Democrat Mike Michaud and Republican Rick Bennett have little trouble talking about the past, their time in the Legislature and the friendship that solidified when the two established stars of their parties shared — that’s right, shared — power in the state Senate.
It’s talking about the future, specifically the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, where things get tricky.
Michaud, now a six-term congressman, is running for governor, having been coaxed to leave his relatively protected nest in the 2nd Congressional District by a Maine Democratic Party that considers him the best chance to unseat Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Similarly, Bennett, at the prodding of some Republican activists, was persuaded to run for chairman of the party, a job that has recently proven neither enviable nor conducive to furthering political careers.
For Bennett, becoming chairman of the Maine Republican Party also means doing everything he can to ensure that LePage wins a second term in 2014. That means taking on independent candidate Eliot Cutler and Michaud, whom he sometimes invites to dinner with his family.
“I’d say we are good friends,” said Bennett, later adding that he and Michaud will be political adversaries until 2014. “We live in a state where people can have behemoth disagreements on issues of policy and still respect each other and have friendships.”
Michaud, who has already unloaded rhetorical broadsides against the governor, said he’s confident that Bennett won’t be “over the top” during the campaign.
“Do we agree on every issue? No. But do I think he’s going to be engaging in personal attacks? I respect him enough and trust him that that will not occur,” Michaud said.
It’s easy to overstate friendships in politics. When politicians address a rival as “my friend” during debates, they often mean just the opposite. However, the relationship between Michaud and Bennett appears genuine. It also has yielded political benefits for both.
“I think Mike and Rick have a special relationship,” said Mike Saxl, the former Democratic House speaker in 2001-2002. “They really liked working together, respected each other. They have a trusting relationship.” Saxl said he is supporting Michaud for governor.
Bennett and Michaud say the bond was forged during a historic power-sharing agreement when the 2000 election produced a tie in the state Senate, 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent.
What happened next was unique, if not unprecedented, in Maine legislative history.
Michaud, then 45 years old, and Bennett, 37 at the time, huddled with independent state Sen. Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor. Goldthwait could have tipped the balance of power if she decided to caucus with either the Democrats or Republicans. She decided to caucus with both.
The three senators brokered a complex deal. They divided the term of Senate president, considered by some the second most powerful position in state government. Michaud, the quiet but steadily ascendant former mill worker, was named Senate president for 2001. The socially moderate, fiscal conservative Bennett, who had helped Republicans achieve parity during the aggressive 2000 election, would preside over the chamber in 2002.
The two leaders then appointed Goldthwait as Senate chairwoman of the budget-writing committee, formally known as Appropriations. It’s an influential post, allowing assigned lawmakers to make key decisions on the most influential legislative document, the state budget.
The two leaders then flipped a coin to see who would get first pick of committee leadership posts. They later abandoned the traditional pre-session party caucuses, closed-door meetings typically designed to plot procedural and debate strategy. Instead, the two leaders gathered Senate committee leaders in both parties to discuss the day’s pending legislative business. The bipartisan gatherings didn’t pre-empt tough fights on the Senate floor, but Bennett and Michaud said there was rarely lingering bitterness.
“The debate wasn’t personal,” Michaud said. “It wasn’t trying to make the Republican Party look bad or the Democratic Party look bad.”
Said Bennett, “People expected dysfunction and we were able to surprise them, prove them wrong.”
But there were political fights, big ones. The biggest: a 2001 budget deal cooked up by Bennett and Michaud that drew the ire of Republicans and Democrats in the House. Independent Gov. Angus King, who saw funding for many of his initiatives axed in the deal, compared the Senate budget to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
But the strongest criticism came from Bennett and Michaud’s partner in the power-sharing deal.
“Betrayed doesn’t begin to describe how I felt,” Goldthwait said last week.
Goldthwait said it took years to reconcile her personal feelings and the politics of a move that effectively snuffed out her work on the budget and her political influence. She had worked four months with the budget committee to reach a bipartisan consensus and a unanimous committee vote. The budget bill then received a strong 120-vote endorsement by the House.
The Senate vote was next. It never happened, as Bennett and Michaud introduced their own budget bill. The House, fearing a standoff and a shutdown of state government, eventually yielded. The two Senate leaders had outmaneuvered the budget process, the House and King.
