Earlier this year, Democratic majorities in the Maine House and Senate voted to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016 and then peg it to increases in the Consumer Price Index.
They argued that the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living even as productivity and corporate profits have increased. If the minimum wage in Maine had increased with inflation since the late 1960s, it would now be over $10 an hour.
Gov. LePage vetoed the increase, calling it a job-killing bill that would lead to higher taxes.
These decisions represent a clear division in political philosophy and government policy. Either you believe that government has a role in making sure workers aren’t underpaid, or you believe that businesses should be left alone and that the market will sort things out and reward those who are deserving. Most people don’t have a hard time choosing a side.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler isn’t most people.
When first asked how he felt about increasing the minimum wage, in a radio interview on WGAN in March, Cutler gave a long response that didn’t really answer the question. Finally, when pressed, he admitted, “I honestly don’t know.”
Host Mike Violette did his best to pin him down, asking, “If you had won the election instead of Paul LePage and this bill came to your desk, what would you do?”
“I don’t know yet. I really don’t,” said Cutler.
By the next day, he seemed to have made up his mind, telling the Portland Press Herald that he would not have supported a standalone minimum wage bill.
More recently, however, Cutler seems to have arrived at a more nuanced position.
Last week, he made another appearance on WGAN and told host Ethan Strimling that while he did say he didn’t support the bill, that wouldn’t have prevented him from signing it into law, and he would have done so.
“I never said that I would veto the bill passed by the Legislature. Indeed, I have said that if I had been governor and it arrived on my desk, I would have signed it” was Cutler’s emailed response when I asked him for clarification of this seeming contradiction.
That seems to be some pretty fine splitting of hairs. For his part, Kennebec Journal reporter Michael Shepherd doesn’t remember any such qualifications when he spoke to Cutler.
“That nuance didn’t come across to me in my interview with him. He definitely did not say he’d sign it, or that would have made it into the piece,” said Shepherd.
Perhaps Cutler shifted his position (a member of his staff referred to it as his “evolving” on the issue) because he saw a poll like the one from Pew showing that increasing the minimum wage has the support of 71 percent of Americans, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents. Or perhaps he talked to some low-wage workers and realized that even $10 an hour is far less than a living wage.
Whatever the reason, I’m glad that Cutler has moved closer to the side of economic fairness, even if it took him awhile to get here. I hope he can have a similar evolution on other issues important to workers, like universal paid sick days, a policy he opposed during his 2010 campaign.
This whole rigmarole may be a preview of what Cutler can expect from now until next November.
In 2010, he wasn’t subject to the same scrutiny as the major-party candidates. He didn’t have a primary to contend with, and few reporters insisted on straight answers to policy questions. He was often able to run out the clock by talking in vague terms about reforming Augusta, bringing people together and rising above partisan politics.
Now, with a longer campaign process and facing two candidates who already have well-defined records in government office, perhaps we’ll see some real questioning of Cutler.
Cutler himself made a nod toward increased transparency when he announced on that same radio show last week that, if asked, he would be willing to release a list of the clients he has worked for as a lawyer and a lobbyist.
“I’m happy to tell anybody who I worked for, as far as I’m concerned,” said Cutler. “It would take me awhile to put it together if they ask.”
Consider this my asking for the list. I hope it can be put together in time for a thorough examination.
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. MPA Campaign Vote!, a PAC affiliated with the Maine People’s Alliance, has endorsed Democratic candidate Mike Michaud for governor. Tipping can be contacted at: