AUGUSTA – The past year in Maine state politics can be described in a number of ways: unpredictable, highly charged, unprecedented.

Just don’t call it boring.

The year 2010 began with a large slate of candidates hoping to be the next governor. A tax reform battle was in full swing, a company that wanted to open a casino had big plans, and Republicans had set their sights on taking control of the Legislature.

Now, the big questions about who would win and whether Maine would follow national trends have been answered. And as we look forward to an eventful 2011, it’s instructive to look back at the political year that was 2010.

NO GREEN FOR GOVERNOR

The surprises started in March, when Green Independent gubernatorial candidate Lynne Williams of Bar Harbor announced she couldn’t reach the 2,000 signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.

It would be the first time in 16 years a Green wasn’t running for governor.

The Greens said they would instead focus on the Legislature, where they planned to run a large slate of candidates.

None of them were victorious in November.

RICHARDSON DROPS OUT

The next surprise came in April, when John Richardson dropped out of the Democratic primary after he was denied public funding because of irregularities in his application for Clean Election funds.

A former House speaker, Richardson had strong support from organized labor and figured to be a factor in what was then a five-way race for the party nomination. But on April 26, he held a news conference in Brunswick in which he said volunteers made mistakes in collecting his $5 qualifying contributions for public financing.

“This is the hardest decision I ever had to make,” he said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I do not run from a fight.”

In September, the Attorney General’s Office filed charges against four volunteers for submitting falsified records to the state. All have pleaded not guilty and the charges are pending in various courts across the state.

NEW GOP PLATFORM

The energy was evident in May at the Republican State Convention in Portland, where a larger-than-expected crowd gathered to listen to nominees for governor and conduct other party business.

During what’s normally a routine proceeding — adopting the party’s official platform, or political agenda — a group of Knox County Republicans began controlling the debate and successfully installed an entirely new platform adopted from tea party ideals.

The platform calls for a “return to the principles of Austrian Economics,” calls global warming a myth, states “health care is not a right” and calls for the elimination of the Department of Education.

TAX REFORM REPEALED

A complex, and some would say confusing, set of changes to the state’s tax structure implemented by Democrats was repealed by voters in June.

The tax reform plan, which sought to reduce the income tax and apply the sales tax to previously untaxed items, appeared on the June ballot as a people’s veto referendum. The Maine Republican Party and elected Republicans led the charge to repeal the plan after its enactment by the Legislature in 2009, and voters agreed.

The law was repealed by a 61-39 percent vote.

SCARCELLI SURPRISES

While Democrat Libby Mitchell easily won her party’s nomination in June, it was newcomer Rosa Scarcelli who had the most surprising showing in the Democratic primary.

The 41-year-old chief executive officer of an affordable housing company portrayed herself as a fiscally conservative outsider who could bring change to Augusta. She ran for the state’s top elected office with no previous political experience, and finished third on primary day, very nearly overtaking former Attorney General Steve Rowe for the second slot.

Scarcelli hasn’t said publicly what she’ll do next, but insiders expect her to make another run for office in the next year or so. Her name has also been mentioned as a possible challenger to U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe in 2012.

LePAGE EMERGES

Few in Maine accurately predicted Waterville Mayor Paul LePage would handily win the Republican nomination for governor.

In a crowded field of seven, LePage finished on top with 37 percent of the vote by motivating a base of voters who felt disenfranchised by more traditional candidates. With tea partyers firmly in his corner, he defeated better-known candidates, better-funded opponents and a well-connected former U.S. Senate staffer with strong Washington connections.

And once he made it through the primary, LePage led in the polls almost continuously starting in June. In the end, he eked out a victory over independent Eliot Cutler, 38 percent to 37 percent.

LePAGE MISSTEPS

It all started in July, on a train trip that was supposed to be a fundraiser and an opportunity to get some good press during the slow summer months.

But an offhand comment made by LePage about opponent Libby Mitchell — “Libby had her 70th birthday a few weeks ago, and I’m concerned about her. We should send her home” — turned into a public relations nightmare. AARP came out hard against LePage and he later apologized.

Then in September, LePage had his worst day of the campaign when he yelled at reporters in Augusta during a news conference and swore at a reporter in Portland.

Reporters began asking LePage about a story first reported by MaineToday Media that his wife, Ann, had claimed the homestead tax exemption on homes in Waterville and Florida. In a clip later played over and over in television ads, LePage said he did not have his name on the Waterville property as he stormed out of the news conference.

