December 2, 2011

Bill Nemitz: Lawmaker stands up for state's unemployed

State Rep. Andrew O'Brien, D-Lincolnville, harbors no illusions about his relationship -- if that's what you want to call it -- with Gov. Paul LePage.

"I feel like I'm kind of a bee that keeps stinging him," O'Brien said with a chuckle this week. "And each time, he swats me away."

No, O'Brien's not trying to drive the governor crazy. (That, after all, is the media's job.)

Rather, he's sticking up for the roughly 51,000 unemployed people in Maine -- of whom, until recently, he was one. People who, according to the governor, would do themselves and their state a favor if they'd just get off their duffs and find a job.

"I hear it constantly -- this constant chorus of just blaming the unemployed," said O'Brien, 33, who now has a temporary gig doing data entry for a food retailing company. "And it really bothers me because it shifts attention away from what the real issue is."

And what might that be?

"There just aren't enough jobs to fill the need," he replied.

A little history:

In January, when LePage was still settling into his new job as Maine's chief executive, O'Brien and fellow Democratic Rep. Charles Kruger of Thomaston headed over to the Blaine House for a schmooz session between the new governor and mostly Republican members of the Legislature.

"We were the two kind of awkward people standing in the corner," O'Brien recalled.

Still, they managed to get a little face time with LePage. And according to O'Brien, the governor told them, "Whenever you want to talk to me, I'll set you up the same day. Just talk to (his scheduler)."

Tempted as he was at various times in the spring to go knocking on LePage's office door, O'Brien decided to pocket the invitation until he really, really needed it.

That time came just over a month ago, when O'Brien picked up the paper and read a story about one of LePage's regular get-togethers with the business community.

"We have got to convince those who can work that we need to get them back to work," LePage told the roomful of business owners. "Quite frankly, I think that might be a sign that we're paying them a bit too much when they're at home not working."

O'Brien, knowing a thing or two about looking for work, made a beeline for LePage's office. He found the scheduler and asked for his "15 minutes or less" to discuss "how we could address barriers facing unemployed people" throughout Maine.


"She's like, 'Oh ...,"' O'Brien said. "And then she said, 'I'll connect you with our senior economics adviser."'

That would be John Butera. According to O'Brien, Butera repeated the often-heard but rarely documented complaints about business owners who couldn't find people willing to take jobs that pay $10 to $12 an hour.

"I didn't buy it personally because that's how much I get paid," O'Brien said. "I was like, 'John, that's not true. I can tell you that right now."'

O'Brien then sat down and banged out a letter to LePage.

"You've met with businesses and so-called 'job creators' in workshops and 'red tape' tours, but you've made no effort to listen to the 50,000 job seekers of our state," he wrote. "At times, your comments have belittled this group of struggling Maine people."

O'Brien even did the math: Of the 51,900 job-seeking Mainers at the time, only about 19,000 were collecting unemployment benefits each week. And while LePage & Co. frequently equate the maximum benefit of $366 per week to Maine's version of Easy Street, the average weekly benefit statewide is more like $271.

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