Most refer to them, with all due respect, as Gov. Paul LePage’s fledgling Cabinet. But as they march through the Maine Legislature en route to their lofty new offices, another moniker comes to mind.
Citizens of Maine, meet Easy Company.
“Easy” as in sliding through legislative confirmation hearings like a warm knife through butter.
“Easy” as in unanimous Senate confirmation votes in which politically correct bipartisanship — at least for now — trumps common-sense evaluation.
“Easy” as in, “If you’re good enough for the guv, gosh-darnit, then you’re good enough for us!”
“I think we’re going along,” conceded state Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, when asked Friday to explain the Democratic minority’s strategy for vetting and voting on LePage’s Cabinet nominees. “I think what you’ve seen is what you’ll get.”
That approach makes perfect sense for some who have waltzed through the confirmation process on solid knowledge and well-documented experience — Sawin Millett, who’s served in three past administrations and is widely regarded as an expert in all things budgetary, for example, was a no-brainer for commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
But at least two other nominees — Philip A. Congdon for the Department of Economic and Community Development and Mary Mayhew for the Department of Health and Human Services — illustrate just how easy it is to take over a branch of Maine’s state government these days with a resume somewhere between weak and worrisome.
Congdon, an engineer from Bristol who worked for Texas Instruments for 20 years and first met LePage at a meeting of the Constitutionalists of Maine (Congdon no longer belongs), raised nary an eyebrow Thursday when he told the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee that his background in economic development is “thin.”
“I have, I think, a strong business background. As far as community economic development, I’ll tell you right now, I haven’t done it,” Congdon, 69, told the legislators. “But I’ll also tell you that I am convinced that I can.”
No experience? No problem!
Even after Congdon told one lawmaker that attracting businesses to Aroostook County and other rural areas is an issue “I haven’t thought about,” the committee gave him a unanimous thumbs-up and sent his nomination on to the Senate.
Then there’s Mayhew, who until recently worked as vice president and chief lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association and now is poised to take over DHHS.
LePage, by his own admission, has had a devil of a time finding someone to take what is arguably the toughest of all Cabinet jobs. In addition to its $3.1 billion budget, 3,600-member work force and myriad complex programs, DHHS has become a political lightning rod for those, including the governor, who have all but declared open season on welfare in Maine.
Enter Mayhew, just 12 days into her new gig as a senior policy adviser to LePage, who kept her game face on even as the boss joked that he’d “been rejected by more women (for DHHS comish) in the last two weeks than in four years of high school and six of college.”
Setting aside LePage’s tacit admission that the DHHS slot had to add a touch of femininity to an otherwise all-male Cabinet (Our new governor believes in quotas! Who knew?), a careful read of the administration’s biographical sketch for Mayhew reveals no management or chief executive experience whatsoever.
Rather, since she graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in political science, she’s worked exclusively as a government lobbyist and media spokeswoman for a litany of, dare we say, special interests in Augusta. (The Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, the Maine Association of Insurance Companies and Central Maine Power, to name but a few.)
It’s nice work for those who can find it — in 2009, according to tax filings by the Maine Hospital Association, Mayhew was paid $244,641 in salary and other compensation to represent the organization’s interests in Augusta and Washington.
And, to be fair, Mayhew’s 11 years with the MHA undoubtedly leave her well-versed in how the hospital industry works.
But DHHS is about a lot more than hospitals. It’s about mental health treatment, the homeless, child and elder protective services, people with disabilities, federally funded food stamps and other integral threads in Maine’s social safety net — all of which require a seasoned manager, not a longtime lobbyist, in the corner office.
Mayhew, whose confirmation hearing is set for Feb. 1, was not available for an interview late last week. But Dan Demeritt, LePage’s communications director, said in an e-mail late Friday that “Mary will be working closely with the Governor to put all the pieces in place to manage the department and implement the LePage agenda.”
Consider it done: Interviews last week with Democrats on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee revealed no expectation that Mayhew will run into any major turbulence as she sails from the governor’s office to that of DHHS commissioner.
“But I think we do have some serious questions to ask about administrative skills, as well as working knowledge of other offices within the department that have a lot of impact on people,” said state Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, the ranking minority member on the committee.
Questions? Hey, it’s a start.
(Before their unanimous endorsement last week of Bill Beardsley as conservation commissioner, Democrats on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee had their questioning cut off by state Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, the committee’s chairman. House Speaker Robert Nutting had to place a mid-hearing telephone call to Edgecomb to explain that’s not how the process works.)
Still, beyond the polite interrogatories awaiting Mayhew, unanimous approval by both the Health and Human Services Committee and the 35-member Senate appears all but assured. The word throughout the Democratic minority these days, after all, is to step aside and let Easy Company parade on through.
“What would we get other than we’re being ‘obstructionist’?” asked Brannigan, the veteran Democratic senator who spent 34 years running Shalom House, a community-based program for people with serious mental illness. “We wouldn’t win anything, either actually or symbolically.”
Maybe so. But the more they fall in line and endorse these questionable commissioners now, the less right the Democrats will have to complain later if and when the wheels start coming off.
And before they dutifully raise their hands in another unanimous “yes” vote, those same Democrats might at least consider what happened right before their eyes last week:
The same governor whose “Job One” is economic development just hired a guy who admits he has no background in it.
And the same governor who loudly deplores “special interests” just hired a special-interest lobbyist to preside over the fates of Maine’s most vulnerable.
“We’re not practiced at this,” Brannigan said with a chuckle. “I’ve been up there 26 years and don’t know what the minority is.”
Then again, he added, “there’s nothing wrong with you writing what a bunch of pansies we are.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: