Sunday, December 8, 2013
Election Day is right around the corner, and candidates are making the rounds.
Maybe you've even met one and got a piece of literature. Maybe you learned that the candidate has a nice smile, an attractive spouse and cute kids. Maybe you heard that he runs a small business, used to teach school or served on the board of selectmen.
Here's what you probably didn't learn -- the candidate's party. That's because they never want to say. They all claim to be "independent" when they run for office, but when they get elected, the nonpartisan stuff gets stored in the garage with extra buttons and the leftover sign posts.
With the exception of two independents in the current Legislature, everyone else in the House and Senate is a member of a party. Every committee chairman is a member of a party. So is every member of the leadership, which sets the agenda and determines the flow of business.
Most of a legislator's work takes place in committees where the majority party gets the majority of the seats. And then there are party caucuses, where party leaders tell the members how to vote on controversial issues.
Knowing what party a candidate belongs to is probably the most important piece of information that a voter can have -- more important than the smile, the spouse or the kids. Party membership dictates more of what a legislator does in Augusta than his or her career or past public service. So why don't they just come out and tell us? Because they know we don't like it.
Maine is proud of its independent streak and we have a history of electing -- or almost electing -- independent candidates to high office.
More Maine voters identify themselves as "independent" (or more accurately unenrolled in a party) than as either Democratic or Republican. What's the opposite of independent? No candidate in his right mind wants to be that.
But since so much of what they do in Augusta is directed -- if not dictated -- by party membership, why should we let them get away with it?
Check out a helpful scorecard put out by People Before Politics, Gov. LePage's nonprofit political organization, if you doubt the influence of the parties.
The report identified 13 votes on issues ranging from the Republican-backed changes of health insurance regulation to a vote to overturn a LePage veto and graded all of the members of the Legislature. They were praised for how often they voted with the governor (which the group calls "voted with the people") and slammed for voting against the governor (known in the report as being "property of the Augusta special interests").
Don't be shocked. There is a strong correlation between party membership and the members' score on the report card.
No Senate Democrat scored better than 39 percent. No Republican scored worse than 77.
Even moderate Republicans like Roger Katz of Augusta and Chris Rector of Thomaston voted the governor's way 92 percent of the time, according to People Before Politics.
So, what should matter more to voters in their districts -- the fact that they are known as "moderates" or "Republicans"? Which is going to have a bigger impact on their votes?
It is just as easy to play this game the other way. When the Maine Conservation Voters gave LePage a grade this week, the only surprise was they gave him a "D" and not an "F."
And Democratic candidates are no less shy about informing voters of their party affiliation when they are on the stump.
A mailer touting Senate District 6 candidate Jim Boyle for his independence features a photo of infants in birthday hats, over the words "Parties are for babies." Grandpa would need his spectacles to read the fine print and learn that the mailer was not sent by an independent candidate but by the Democratic Party itself.
Like Katz and Rector, Boyle probably sees himself an independent thinker, but if he is elected to represent Scarborough and Gorham in the Maine Senate, he is going into a world where party affiliation matters more than almost anything else.
"What do you do when you arrive at the State House in the morning? You go to a caucus!" said state Sen. Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth, who actually is an independent and works with both parties. (People Before Politics gives him a 54.)
"They develop their positions on policy with people who share their views on issues. Where do the policy ideas come from? From interest groups that are more at home with one party or the other."
There are individual lawmakers who are good collaborators and are open with working across party lines, but they do that by swimming against the partisan stream and they can't do that all of the time.
So if you meet a legislative candidate, smile and nod when she tells you that she's independent, and then ask the question that really matters: What's your party?
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: