Next Tuesday, a yet-to-be-determined number of Maine legislators will sit down to a private dinner at The Senator Inn in Augusta to talk welfare reform with two very influential players in Maine politics.

One is Mary Mayhew, the new commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The other is the evening’s host: Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The same Tarren Bragdon who recently served as co-chair of Gov. Paul LePage’s transition team.

The same Tarren Bragdon who played a major role in writing LePage’s proposed budget for the next two years.

The same Tarren Bragdon who, even at the ripe old age of 35, looks more like a State House intern than a Republican power broker working the levers of state government one minute and issuing far-reaching policy papers the next.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Bragdon said Tuesday during an hour-long interview in his office in Portland’s Old Port (he keeps another in Augusta). “I’ve been focused on how we can improve the economy in Maine for a long time, and it’s great to go from ideas to implementation.”

Focused on saving Maine’s economy for a “long time?” A guy who graduated from high school in 1993? Where in the name of Robin the Boy Wonder did this baby-faced mover and shaker come from? A thumbnail bio:

Born in 1975, Bragdon grew up in Bangor, where he attended St. John’s school and then Bangor Christian Schools. His father is a dentist, and his mother manages the dental practice.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Maine and a master’s in business administration from Husson College.

Bragdon made history in 1996 when, just 12 days after his 21st birthday, he ousted three-term incumbent Democrat Hugh Morrison to become the youngest state representative ever elected in Maine.

After two terms in the Legislature, during which he also worked for a child care agency in Bangor, Bragdon spent two years as special assistant to Rick Bennett, then president of the Maine Senate.

He then worked for five years as the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s part-time director of health reform initiatives, before taking over as CEO in January of 2008. It’s nice work if you can get it – according to the organization’s tax filings, Bragdon earned $136,208 in salary and other compensation in 2009.

On the home front, Bragdon lives in China with his wife and four adopted kids – two from Korea, two from Ethiopia.

All of which raises a couple of mystifying questions: How did this personable, articulate, wonkish-if-not-worldly kid go, seemingly overnight, from rising GOP star to arguably the most influential non-elected suit in Augusta?

And, equally important, who’s supporting the Maine Heritage Policy Center to the tune of $1 million a year to keep him there?

“It’s what I’ve been doing for my entire adult life,” Bragdon said in answer to the first question. “So it’s something that you work on, you practice, you read lots of different things – government reports, study programs that are working and are not working, and you compare.”

And the money? Might Bragdon enlighten us on exactly where that comes from?

“We are supported by over 1,500 individuals who give us from a couple dollars a year to tens of thousands of dollars a year because they believe in our mission,” Bragdon replied.

Care to name a few names?

“No,” he said.

Why not? Because they request anonymity?

“It’s because they request it,” he said. “But also because of political retribution (against) individuals who may choose privately to support our work.”

Ah, yes. The protect-us-from-the-loony-liberals thing.

Privacy and paranoia notwithstanding, whispers abound that the deepest pockets behind the Maine Heritage Policy Center belong to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, whose private foundations support such libertarian causes as the State Policy Network – to which the MHPC belongs.

But Bragdon, while conceding that roughly half of his organization’s funding comes from “competitive foundation grants,” scoffs at the notion that the Kochs, directly or indirectly, are its behind-the-curtain sugar daddies.

“Certain individuals want to simplify the political world into a series of succinct conspiracies that make them sleep better at night,” Bragdon said. “But the reality is, it doesn’t work that way.”

Of course, certain individuals also suggest that the Maine Heritage Policy Center, with its ever-growing stack of reports that decry everything from welfare spending to the size of the state’s public-employee work force, has a knack for compiling statistics that fit hand-in-glove with its conservative mission. (Or as former Republican state Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville put it Tuesday, much of the organization’s research tends to be “oversimplistic and exaggerated.”)

Any truth to that?

“No, not at all,” Bragdon said. “I think it’s completely offensive that you would suggest that.”

“Didn’t mean to offend you,” I replied.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You did.”

It was the closest Bragdon came, over the course of an hour, to an unguarded moment.

And if that sounds like the perfect segue into Gov. Paul LePage’s, ahem, unguarded moments, so sorry: Bragdon won’t go there.

“I don’t think it’s productive,” he said when asked to weigh in on Maine’s shoot-from-the-hip governor. “It’s not my policy to be gossipy.”

Besides, with a whole state government to steer, Bragdon is too darned busy for small talk.

He’s got hearings to attend – Steve Bowen, plucked from the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s staff by Team LePage to serve as Maine’s new education commissioner, goes before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee for a confirmation hearing today.

He’s got projects to complete — one day after LePage told an interviewer in Washington that “we’re going after right-to-work” legislation in Maine, Bragdon said collective bargaining and union membership are among “a whole variety of issues we might take a look at.”

And, last but not least, he’s got that private dinner next week with any and all legislators who accept his invitation – the fourth such private soiree so far this year. A dinner unfettered by such annoyances as, say, the Maine Freedom of Access Act.

Speaking of which, are the media invited to listen in on Bragdon’s and Commissioner Mayhew’s give-and-take with our elected representatives?

“No,” Bragdon replied.

Why not?

“Because we have public events and we have private events.”

Appalled? Relax.

Boy wonders get to do that.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@mainetoday.com