December 29, 2013

Commentary: The sound and the silly of Maine politics

In 2013 there was no beginning, and no end, to the trivial and wacky antics in Augusta.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

There is no silly season.

click image to enlarge

Paul Nickerson, dressed as Uncle Sam, disrupts a September media event where Gov. Paul LePage, background, presented a check to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston for backlogged Medicaid payments.

2013 Press Herald file/John Patriquin

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Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was the target of the governor’s ire – and an infamous crude comment – in June.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Additional Photos Below

The political silly season has recently been described as any time when a lull in hard news yields frivolous, forgettable stories about matters of little or no consequence to regular people. But the problem with the term “silly season” is the implication that the silly is temporary. It is not. It is always, forever.

This is what we learned from 2013.

Examples, you say? How about a year’s worth?

Remember when Gov. Paul LePage threatened to move out of the State House because Democratic leaders asked him to remove from the Hall of Flags his television broadcasting political messages? That was quite a story, two full days of news coverage and national media attention.

The governor initially vowed to conduct state business at the Blaine House, which may not have been all that bad for his staff since the food is much better over there. But that move would not have been possible if a bill by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, had passed the Legislature. Russell’s bill would have eliminated the governor’s pension and given the state permission to sell the Blaine House, which just happens to be LePage’s only residence.

The governor has mistakenly blamed Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, for Russell’s bill. His mistake: Jackson only tried to eliminate the governor’s pension.

The confusion over the two proposals later surfaced during the governor’s epic and fascinating broadside against Jackson on June 20. The governor said the Democratic leader was “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” He later accused Jackson of trying to take away his pension (that part was correct) and throwing his wife and mother-in-law “out on the street” (that part was wrong).

The governor was less concerned about his pension in March when he tweeted that he’d give it up if Democrats passed his hospital debt bill. LePage, vacationing in Jamaica at the time, signed off with, “Ya mon!”

Democrats ultimately passed the hospital debt bill, but by June the governor had second thoughts about giving up his pension, not to mention Jackson’s proposal to take it away. It’s not clear if the absence of Caribbean sunshine had darkened the governor’s mood, or the fact that Jackson had the temerity to suggest that Democrats had enough Republican votes to override the governor’s veto of the Legislature’s budget compromise.

Jackson was right to be confident. Eight days later the Legislature overrode the governor’s budget veto, preventing a shutdown of state government.

By then, the governor had found a new home for his TV. Someone removed a pane of glass near his office, and the 46-inch, $1,483 flat-screen now broadcasts into the Hall of Flags messages about taxes, debt and welfare. (Given the broadening definition of welfare in 2013, the latter could mean just about any state spending the governor opposes, so be thankful that he hasn’t described road paving as “welfare for cars.”)

Democratic leaders were annoyed with the TV story, which was weird since they were the ones who told everyone about it. Senate President Justin Alfond, speaking to reporters May 23, was incredulous that the TV kerfuffle overshadowed Democrats’ final vote on a bill to expand Medicaid and pay back Maine hospitals $186 million in backlogged Medicaid payments.

Alfond was probably right that the TV story was “trivial.” The problem was that the Senate Democratic news office promoted it via news release with the tantalizing headline: “Gov gives notice: I’m moving out.”

May 23 also showcased Augusta leaders’ obsession with media events, or, in political parlance, “winning the news cycle.”

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

A television located outside the governor’s State House office was the source of much media attention in May.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file


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