A Maine National Guard recruiter talks to a student at the "Thinking Outside the Box" college and career fair at Portland Arts and Technology High School in March 2013.
By Steve Mistler
State House Bureau
The flap over a military recruiter bill that failed on the last day of the legislative session appears destined to become campaign fodder in 2014, adding a Maine wrinkle to a frequent wedge issue in national politics.
It's been 12 days since the proposal to guarantee recruiter access to high schools died in the House of Representatives. But the jousting between Republicans and Democrats continues unabated in media coverage, news releases and letters to newspapers, signaling a larger fight that some say was its purpose all along: to influence a 2014 election that will decide who will be Maine's governor and which political party will control the Legislature.
The impetus for Gov. Paul LePage's proposal -- that some schools were restricting access of military recruiters or preventing them from wearing uniforms -- has been disputed and reiterated, creating a din of patriotism politics.
The debate has particular resonance in Maine, home of the second-highest number of veterans per capita after Alaska, according to most recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, unenrolled voters -- the largest bloc of the Maine electorate -- are typically sensitive to military and veterans issues, according to national experts.
"Clearly, Americans as a group feel indebted to veterans and the military," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "I think it's even more true today than before because we have a volunteer service. Everyone doesn't serve in the military, so we tend to be particularly attentive to the needs of those who have."
Sabato was not familiar with the debate over L.D. 1503, or the details of the recruiter bill, which would have required local school boards to adopt recruiting access policies nearly identical to those mandated in federal law since 2002. And the details may seem unfamiliar to many Mainers by the time the 2014 campaign fliers hit their mailboxes.
For now, however, the flap is drawing strong reactions from veterans.
John Flagler, a Vietnam veteran and a Democrat from Alfred, defended the lawmakers who voted against the bill in a recent letter to the Portland Press Herald. He wrote that LePage's claim that some Democrats oppose military recruiters is designed to "stereotype and discredit the Maine Democratic Party as anti-military and disloyal."
On the other hand, Gary Spaulding, a Vietnam veteran from South Berwick, called the defeat of the bill "infuriating."
"I'm not saying (military recruiters) need special attention, but they shouldn't be held out," Spaulding said in an interview. "We're paying these guys to go to the schools and tell them what the advantages are to being in the military. And there are advantages."
Spaulding didn't buy the argument that the bill was unnecessary because federal law already mandates that public schools grant military recruiters the same access as college or employer recruiters.
"Why have the federal government solve your problems for you?" he said. "We're supposed to have patriotism in this country. We should be fostering that in this state."
Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said he isn't surprised Republicans have continued to hammer the Democratic-controlled Legislature for its failure to enact the bill or that the Maine Republican Party has called upon Democrat and presumptive gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud to condemn the vote.
"This is the kind of state where you could potentially shake voters loose with that kind of issue," Melcher said. "Whether or not it's an issue that affects people directly could be debated. But some people may say it may not affect me directly, but it's about the values I believe in."
Seth Lynn, an Iraq War veteran and adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Political Management, said military and veterans legislation is frequently used to influence public opinion.
"I don't think that in any of these cases veterans are the target audience," Lynn said. "It's the public at large. They're targeting the vast middle. They're pro-military, pro-veteran, pro-national security."
DEMOCRATS ON THE DEFENSIVE
Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said LePage and Republicans were using the bill to change the conversation.
"If you want to talk about doing something that's going to help veterans, let's talk about how we passed a law to help them get back to work and how Republicans and the governor said 'no' to health care for 2,700 veterans," said Quintero, referring to Republicans' blocking of a bill that would have expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.
Eves was among the Democrats who backed the recruiter bill.
Still, there's a sense among some Democrats that party members failed to recognize the political peril of defeating L.D. 1503.
A majority of Democrats on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee initially voted to kill the bill, arguing it was a "solution in search of a problem."
But the bill's fate changed during the emotional June 4 debate in the House of Representatives.
"We bury these guys in their uniforms, but they're not allowed to wear them to schools?" said Rep. Peter Doak, R-Columbia Falls, a Green Beret in the Vietnam War. Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said it was "disgusting" that public schools were barring uniformed recruiters.
The bill passed the House, 115-28, and unanimously in the Senate.
Some Democrats seethed over the outcome. Several had challenged the LePage administration to produce evidence that schools have banned recruiters from wearing their uniforms or restricting access.
Many were unconvinced when Republicans circulated an internal LePage administration email that did not say clearly which schools allegedly prohibit uniformed recruiters.
By the time of the deciding vote on July 9, the Democratic House caucus was split. Some supported the bill, or at least felt it was harmless. Others claimed it was a being used as a political weapon.
The House voted 97-45 to support the bill, but it was several votes shy of the supermajority needed for enactment. Nineteen Democrats flipped their votes from June 4.
