September 9, 2013

Good friends, old allies, now adversaries

Maine's race for governor will test the Bennett and Michaud relationship of trust, respect.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

State Sens. Rick Bennett, left, and Mike Michaud work together during the legislative session in 2001-2002, when they shared power by dividing the term of Senate president.

Amelia Kunhardt/2001 AP file

"The debate wasn't personal," Michaud said. "It wasn't trying to make the Republican Party look bad or the Democratic Party look bad."

Said Bennett, "People expected dysfunction and we were able to surprise them, prove them wrong."

But there were political fights, big ones. The biggest: a 2001 budget deal cooked up by Bennett and Michaud that drew the ire of Republicans and Democrats in the House. Independent Gov. Angus King, who saw funding for many of his initiatives axed in the deal, compared the Senate budget to Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

But the strongest criticism came from Bennett and Michaud's partner in the power-sharing deal.

"Betrayed doesn't begin to describe how I felt," Goldthwait said last week.

Goldthwait said it took years to reconcile her personal feelings and the politics of a move that effectively snuffed out her work on the budget and her political influence. She had worked four months with the budget committee to reach a bipartisan consensus and a unanimous committee vote. The budget bill then received a strong 120-vote endorsement by the House.

The Senate vote was next. It never happened, as Bennett and Michaud introduced their own budget bill. The House, fearing a standoff and a shutdown of state government, eventually yielded. The two Senate leaders had outmaneuvered the budget process, the House and King.

Bennett and Michaud said they had become concerned with elements of the budget plan, which closely mirrored King's original proposal and protected many of his policy initiatives. Bennett said Republicans in his caucus objected to its tax increases. Michaud said Democrats were also worried that the compromise budget didn't fund cost-of-living increases for nursing home employees.

"We decided to go our own way," Bennett said. "We found that there was a lot of common ground between the two parties so we put (the Senate budget) forward."

For Goldthwait, the memories are not about bipartisanship.

"It was creepy and a shocking betrayal of our relationship," she said. "It's a 'Be careful what you wish for': We wanted them to work together and they sure did."

Michaud acknowledged that the fallout was "tense," but he and Bennett had little choice because their members wouldn't support the committee budget.

Goldthwait said the episode soured her relationship with the two Senate presidents. However, she said the budget maneuver appeared to be an anomaly.

"It's not like there's a pattern with either one of them of doing things like that," she said. "I'm just going to hope that they can continue the thoughtful leadership that they almost always did."

Goldthwait hasn't donated to any of the gubernatorial candidates. She declined to say whom she was supporting in 2014 because she writes a political newspaper column.

Bennett acknowledged that the former independent senator was in a difficult position. He and Michaud said the budget deal not only benefited their constituents, but also the two leaders' relationship.

The trust and respect have gathered ever since. Michaud recalls having dinner with Bennett and his family. In 2005, Bennett visited Michaud in Washington, D.C. The visit, announced in a media statement by Michaud's congressional office, noted the legislative power-sharing agreement.

"If the same bipartisan spirit that allowed us to come to the power-sharing agreement in Augusta was more prevalent here in Washington, it would certainly move the country in the right direction," Michaud said in a 2005 prepared statement.

Bennett and Michaud have both received a political benefit from the 2001-2002 arrangement, using it to solidify their bipartisan and compromise credentials. Michaud brought it up during a recent meeting with the Press Herald editorial board, saying he would bring a unity leadership to the Blaine House.

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