Maine’s most powerful Republican and the state’s top elected Democrat were pouring coffee while discussing fashion and calamity. The two men shared an interest in looking good and paying less so they shopped at Mardens where they could find designer brands at disaster discounts.
It was then-Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins’ first breakfast at the Blaine House as a guest of Gov. Paul LePage. Hobbins’ assurances that he had been a loyal customer of the company LePage had run until just days before was a shrewd start to what has become a strong working relationship.
If Democrats in Augusta want to find common ground with LePage they should take advantage of this relationship and anoint Hobbins of Saco as their emissary to the governor’s office.
Hobbins is now a rank-and-file member of the Maine House of Representatives after being term-limited out of his leadership position in the state Senate. He is also, with 12 terms so far, the longest tenured member of the 126th Legislature. Hobbins’ State House career started when he was a 21-year-old student at the University of Maine and included a 14-year layoff.
Hobbins, an attorney, is from the old school of politics where relationships and consensus building take precedence over scoring easy political points. Honest differences are overcome through negotiated agreement or settled fairly as part of a respectful debate.
As Senate chair of the Energy and Utilities Committee in the 123rd and 124th Legislatures, Hobbins led a panel that achieved an astounding level of unanimity on the legislation it considered.
According to former Republican Senate President Kevin Raye, Hobbins’ proud and loyal membership in the Democratic Party never led him to treat Republicans like the enemy. When Raye speaks of Hobbins he uses terms like respect and kindness. Raye also speaks admiringly of Hobbins’ knack for making things work.
During the 125th Legislature, Hobbins and Raye had dinner every Thursday night the Legislature was in session along with Republican House Speaker Bob Nutting and House Democratic Leader Emily Cain. Over dozens of dinners, the leaders of their respective caucuses forged the personal relationships and goodwill needed to govern despite partisan differences.
When LePage came into office, Hobbins made it a point not to prejudge Maine’s new chief executive, his tough talk or gruff style. He also appreciated and accepted that LePage did not adhere to the standard political playbook.
In LePage’s early weeks in office and even before the inauguration, it was not lost on the governor and his staff that Hobbins was not one to take political cheap shots. Through honest interactions and shared personal relationships, a bond of trust and mutual respect formed between Hobbins and the governor.
When I asked LePage about Hobbins, he replied, “Barry Hobbins is a good man, and I have a great deal of respect for him. He’s put under enormous pressure by lobbyists, but he does good work for the people of Maine. His heart is in the right place.”
The governor went on to say, “Dan, I really miss seeing you in the office every day and we have to make time to play some golf this summer.”
(OK, I am kidding about that last part.)
And the success Hobbins had in convincing the governor to sign legislation he had authored to allow bars to open early on Sundays that fall on St. Patrick’s Day shows how much impact mutual respect can have.
Earlier this year, LePage had promised to veto every piece of legislation that arrived on his desk before his hospital debt bill, and had been particularly dismissive of the St. Patrick’s Day bill. But Hobbins was not to be deterred. Once it was clear that some progress was being made on the hospital debt debate, Hobbins convinced LePage it would be a show of good faith to pardon St. Patrick.
The idea to wear a green leprechaun hat while signing the bill was one, I am sure, that began and ended with LePage.
Hobbins is now the House chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. Given the priority LePage has placed on lowering Maine’s energy costs, expect to see the governor and Hobbins work together to find some common ground.
Democrats would do well to engage Hobbins in negotiations with the governor on broader issues. There will surely be some disagreements that go unsettled in the months to come, but the respect the two share for one another could make for a smoother session.
Leaving the governor with some time, one would hope, for a little golf with a long but not always straight-off-the-tee former member of the staff.
Dan Demeritt can be contacted at: