AUGUSTA – Ask Gov. John Baldacci about his legacy, and he hesitates.
“It’s very hard for me,” he said. “Give me a job to do and I get it done. I’ll let the people make the decision on that.”
Right now, the people aren’t high on Baldacci, who’s governed through an extended period of economic downturn. This fall, pollster Critical Insights put his approval rating at just 35 percent, the lowest of the 15 times it polled throughout his eight-year tenure.
That’s down from a 72 percent approval he started with in the fall of 2003.
“You look at it, you pay attention to these things, but they don’t rule your life,” he said. “These are hard times. I found a way to alienate both parties.”
Part of the reason for the low rating may be the recent yearlong campaign to choose Baldacci’s successor, said Senate President Libby Mitchell, a Democrat who finished third in the gubernatorial race.
“I think he’s going to be more and more appreciated as the new Legislature takes office,” she said. “We’ve been through this campaign where people were loose with the facts.”
Pat LaMarche, a Green Independent who ran against Baldacci in 2006, said she felt Baldacci often said one thing and did another. Although she often disagrees with Republicans, she said they are up front about their intentions.
“This crowd tells you they are going to do something and then bows to private industry,” she said.
As for Baldacci’s legacy, she believes it will depend on what he decides to do next.
“He’s never had a job he could be fired from,” she said. “Now he has to go out there and perform.”
For his part, Baldacci, 55, said his future plans are uncertain. He and his wife, Karen, soon will move to a house in Holden, just outside of Bangor. Baldacci said he enjoys working with children, may pursue business ventures or do something in the energy or health care fields.
Lobbyist Ed Pineau gave Baldacci high marks for serving in a period of economic turmoil.
“He served at a real tough time in the economy and did a real good job keeping the state’s head above water,” he said.
Pineau, an outdoor enthusiast, said Baldacci protected access to many of Maine’s special places, despite significant land sales. In 2006, Baldacci worked with lawmakers and the Trust for Public Land to raise the money necessary to purchase 4,000 acres next to Baxter State Park. The Katahdin Lake deal meant the preservation of old-growth forest and pristine lake frontage.
“For the average Mainer who loves the outdoors, he did a stand-up job,” Pineau said. And, he added, Baldacci set an example by his work ethic.
“The thing I noticed about him on a day-to-day basis was, he was always in early and always left late,” he said.
Steven Bowen, a former two-term Republican House member who now works for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, said Baldacci deserves credit for keeping to his pledge to not raise broad-based taxes.
But he had trouble pinpointing any major successes.
“I almost feel like it was a lost opportunity,” he said, noting that Baldacci enjoyed Democratic majorities in the House and Senate for all eight years of his tenure. “If you’re a governor and if you have a vision and you control the Legislature, you can take bold, bold steps.”
Yet others say Baldacci did the best he could given the national economy.
Most governors get a break from bad economic news during their time in office, said Maine Development Foundation President Laurie Lachance.
“The world gave him lemons and he did his best to make lemonade,” she said. “He had hard times without much relief in between.”
Lachance, who served as state economist for the first 18 months of the Baldacci administration, said his legacy could be that he didn’t shy away from big issues such as health care reform and high energy costs. He worked to establish programs for winterizing homes and businesses, tried to bring liquified natural gas to Maine, and pushed for wind power, both on land and in the ocean, she said.
And despite constant budget problems, he proposed state borrowing for research and development and higher education to try to keep the economy moving, she said.
Former Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, said Baldacci deserves credit for major changes made at the Department of Health and Human Services in the area of Child Development Services. He gets good marks for not raising taxes, and has been undervalued for his political instincts, Mills said.
“He’s a much more insightful political thinker than most of us give him credit for,” Mills said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: