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

Democrat Mike Michaud and Republican Rick Bennett have little trouble talking about the past, their time in the Legislature and the friendship that solidified when the two established stars of their parties shared -- that's right, shared -- power in the state Senate.

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

It's talking about the future, specifically the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, where things get tricky.

Michaud, now a six-term congressman, is running for governor, having been coaxed to leave his relatively protected nest in the 2nd Congressional District by a Maine Democratic Party that considers him the best chance to unseat Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Similarly, Bennett, at the prodding of some Republican activists, was persuaded to run for chairman of the party, a job that has recently proven neither enviable nor conducive to furthering political careers.

For Bennett, becoming chairman of the Maine Republican Party also means doing everything he can to ensure that LePage wins a second term in 2014. That means taking on independent candidate Eliot Cutler and Michaud, whom he sometimes invites to dinner with his family.

"I'd say we are good friends," said Bennett, later adding that he and Michaud will be political adversaries until 2014. "We live in a state where people can have behemoth disagreements on issues of policy and still respect each other and have friendships."

Michaud, who has already unloaded rhetorical broadsides against the governor, said he's confident that Bennett won't be "over the top" during the campaign.

"Do we agree on every issue? No. But do I think he's going to be engaging in personal attacks? I respect him enough and trust him that that will not occur," Michaud said.

It's easy to overstate friendships in politics. When politicians address a rival as "my friend" during debates, they often mean just the opposite. However, the relationship between Michaud and Bennett appears genuine. It also has yielded political benefits for both.

"I think Mike and Rick have a special relationship," said Mike Saxl, the former Democratic House speaker in 2001-2002. "They really liked working together, respected each other. They have a trusting relationship." Saxl said he is supporting Michaud for governor.

Bennett and Michaud say the bond was forged during a historic power-sharing agreement when the 2000 election produced a tie in the state Senate, 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent.

What happened next was unique, if not unprecedented, in Maine legislative history.

Michaud, then 45 years old, and Bennett, 37 at the time, huddled with independent state Sen. Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor. Goldthwait could have tipped the balance of power if she decided to caucus with either the Democrats or Republicans. She decided to caucus with both.

The three senators brokered a complex deal. They divided the term of Senate president, considered by some the second most powerful position in state government. Michaud, the quiet but steadily ascendant former mill worker, was named Senate president for 2001. The socially moderate, fiscal conservative Bennett, who had helped Republicans achieve parity during the aggressive 2000 election, would preside over the chamber in 2002.

The two leaders then appointed Goldthwait as Senate chairwoman of the budget-writing committee, formally known as Appropriations. It's an influential post, allowing assigned lawmakers to make key decisions on the most influential legislative document, the state budget.

The two leaders then flipped a coin to see who would get first pick of committee leadership posts. They later abandoned the traditional pre-session party caucuses, closed-door meetings typically designed to plot procedural and debate strategy. Instead, the two leaders gathered Senate committee leaders in both parties to discuss the day's pending legislative business. The bipartisan gatherings didn't pre-empt tough fights on the Senate floor, but Bennett and Michaud said there was rarely lingering bitterness.

(Continued on page 2)

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