Whenever something happens that looks bad for Gov. Paul LePage’s chances of re-election, such as when a new poll shows him to be one of the least popular governors in the country, LePage’s supporters are quick to remind us that no incumbent governor has been defeated for re-election since 1966. They did so again last week when U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud announced that he was taking the first steps to enter the 2014 race.
This factoid about incumbents is true, but LePage’s actions in office and the dynamics of a likely three-way gubernatorial race will probably have much more to do with his chances than any historical power of incumbency.
Far be it from me to say, however, that what happened in 1966 can’t offer us some lessons that are relevant today. In fact, that election and the career of the man who won it, Democratic Gov. Ken Curtis, can teach us a great deal about our current political situation.
I learned most of what I know about Curtis (now living in Florida but still of counsel to his Portland law firm) and his career from a book titled “Kenneth Curtis of Maine: Profile of a Governor.”
It’s written by former Curtis aide Kermit Lipez (now a senior U.S. Circuit judge) and is definitely a bit biased in favor of the former governor, but it gives a good chronology of events and, even better, it allows Curtis long passages of dialogue to address the reader and explain his actions as governor.
I picked up my copy at Carlson & Turner, a great local bookstore in Portland and probably the only place where you can pick up a 40-year-old biography of a Maine governor, signed by its subject, for $10.
One of the most interesting aspects of the period of Maine history that the book describes is the importance of tax fairness, an issue that has also been central to our recent political debate.
Curtis ran on a platform of progress and reform, promising to fix problems he said had been caused by decades of one-party Republican rule and insisting that state government should do more to create economic opportunity and build institutions (like the University of Maine System) that would usher in a better future for the state. His preferred method of paying for these programs was through a state income tax.
During the first session of Curtis’ first term, Republicans in the Legislature attempted to put him in a difficult position by passing a 1-percentage-point increase in the sales tax in order to pay for some of what he had proposed.
Curtis vetoed the measure because, as Lipez writes, “The regressive sales tax, unfair to the workers and the poor, who were mainly Democratic, had been advanced by Republicans to spare their richer constituents the bite of income taxes.”
During the next legislative session, Curtis proposed Maine’s first progressive income tax as a more fair way of paying for the increased cost of needed government services and economic development. Republican and Democratic leaders in the Legislature ended up working together to improve the proposal and usher it into law, cooperating to a degree that seems impossible in our current political climate.
The tax changes weren’t instantly popular. The income assessment was dubbed “the Curtis tax” and it nearly cost the governor his re-election, which he won by just 890 votes.
Once the tax was fully implemented and the government programs it funded began to be understood, however, it began to receive tremendous public support. It survived a citizen-initiated referendum to overturn it in 1972 with the support of more than 75 percent of Maine voters.
Curtis explained his opinions on taxes in a television ad during his re-election campaign:
“Nobody likes taxes, including me. But when a tax became necessary, I did what two years earlier I had said I would do — I recommended the income tax over an increase in the sales tax. I did so because the income tax is fairer and more efficient. It is based on the ability to pay. The sales tax is not … (for) 80 percent of Maine families, the income tax costs less than a higher sales tax.”
This trip into history didn’t show me that LePage’s incumbency will make him politically invincible. It just made me lament the current efforts of Maine Republicans to increase property and sales taxes in order to protect their tax cuts for the wealthy, and it made me disappointed that we no longer have a governor who stands for basic fairness.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at: