A college professor of mine once told me that early last century in Nova Scotia, you used to be able to tell which party represented an area of the province by how well-maintained the roads were.
If the town had paved streets, its member of the Legislative Assembly was probably with the governing Liberal Party. If the roads were pothole-filled dirt tracks, it was represented by the out-of-power Tory Party, or vice versa.
When the political winds shifted, government contracts were given to members of the new party in power and the geographical focus of public work programs soon reflected the new political reality.
I was reminded of this historical corruption and patronage last week when it was revealed that, after blocking the issuing of voter-approved community development bonds slated to help 11 towns in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage had selectively helped five of those communities receive alternate funding for their planned development projects.
Every one of the five — Norway, Livermore Falls, Dover-Foxcroft, Eastport and Monmouth — is represented by Republicans in both the House and Senate.
None of the four towns with Democratic representatives — Rockland, Skowhegan, Bath and Belfast — received similar assistance.
That’s quite a coincidence.
Skowhegan Rep. Jeff McCabe has been speaking out on the delay in funding for his town and declared in a recent press statement that he didn’t understand why some towns were being singled out.
“We shouldn’t be forced to take sides on economic development. Everyone should be working together to support local downtowns and create jobs for middle-class families. I urge Governor LePage to release the bond money that voters supported and communities planned for,” said McCabe.
There should have to be a very good reason to deny the will of the voters and remove funding for in-progress projects meant to help towns and create jobs. LePage’s argument that he opposes all bonds falls flat when he signs memos promising to issue the bonds for some towns, but not others.
Another quick history lesson: In 1964, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that “politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.”
Fifty years later, plenty of people already are working one or more extra part-time jobs, if they’re lucky.
Work and the other demands and interests of life mean that not everyone can devote the time and attention to politics and policy that we probably should.
Politicians rely on this fact, as do the lobbyists and corporate interests that often determine the structure of our laws.
Policy is complicated. Bills, amendments, budgets and projections offer plenty of opportunities for confusion and manipulation. No one can be an expert in all areas of government policy.
For instance, this year Republicans in the Maine Legislature and LePage practiced some masterful sleight of hand by declaring that a budget crunch made cuts to health care necessary, while at the same time claiming that we had plenty of money to pass massive new tax breaks that primarily benefit the wealthy. Few people called them on it.
Some things, however, voters understand intuitively. Cronyism is one of them.
At the beginning of LePage’s term, he caught a lot of flak for hiring his newly graduated daughter to a well-paying government job. Perhaps she really was the best person for the position, but the hiring still smelled like nepotism.
In March of last year, I wrote about how LePage had exempted his own pension from the cutbacks he was forcing on other government employees and declined to make even a symbolic effort to feel the pain of the workers whose plans he was cutting. That piece got more shares on Facebook than almost anything else I’ve written.
These examples are about common-sense fairness in government, and I think that’s why they touch a nerve and are easy to understand, even with those who don’t pay much attention to politics.
This playing of favorites with local development funding is another example of this principle. It gives the impression that LePage is out only for himself and his friends.
It doesn’t seem to matter how well-planned your development project is or how many small businesses it will help. If the governor doesn’t like your town or the people in it, he won’t help it succeed.
In my opinion, that’s a divisive attitude best left in the past.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org