Bipartisanship might be the word in Augusta these days, but not everyone is on message.

If you like your “loyal opposition” with emphasis on the second word, take note of Democratic state Rep. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth.

While both parties were doing their best last week to make it look like they were all part of one big happy family, one of the relatives wasn’t playing.

Dill told the leaders of her party that she was not going to follow tradition and elect a new speaker of the House without voicing her opposition.

In an open letter to Republican Rep. Robert Nutting, the shoe-in nominee for the job, she said she would not be voting for him because his former business overcharged the state and went bankrupt without paying back what it owed.

“You made a very large mistake as the owner of a business that made millions of dollars overcharging for supplies sold to poor people,” she wrote. “You have not repaid your debt to society, and are not taking personal responsibility for your actions and are nevertheless being elected to be the Speaker of the House.”

That was not only a shot at the man who will be running business in her chamber for the next two years, it was a shot at the leaders of her own party, who chose not to make an issue of Nutting’s history.

Dill, a lawyer, is not afraid to pick a fight. And she is convinced that is what her constituents sent her back to Augusta to do.

It’s also what she thinks is needed to bring her party out of the minority and back into a leading role in developing state policy.

“There’s such a push to appear bipartisan, but there’s a reason why there are two parties. There are real differences, but we have this false sense that everyone is up there working together,” she said. “You can be bipartisan and still disagree. You make strong cases about things you believe in. You make it clear what the parties stand for.”

Along with a terrible economy and some unpopular programs, a lack of clarity hurt the Democrats in the last election.

People in charge of the party could not come up with compelling arguments against the campaigns of Paul LePage and Eliot Cutler. Worst of all, the party, both nationally and in Maine, has had a hard time making a positive case for what it stands for.

For Dill, that’s easy:

The Democrats are the party that believes the government plays a role in ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, she said. She also believes that the government should provide the necessary infrastructure that the private sector can’t or won’t provide for itself.

“And, most importantly,” she said, “the government needs to be a check on corporate greed and corporate malfeasance.”

Whether this the rallying cry that discouraged liberals are looking for remains to be seen. Dill ran for the position of House minority leader and lost to Rep. Emily Cain, who made her bipartisan success as chairman of the Appropriations Committee a key to her campaign.

But Dill thinks she has a role to play in highlighting the differences between the two parties.

Even though the biggest group of Maine voters are the people who identify themselves as moderates, Dill doesn’t think the way to reach them is to start out from the middle. It’s better to make it clear to voters where you stand, she said.

That will mean fighting the new Republican governor and Legislature when they try to turn back previous efforts to reform health care, end the Maine Clean Elections system of publicly financed campaigns and go after labor unions.

It was no coincidence, she said, that the first confrontation in the new Legislature was over a Republican leadership attempt to eliminate the Legislature’s Labor Committee. “That is a prelude to a lot of attempts to undo a lot of consumer protections,” she predicts.

Dill’s willingness to be blunt has earned her plenty of critics.

After her broadside on Nutting, the Maine Republican Party and the Maine Heritage Policy Center put out press releases criticizing her for using her Clean Elections campaign funding to help pay for a laptop computer she used for her campaign.

And her admission that she went against generations of political orthodoxy and ran for re-election without knocking on doors was called “political malpractice” by Kennebec Journal columnist Mike Tipping.

She’s not apologizing.

“I did not knock on a single door,” Dill said. “It’s this macho thing and everybody exaggerates how much they do it. It reminded me of when I was an associate in a law firm and people would come in and say ‘Oh, I worked for a billion hours.’ But did you win? Did you help the client?”

What’s going to make a difference now is a “loyal opposition” that is willing to stand up and oppose the majority when it’s appropriate.

“We need people who are bright and articulate, people with gumption who are willing to fight. Not in a nasty way, but really take on the issues,” she said. “We have to be willing to fight.”

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or: gkesich@pressherald.com