June 30, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Sen. Katz bravely reprises 'class acts'

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Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta

Sam Collins, uncle of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, served five terms in the Maine Senate from 1975 to 1984 and went on to sit on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Upon Sam Collins' death last year at age 88, his son, Ed Collins, described a man who might have trouble being heard above the din that now passes for political discourse.

"He thought things through before speaking, and by the time he spoke, people listened," said Ed Collins. "They knew he had something to say."

So did Bennett Katz.

Back in 1999, on the 30th anniversary of Maine's income tax, Katz sat down for an interview with this newspaper.

He recalled a political battle for the ages: The income tax legislation, supported by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders alike but not faring so well down in the trenches, had just squeaked through the House.

But there was trouble in the Senate, where the nose counters kept coming up one vote short of the 22 needed for passage. All eyes were on Sen. Carroll Minkowsky of Lewiston, the only Democratic holdout.

A fiscal conservative from a right-leaning district, Minkowsky had little to gain and a lot to lose by supporting the new tax.

But then Katz, the Republican, sat down for a quiet chat with Minkowsky, the Democrat.

"We talked about everything in the world, why we were in the Senate, our families. But we never talked about the income tax," Katz recalled. "He then reached over and grabbed my hand and said, 'Bennett, let's go in and vote.' I knew then it was going to pass."

A short time later, on an oppressively hot evening late in June, the roll call reached Minkowsky. For 15 or 20 agonizing seconds, he looked around at his colleagues -- some for, some against -- and finally voted yes. On both sides of the aisle, the Senate chamber erupted with cheers.

In his ode to the good old days, Roger Katz remembered his father, Joe Sewall, Ken MacLeod, David Huber and Sam Collins as men who, whatever the battle at hand, "would never even have considered demonizing their opponents."

"If they were here to see the end of this session, with the name calling and posturing, with the interests of political advantage pursued over the interests of real Maine people, they would have been appalled," Katz wrote. "Then, if they found out that this was the tone set by a Republican governor, they would have been dumbfounded."

Those are strong words from a normally quiet man. Words that many Republicans may have thought in recent weeks, but only one had the courage to actually say.

Which makes it all the more fitting to end with a footnote to that income-tax story: Watching his Democratic colleague single-handedly change the course of Maine history that sweltering evening left an indelible impression on Bennett Katz. In fact, he would later recall, it was the "most courageous single political action" he'd ever witnessed.

Until now.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:



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