September 24, 2012

The making of a man without a party

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

This story, which originally appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram on Sept. 23, was posted on, with the passages in red removed:

click image to enlarge

Angus King hosts a Maine Public Television program in 1981.

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram file photo

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – On Capitol Hill in the late winter of 1975, a young, idealistic Senate aide named Angus King had a political epiphany while studying a bill on behalf of his boss, Democratic Sen. Bill Hathaway.

The bill, introduced by liberal lion Walter Mondale of Minnesota, was written in response to the drowning of a 15-year-old YMCA camper during a poorly planned canoe trip on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. But it contained measures King thought would devastate summer camps across the country, including rural Maine, where he had spent several years providing legal aid to the poor.

"It got down to how many latrines you had to have per camper and that the path to the waterfront had to be paved with a certain kind of paver, and I thought this is just stupid," he says of the sweeping safety regulations proposed in the bill, which prompted his break with Democratic Party orthodoxy. "I can almost date it from that moment, where I thought: The federal government and regulation is not the answer to everything. There are countervailing values."

It was one of several turning points in King's political evolution, marking an arc that carried him from being an idealistic young social activist in the tumult of the 1960s to a fiscally conservative, socially liberal two-term governor of Maine. Today, King is the front-runner in the race for the U.S. Senate, appealing to what he hopes remains a moderate majority in the center of Maine's electorate.

His record as governor and businessman and his positions on the issues are being parsed as the campaign unfolds and voters decide whom to support. But his view of the world was shaped long before he ever ran for public office and will continue to inform the choices he would make if elected to the U.S. Senate.

A charismatic leader since his teens -- at 17 he was elected "governor" of Virginia at the model government program, Boys State -- King's life turned at several points: the arrival of the civil rights movement in his home state and public high school; a brush with mortality at 29; and when the business startup he staked everything on took off.

A cancer survivor by age 30, a multimillionaire at 48, King has worked with the legal activists who ended debtor's prison in Maine, on Capitol Hill for a Democratic U.S. senator, and within a succession of green energy businesses, including one he founded and whose sale gave him the freedom and resources to pursue statewide office.

By that time, he had developed a personal political philosophy, one he says seeks to improve the lives of poor, working and middle-class people, but his approach has often put him at odds with one party or the other.

"I am uncomfortable with the Democrats because their first line of defense is regulation, tax the rich, government is the solution," he says. "I part company with where the current right wing of the Republican Party wants to go because we don't have to speculate on what an unbridled, unregulated economy looks like: We lived it. You had women and 12-year-olds working 16 hours a day at the Cabot Mills."

A generation ago, a person with King's views might have fit comfortably into the centrist wings of either party, but in today's more polarized political climate, he is a man without a party, seeking admission to a highly partisan legislative body. "My philosophy is: I call 'em as I see 'em and do what works," he says, though he admits his philosophy was some years in the making.

(Continued on page 2)

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