Melcher, with the University of Maine at Farmington, said the flip-flop came off as hypocritical because Democrats had been "clobbering Republican legislators" for switching their votes to support vetoes by LePage.
"I do not think that played well at all," Melcher said.
Republicans, meanwhile, were unwavering and convincing, Melcher said.
The fallout was swift.
LePage called the final vote a disgrace to the military and veterans. He spoke about it in his July 13 radio address and later sent handwritten notes to Democratic lawmakers who voted against the bill, saying in some, "I have not seen such disdain for our military since the Vietnam era."
One of the notes went to Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, who received a Bronze Star for heroism in combat during Vietnam.
LePage did not serve in the military. His draft number -- 342 out of 366 -- was linked to his birth date and a lottery held in 1969, according to records with the Selective Service System. It was high enough to ensure that LePage wouldn't serve in Vietnam.
PREYING ON PERCEPTIONS
Melcher said it was logical for LePage and Republicans to use the recruiter bill against Democrats.
"It's a perception of 'are you standing behind our troops, standing behind our country's values?'" he said. "It's those kind of criticisms that Republicans have been using since the Reagan era against Democrats."
Lynn, the adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Political Management, said both national parties have used military and veterans issues as a political wedge.
In 2007, Republicans in the U.S. Senate proposed a resolution to condemn a full-page ad by an anti-war group criticizing former Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq.
The resolution put Democrats in a difficult position, Lynn said, because some worried that opposing it would be viewed as anti-military. Other Democrats were worried about angering the liberal wing of their party.
In 2010, Democrats were accused of using the military to pass the DREAM Act, an immigration reform bill that allowed children of nonresident immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship through military service. Some Republicans said the measure was designed to put immigration reform opponents in a corner, according to Lynn.
"No congressman wants to say he or she voted against a bill that would have allowed a young Latino to become a U.S. citizen after they fought to defend the country," Lynn said.
Sabato, with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said it's a "rare person that doesn't believe in supporting the military."
"It used to be that Republicans were more pro-defense," he said. "After 9/11 just about everybody became pro-defense. It's a great issue. It's Mom, apple pie, the Fourth of July."
The Maine Legislature this session took up nearly two dozen bills designed to help veterans, including measures to provide them property tax relief, preserve burial grounds on which veterans are buried, and provide free hunting and fishing licenses for disabled veterans.
PRESSURE ON CONGRESSMAN
Michaud, a six-term Democratic congressman who is raising money to campaign for governor in 2014, has built a reputation based on veterans advocacy.
"He's done a lot of things. I can't name them all, but he's been involved and he's for the military and he's done a lot for veterans," said Spaulding, the Vietnam veteran from South Berwick.
The day after more than 40 House Democrats voted against the recruiter bill, the Maine Republican Party called on Michaud to condemn the move.
"It's obvious politics to force Michaud to take a stand on that," Melcher said. "It makes sense for Republicans to either put him in a position where he looks less moderate or that he's bothering some people in his own party."
A sampling of letters written to newspapers about the flap suggests the outcome will be a campaign issue in legislative races, too.
Letters condemning the vote in the Bangor Daily News and the Morning Sentinel were written by Republican legislative candidates who lost to Democrats in 2012. Democrats highlighted in the letters voted against the recruiter bill, as did Sanford-area Reps. Anne-Marie Mastraccio and William Noon. On Thursday, former Republican Rep. Joan Nass co-authored a letter to the Portland Press Herald criticizing Noon's and Mastraccio's votes against the bill.
Nass termed out of the House in 2012, but she can run for the District 144 seat in 2014, the same seat currently held by Noon.
Will the issue resonate with veterans?
Political observers tend to agree that veterans are not a monolithic voting bloc, but they do unite on veterans issues.
"And, boy, do they vote!" said Sabato, adding that veterans are renowned for their high numbers of registered voters.
There are more than 135,100 veterans in Maine, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Lynn, with George Washington University, said veterans could take the recruiter bill "very personally," particularly Vietnam War veterans, who were subject to harsh treatment during opposition to the conflict.
"Those veterans remember being very unwelcome, of recruiters not being welcome in schools," Lynn said. "It touched a real raw nerve."
There are approximately 50,000 Vietnam veterans in Maine, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Additionally, Lynn said, nonveterans from the Vietnam War era recall the protests and treatment of combat veterans.
"The rest of the population feels pretty guilty and ashamed about it," he said.
Melcher isn't certain that the recruiter issue will have the legs to become a 2014 issue.
Democrats, however, suspect it will.
Lizzy Reinholt, communications director for the Maine Democratic Party, said LePage and Republicans clearly tried to twist the situation and use it for political gain.
"This is an issue that's easy to back folks in a corner on and an easy one to try (to) make particular legislative candidates look bad on," Reinholt said.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: