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

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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

Seth Lynn, an Iraq War veteran and adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Political Management, said military and veterans legislation is frequently used to influence public opinion.

"I don't think that in any of these cases veterans are the target audience," Lynn said. "It's the public at large. They're targeting the vast middle. They're pro-military, pro-veteran, pro-national security."


Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said LePage and Republicans were using the bill to change the conversation.

"If you want to talk about doing something that's going to help veterans, let's talk about how we passed a law to help them get back to work and how Republicans and the governor said 'no' to health care for 2,700 veterans," said Quintero, referring to Republicans' blocking of a bill that would have expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.

Eves was among the Democrats who backed the recruiter bill.

Still, there's a sense among some Democrats that party members failed to recognize the political peril of defeating L.D. 1503.

A majority of Democrats on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee initially voted to kill the bill, arguing it was a "solution in search of a problem."

But the bill's fate changed during the emotional June 4 debate in the House of Representatives.

"We bury these guys in their uniforms, but they're not allowed to wear them to schools?" said Rep. Peter Doak, R-Columbia Falls, a Green Beret in the Vietnam War. Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said it was "disgusting" that public schools were barring uniformed recruiters.

The bill passed the House, 115-28, and unanimously in the Senate.

Some Democrats seethed over the outcome. Several had challenged the LePage administration to produce evidence that schools have banned recruiters from wearing their uniforms or restricting access.

Many were unconvinced when Republicans circulated an internal LePage administration email that did not say clearly which schools allegedly prohibit uniformed recruiters.

By the time of the deciding vote on July 9, the Democratic House caucus was split. Some supported the bill, or at least felt it was harmless. Others claimed it was a being used as a political weapon.

The House voted 97-45 to support the bill, but it was several votes shy of the supermajority needed for enactment. Nineteen Democrats flipped their votes from June 4.

Melcher, with the University of Maine at Farmington, said the flip-flop came off as hypocritical because Democrats had been "clobbering Republican legislators" for switching their votes to support vetoes by LePage.

"I do not think that played well at all," Melcher said.

Republicans, meanwhile, were unwavering and convincing, Melcher said.

The fallout was swift.

LePage called the final vote a disgrace to the military and veterans. He spoke about it in his July 13 radio address and later sent handwritten notes to Democratic lawmakers who voted against the bill, saying in some, "I have not seen such disdain for our military since the Vietnam era."

One of the notes went to Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, who received a Bronze Star for heroism in combat during Vietnam.

LePage did not serve in the military. His draft number -- 342 out of 366 -- was linked to his birth date and a lottery held in 1969, according to records with the Selective Service System. It was high enough to ensure that LePage wouldn't serve in Vietnam.


Melcher said it was logical for LePage and Republicans to use the recruiter bill against Democrats.

"It's a perception of 'are you standing behind our troops, standing behind our country's values?'" he said. "It's those kind of criticisms that Republicans have been using since the Reagan era against Democrats."

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