“Never had it on! Never had it on!” he yelled.

As it turns out, his name had been on the property, but was later taken off.

Also in September, LePage took heat — and made national headlines — for comments he made to fishermen, saying he would tell President Obama “to go to hell” with regard to fishing regulations.

He also joked with Jennifer Rooks of Maine Public Broadcasting that he was “about ready to punch” reporter A.J. Higgins of MPBN. Just days before the election, LePage pulled out of MPBN’s debate, saying his time would be better spent meeting with voters one-on-one.

CUTLER SURGES

When the race for governor began, few people knew Eliot Cutler’s name.

But the former Democrat, who ran as an independent, traveled the state, spent about $1 million of his own money and performed well in debates to win over supporters.

Even in late October, most predicted he would finish a solid third, behind LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell. But with just a week to go, Cutler surged, picking up support from the large number of undecided voters and those who abandoned Mitchell for someone they thought could knock off LePage.

The results were so close that Cutler waited until the morning after the election to concede. LePage finished with 38 percent, Cutler with 37 percent, and Mitchell third with 19 percent of the vote.

MITCHELL RETIRES

After a career in Maine politics that began in 1974 with her first election to the House, Libby Mitchell announced her political retirement in November.

Mitchell, a South Carolina native, proved a popular legislator in her House and Senate districts through the years. She served 18 years in the House and six years in the Senate. She also recently served nine years on the Vassalboro Board of Selectmen.

But in two bids for national office — U.S. Senate and 1st Congressional District — and the governor’s race, she did not fare well with voters.

In the Legislature, she served as House Speaker and Senate President, the first woman in the country to be elected by her peers to both posts.

After a strong finish in the Democratic primary, Mitchell consistently polled in second place behind LePage in the general election campaign. the time voters went to the polls on Election Day, she slipped to third place and conceded the race early in the night.

“What an extraordinary experience,” she said in a November interview. “I will treasure that opportunity.”

REPUBLICANS TAKE CONTROL

Maine Republicans ended the Democrats’ 36-year dominance in the Maine House of Representatives by taking the majority 78-72-1.

Few saw it coming.

While the Senate was widely considered to be up for grabs, the House was viewed as out of reach for Republicans. Going into the election, Democrats dominated the House 95-56.

But Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, Rep. Josh Tardy, Sen. Kevin Raye and party Executive Director Christie-Lee McNally worked with candidates across the state to pull off wins large and small.

At the end of the day, Republicans took the House, Senate (20-14-1) and governorship. They chose Rep. Robert Nutting of Oakland as House speaker; Raye of Perry as Senate president, and three new constitutional officers: Bill Schneider as attorney general; Charlie Summers as secretary of state; and Bruce Poliquin as treasurer.

VOTERS APPROVE CASINO

After years of rejecting casino proposals from various groups, Maine voters this year finally — and just barely — gave the OK to allow full-scale casino gambling in Maine.

After a 50.4 to 49.5 percent vote, and a recount that was abandoned by opponents partway through, Black Bear Entertainment LLC now has permission to open a facility on Route 26 in Oxford. The company plans to build a $165 million casino and resort with table games, such as blackjack and poker.

Construction is due to begin this spring.

THE CUTLER FILES

The Cutler Files mystery had all the elements of an intriguing political story: anonymous authors, a wealthy candidate targeted by scathing criticism, an ethics investigation and rumors about who was behind the site.

The saga began in August when The Cutler Files went online with photos, documents, news clippings and a message from its creators, who described themselves as “a group of researchers, writers and journalists.”

Eliot Cutler, the independent gubernatorial candidate targeted by the site, filed a complaint in September with the state ethics commission alleging that the site lacked proper disclosures as required by law.

An investigation ensued, and the commission voted 5-0 in December to fine “John Doe II” $200 for failing to disclose the name and address of the person who spent money to expressly advocate for the defeat of a candidate.

Later that same week, political consultant Dennis Bailey — who worked for Democrat Rosa Scarcelli in the primary and independent Shawn Moody in the general election — revealed on his blog that he was behind the site. He worked mostly with another man — “John Doe I” — whom he declined to identify.

Several outlets, including the The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, have reported that several anonymous sources identified Scarcelli’s husband, Thom Rhoads, as the other person involved.

Bailey, for his part, said the website was established to examine Cutler’s record to a degree that the media had failed to do. Cutler’s campaign said it amounted to character assassination stemming from long-simmering tensions with Bailey.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]