July 21, 2013

Failed recruiting bill succeeding as political wedge issue

Legislation that would have mirrored federal rules on military recruiters' access to schools seems destined to be a factor in the state's 2014 elections.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

The flap over a military recruiter bill that failed on the last day of the legislative session appears destined to become campaign fodder in 2014, adding a Maine wrinkle to a frequent wedge issue in national politics.

click image to enlarge

A Maine National Guard recruiter talks to a student at the "Thinking Outside the Box" college and career fair at Portland Arts and Technology High School in March 2013.

Courtesy photo

It's been 12 days since the proposal to guarantee recruiter access to high schools died in the House of Representatives. But the jousting between Republicans and Democrats continues unabated in media coverage, news releases and letters to newspapers, signaling a larger fight that some say was its purpose all along: to influence a 2014 election that will decide who will be Maine's governor and which political party will control the Legislature.

The impetus for Gov. Paul LePage's proposal -- that some schools were restricting access of military recruiters or preventing them from wearing uniforms -- has been disputed and reiterated, creating a din of patriotism politics.

The debate has particular resonance in Maine, home of the second-highest number of veterans per capita after Alaska, according to most recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, unenrolled voters -- the largest bloc of the Maine electorate -- are typically sensitive to military and veterans issues, according to national experts.

"Clearly, Americans as a group feel indebted to veterans and the military," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "I think it's even more true today than before because we have a volunteer service. Everyone doesn't serve in the military, so we tend to be particularly attentive to the needs of those who have."

Sabato was not familiar with the debate over L.D. 1503, or the details of the recruiter bill, which would have required local school boards to adopt recruiting access policies nearly identical to those mandated in federal law since 2002. And the details may seem unfamiliar to many Mainers by the time the 2014 campaign fliers hit their mailboxes.

For now, however, the flap is drawing strong reactions from veterans.

John Flagler, a Vietnam veteran and a Democrat from Alfred, defended the lawmakers who voted against the bill in a recent letter to the Portland Press Herald. He wrote that LePage's claim that some Democrats oppose military recruiters is designed to "stereotype and discredit the Maine Democratic Party as anti-military and disloyal."

On the other hand, Gary Spaulding, a Vietnam veteran from South Berwick, called the defeat of the bill "infuriating."

"I'm not saying (military recruiters) need special attention, but they shouldn't be held out," Spaulding said in an interview. "We're paying these guys to go to the schools and tell them what the advantages are to being in the military. And there are advantages."

Spaulding didn't buy the argument that the bill was unnecessary because federal law already mandates that public schools grant military recruiters the same access as college or employer recruiters.

"Why have the federal government solve your problems for you?" he said. "We're supposed to have patriotism in this country. We should be fostering that in this state."

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said he isn't surprised Republicans have continued to hammer the Democratic-controlled Legislature for its failure to enact the bill or that the Maine Republican Party has called upon Democrat and presumptive gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud to condemn the vote.

"This is the kind of state where you could potentially shake voters loose with that kind of issue," Melcher said. "Whether or not it's an issue that affects people directly could be debated. But some people may say it may not affect me directly, but it's about the values I believe in."

(Continued on page 2)

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