Bennett and Michaud said they had become concerned with elements of the budget plan, which closely mirrored King’s original proposal and protected many of his policy initiatives. Bennett said Republicans in his caucus objected to its tax increases. Michaud said Democrats were also worried that the compromise budget didn’t fund cost-of-living increases for nursing home employees.
“We decided to go our own way,” Bennett said. “We found that there was a lot of common ground between the two parties so we put (the Senate budget) forward.”
For Goldthwait, the memories are not about bipartisanship.
“It was creepy and a shocking betrayal of our relationship,” she said. “It’s a ‘Be careful what you wish for’: We wanted them to work together and they sure did.”
Michaud acknowledged that the fallout was “tense,” but he and Bennett had little choice because their members wouldn’t support the committee budget.
Goldthwait said the episode soured her relationship with the two Senate presidents. However, she said the budget maneuver appeared to be an anomaly.
“It’s not like there’s a pattern with either one of them of doing things like that,” she said. “I’m just going to hope that they can continue the thoughtful leadership that they almost always did.”
Goldthwait hasn’t donated to any of the gubernatorial candidates. She declined to say whom she was supporting in 2014 because she writes a political newspaper column.
Bennett acknowledged that the former independent senator was in a difficult position. He and Michaud said the budget deal not only benefited their constituents, but also the two leaders’ relationship.
The trust and respect have gathered ever since. Michaud recalls having dinner with Bennett and his family. In 2005, Bennett visited Michaud in Washington, D.C. The visit, announced in a media statement by Michaud’s congressional office, noted the legislative power-sharing agreement.
“If the same bipartisan spirit that allowed us to come to the power-sharing agreement in Augusta was more prevalent here in Washington, it would certainly move the country in the right direction,” Michaud said in a 2005 prepared statement.
Bennett and Michaud have both received a political benefit from the 2001-2002 arrangement, using it to solidify their bipartisan and compromise credentials. Michaud brought it up during a recent meeting with the Press Herald editorial board, saying he would bring a unity leadership to the Blaine House.
During a recent visit at the State House, Bennett laughed when told that Michaud had touted surrendering the Senate presidency to him in 2002 even though Democrats had won a one-seat advantage in the chamber after a hotly contested special election.
Bennett, Michaud noted, actually presided over a Democratic majority.
“There was never any question I’d be Senate president (in 2002),” said Bennett. “It (power sharing) was a legal agreement.”
Bennett also shrugged off Michaud’s lighthearted jab that he smoked out the Senate president’s office when he attempted to light the fireplace.
“We got it started,” he said, laughing. “We had a fire.”
Whether the good-natured banter lasts through the 2014 campaign is unclear. Michaud says he’s not running against anyone to get to the Blaine House. However, his criticism of its current occupant, LePage, has been pointed and consistent.
From his perch atop the Maine Republican Party, Bennett will have plenty of opportunities to take shots at Michaud. Some Republican insiders wonder whether Bennett, whose reputation as a political moderate is compared to that of former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, will be insulated from most of the dirty work.
Bennett was virtually hand-picked for the chairmanship by LePage’s political team. But it’s unclear whether his relationship with Michaud was part of their calculation. As one Republican put it, the party had every reason to want Bennett, the unifier, at the helm of a party with well-publicized infighting. Less clear is why Bennett would want the job.
Bennett appears to be serious about taking the party in a new direction. On Aug. 21, he invited Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant to breakfast.
“Thanks for breakfast, Chairman Bennett,” Grant tweeted. “Finally someone I can talk to.”
But Bennett has also shown a willingness to muck it up. In 2002, he and former political operative Daniel Billings — now a District Court judge — were roundly criticized for political action committee ads targeting several state Senate races. Bennett later apologized for the tone of the ads, saying they failed “to meet the high standards we should have for political discourse.”
Bennett said he wouldn’t shy away from calling “foul” if other Republican outfits cross the line during the 2014 race.
“I expect the same thing on the other side,” he said. “Sometimes politics can get a little heated, people say things they shouldn’t say, do things they shouldn’t do. You have to deal with them in the moment.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: