that drafted by a braintrust assembled by House GOP Leader Richardson.)

True to the perspective of one who never found his Democratic party in control of the Legislature during his tenure, Curtis observed, “All legislation is the result of coalition building.”

Inability to lure more jobs to Maine and not accelerating the growth of vocational education were his chief regrets.

Joseph Brennan, Democrat, governor from 1979-1987

Acquiring better funding for the University of Maine, emphasizing the creation of new jobs, requiring educational testing, establishing minimum teacher salaries, and setting up the Finance Authority of Maine were chief among the accomplishments mentioned by Brennan. During the program, Brennan disputed King’s assertion that government was only a peripheral factor in the fate of the state as a whole. Brennan argued that tax incentives then under consideration for Bath Iron Works, and the public funding of some 95 percent of education costs were examples he felt demonstrated a more central role for government.

John “Jock” McKernan, Republican, governor from 1987-1995

Preparing the state for a global economy was regarded by Jock McKernan as his most prominent milestone, pointing out that Maine competed not just with other states, but globally in such countries as Malaysia and Hong Kong. He also mentioned enhancing the state’s business climate and workers compensation reforms

McKernan, as well, recalled that economically on his watch, Maine was at the “highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows,” and therefore being unable to forecast a dramatic downturn in state revenues was his biggest lament.

Like Curtis, McKernan’s own party – in his case the Republicans – never controlled any branch of the Legislature in his time. In this, a key difference between the Curtis and McKernan tenures is the more adversarial climate between the parties during the McKernan – Rep. John Martin era than that of the Curtis-Richardson era.

The scarred relationship between McKernan and House Speaker Martin was one to which McKernan alluded on more than one occasion in the course of this historic forum.

Angus King, Independent, governor from 1995-2003

At the time of the Katz-Brunelle presentation, King was just over half way through his first term in office. Like Reed and Brennan, King pointed first to his record in education. He predicated the recently passed Maine Learning Results would make a “profound difference in education over the next decade.” (The laptop initiative was still a few years off at the time.) King’s enthusiasm for the job was expressed in his passion for the state itself, noting that he was working hard on “the attitude that we can do it. We can compete with the whole world.”

It’s still too early to assess the long-range impact of these governors. However, their collective simultaneous presence in the MPBN program was an inspirational event.

Some concluding comments by Angus King help to dispel the state’s inferiority complex when he said, “Maine people don’t have to apologize. It’s a wonderful place.”

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@midmaine.com.

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