Politics

June 28, 2013

In final days of session, Republicans and LePage grow apart

Analysis: The budget vote marked a noticeable shift: Not only did many Republicans buck the governor, but they did so loudly and visibly.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

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Sens. John Patrick, left, D-Rumford, and Roger Katz, R-Augusta, watch the debate in the House of Representatives Wednesday before the vote to override Gov. Paul LePage's veto of the state budget. Katz and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette loudly rebuked LePage's actions and leadership this week, in a sign that there's a growing divide in the Maine Republican Party.

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"I am embarrassed," he wrote.

Katz's column quickly went viral as it was picked up by media outlets, including The Washington Post.

Fredette delivered a more measured rebuke during a floor speech before the vote to override LePage's budget, saying, "The level of vitriol I have witnessed and the circular firing squads I have seen among Republicans cannot stand."

At least twice, Fredette looked over his shoulder and timed the delivery of his critique with a glance at Republicans sitting behind him.

Fredette and Katz are different leaders, but both were considered willing to compromise with Democratic leaders when lawmakers took their oaths in December.

Republicans had a difficult choice after the 2012 election. Would they pick leaders who were fiercely loyal to LePage, or choose compromise agents?

Many Republicans privately blamed LePage and his penchant for controversy for allowing Democrats to take back the Legislature. Democratic candidates didn't just run against Republican policies, they ran against LePage.

Senate Republicans chose to balance their leaders, picking Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, a staunch LePage supporter, and Katz, a moderate.

In the House, the leadership battle was fierce, pitting Fredette against Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, another staunch LePage supporter. It took three votes for Fredette to win. Fredette's backers worried that Davis and a campaign of obstruction would guarantee a budget impasse and a government shutdown.

While some Republicans were reluctant to fully back LePage, they knew the governor's veto power would give them leverage to negotiate with Democrats.

"We need a leader that is going to hold us together or we're going to get rolled," Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said in December.

Republicans stayed united early in the session, backing LePage's plan to pay off the state's debt to Maine's hospitals and sustaining his vetoes of Democratic-backed bills.

The rift was exposed as budget negotiations slogged toward a deadlock. Republicans tried to defend the governor's budget while knowing that his plan to cut municipal revenue sharing offered them no political cover in their districts.

Some had been assured that LePage had an alternative plan.

None arrived.

Other Republicans worried that LePage wanted a government shutdown. That belief grew when the governor's budget chief, Sawin Millett, told reporters last week that there was "no plan B."

Fredette referred to Millett's comment Wednesday.

"There is no Plan B," Fredette said. "I repeat -- there is no Plan B -- nor have I been approached with a Plan B."

Meanwhile, pressure was mounting on Republicans to reject the budget compromise. Conservative activists emailed and called lawmakers who planned to vote against LePage.

Fredette and Katz plowed forward, convincing 28 other Republicans to support the compromise. Those Republicans continued to take heat on Thursday.

Vic Berardelli, state chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, said in a media statement that the vote showed it is time for the party to take stock of its "values and some individuals reconsider their loyalties."

"Some Republicans cowered behind the skirts of municipal officials who are cowards and will not face their voters to defend profligate spending," said Berardelli.

In his Cabinet room Wednesday, LePage made a similar critique of Republicans and Democrats alike. He took no solace in his victories this session, comparing himself to former British Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who won most of his victories against the American colonists until losing the biggest battle of all, the Battle of Yorktown.

Outside in the Hall of Flags, the governor's television featured a new message. Several lawmakers walked by. Only a few looked up to read it.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

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