November 24, 2013

Dan Demeritt: LePage should craft omnibus welfare reform bill as citizens initiative

To recapture the magic and really connect with voters, Maine’s governor needs a target for his fury.

I miss the good old days. The days when, recognizing the strength of candidate Paul LePage’s populist appeal, every campaign event, news release and set of talking points included LePage’s “people before politics” slogan.

It was a good example of a campaign successfully matching a message to the man. It is unfortunate that distractions and a lack of message discipline have tarnished that winning brand.

LePage’s record of accomplishment in office is impressive and for a conventional political figure, his body of work would likely ensure a smooth path to re-election. The largest tax cut in Maine history, the repayment of the hospital debt, the billions saved through public pension reform and steps taken to improve Maine’s regulatory environment should be the envy of any re-election campaign manager.

But LePage is not conventional and the path to another four years in the Blaine House cannot be a campaign based on past accomplishments. Mostly because LePage is not wired to bask in the glory of what he has already done. He is a humble and driven man whose annoyance over the unfinished will always outweigh the content over the accomplished.

LePage’s 2014 campaign has crafted a new catch phrase about actions speaking louder than words that has a nice ring to it, while acknowledging the governor’s many public relations missteps. But that slogan does not capture the frustrated and forward-looking approach of LePage who needs a target for his fury to really connect with voters.

That begs the question of how an incumbent officeholder recaptures the outsider magic of his initial campaign for the Blaine House? Read on, my Republican friends.

Gov. LePage and the Maine Republican Party should develop an omnibus welfare reform bill and bring it forward as a citizens initiative question titled “Making Maine Work” or something equally catchy.

To work politically, the measure would have to be comprehensive, defensible and include a host of reform items that would be easily understood and appealing to general election voters while being untenable to legislative Democrats and their core constituencies.

Work requirements, time limits, restrictions on able-bodied beneficiaries, and limits on what can be purchased with food stamps are all items that a majority of voters would support while creating a philosophical and political problem for legislative Democrats. Even if federal guidelines could potentially prohibit some of these reforms at the state level, it would still make for great election year politics.

While it would be a heavy lift, there is still time to bring a reform proposal forward by citizen initiative. It would take 57,277 petition signatures prior to Feb. 3 to force consideration of the reform measure. With the governor’s backing, the process and the debate at the Legislature would dominate political news over the first half of 2014.

Then the inevitable rejection by the Democrat-controlled Legislature would set up a election season battle that would motivate the Republican base and present critical points of distinction for voters to consider when assessing candidates up and down the ballot.

The most politically promising point for Republicans would be the 3,100 disabled and elderly Mainers currently on waiting lists seeking services in the Medicaid program. Were I running the campaign, I would attach faces and names to those on the various waiting lists and ask voters why legislators seeking re-election rejected the GOP plan to force the able-bodied off our welfare rolls so that the truly needy could access the services they require.

At the top of the ticket, the ballot initiative would play to LePage’s strengths. His personal story of triumph over childhood poverty and abuse could be featured prominently. He would also have an opportunity to target majority Democrats for being out of touch and unwilling to lead on an issue area that voters understand and can connect with.

Going directly to the voters also demonstrates that LePage remains a populist and is willing to provide uncommon leadership to move Maine forward despite opposition from the entrenched Augusta establishment. Time and again, LePage has bested his opponents when he can align himself with an easily understood “us versus them” battle of ideas and principles.

Despite LePage’s many accomplishments, the prosperity he wants to deliver for Maine will not materialize over the next 12 months. A feverish ballot question battle to reform and right-size welfare in Maine will show that LePage is ready to put people before politics for another four years.

Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at:

dan@win207.com

Twitter:@demerittdan

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