DRESDEN — Maine Sen. Susan Collins was right when, in early October, she noted the “lack of civility” in political life.

This is clearly reflected in the changes in the “social life” of the Maine Legislature in the last 60 years.

The architectural monument to the change stands today on the western rotary in Augusta – a multistory modern bank and office building, formerly the site of the Augusta House hotel.

The Augusta House opened on Dec. 31, 1831, a few weeks before the Maine Legislature convened for its first session in the new state Capitol. Until the hotel was torn down in 1974, it was the political center of Augusta and, to a large extent, the state of Maine.

Maine highways were not consistently plowed in the winter until around 1916, and so for decades it was customary for many legislators to stay at the Augusta House for the entire legislative session.

As hard as it is to believe today, legislators from the left and right met each other here in the rooms, the hallways, the dining room and the bar and talked for well over a century.

Naturally they talked politics, and it was common knowledge that more bills were passed in the Augusta House than in the State House.

Until the election of Democrat Ed Muskie as governor in 1954, it was mostly Republicans talking to Republicans. During his 1968 national campaign for vice president, Muskie looked back on his 1954 town-by-town Maine gubernatorial campaign and commented that, “We had to talk to Republicans who had never seen a live Democrat.”

As governor, Muskie faced a Maine Legislature with slightly more than 30 Democrats out of 151 seats in the House and only two or three Democrats in the Maine Senate. It would be 1964 before the Democrats won enough seats to control both houses of the Legislature.

Four or five times during each legislative session, lawmakers of both political parties joined in “legislative assemblies” at the Augusta House.

A band played lively music all evening. Dining room tables were pushed back to make a dance floor and legislators and their spouses or friends danced together.

There are no known reports of Democrats or Republicans refusing to dance (or drink) with each other. However, some legislators were reported to have told their wives they should stay home because these “assemblies” were actually not social but were similar to all-male legislative caucuses devoted to political issues.

Once during each legislative session, the House and Senate would join in a “mock session.” This joint session was completely in line with the definition of the word “mock” – to make sport in contempt or in jest; teasing or taunting.

A temporary presiding officer recognized various legislators who rose to speak. Each speaker wore a large hand lettered cardboard sign with the name of some other legislator they were mocking.

Many of the speakers were good actors. They had listened long and hard to the endless windbag speeches of those they were mocking. They knew the habits of speech, the gestures and the legislative fixations of the person they were mocking and the House rocked with laughter.

But it was all taken in good humor and the special session adjourned for the real work to be done over drinks at the Augusta House.

As late as 1965 there was a bipartisan “behind the scenes” legislative evening of entertainment, drinking, dancing and sing-along at the Calumet Club in Augusta, including a series of skits mocking both Republicans and Democrats.

Legislators and state officials of both parties attended, including then-Republican Gov. John Reed. The club bar was closed, the attendees brought their own bottles and the press reported an evening enjoyed by all.

Over the following decades, the Legislature changed significantly. The Augusta House vanished. Fewer legislators stayed overnight in Augusta. Many legislators rented apartments or motel rooms and invited their own cliques of friends of the same political party. Interparty socializing became anathema.

For whatever reason, personal and political animosity escalated. An era of political socializing and political civility had, for the most part, disappeared – probably forever.

 

– Special to The Press Herald