It always surprised me that the candidate endorsements of groups representing sportsmen and environmentalists differed so much.
While many groups representing sportsmen and environmentalists sit on the electoral sidelines, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Maine Conservation Voters are two powerhouses in this year’s election. Their endorsements influence many voters, well beyond their members. Both groups include a nonprofit organization and a political action committee.
The different approaches they take in evaluating incumbent legislators and making endorsements is largely responsible for the fact that, in too many races in the past, the two groups have ended up on different sides.
During my 18 years as executive director of SAM, we created a comprehensive nonpartisan approach to the group’s candidate endorsements, built on an internal evaluation of the work of incumbents and a 35- to 45-question survey that each candidate was required to complete. No survey, no endorsement.
We also issued a grade to each candidate, based on answers to the survey questions and our evaluation of incumbents. The evaluation included roll call votes but did not rely on them, mainly because there are few roll call votes on which to base a scorecard.
And we had a hard and fast rule: We always endorsed incumbents who did a good job in the Legislature on sportsmen’s issues. It didn’t matter how good the challenger was. This policy paid big dividends, because legislators knew that a good job for sportsmen would always be rewarded with a SAM endorsement.
SAM’s survey queried candidates about their outdoor interests and experiences, and their positions on issues from firearms to fishing. We used the survey very effectively to build support (and gather promises) for issues that would be on our agenda in the next legislative session.
A legislator once told me he would not support SAM on an issue, even though I had informed him that he had promised he would in his SAM PAC survey. He claimed he’d given us a “maybe” on that question. A day later, I returned to the State House with his survey and pointed to his “yes” answer on the question. When the issue came to a vote in the House, he voted yes. The power of a promise!
We made SAM PAC one of the state’s most powerful and successful political action committees, regularly helping to elect 85 percent or more of our endorsed candidates and winning many referenda and bond campaigns. SAM PAC’s endorsement is highly sought and valued by candidates.
In 2008, 92 percent of SAM-endorsed Senate candidates and 89 percent of SAM-endorsed House candidates won.
The Maine Conservation Voters (a sponsor of my website outdoor news blog) takes a much different approach from SAM’s, issuing an Environmental Scorecard each year, using only roll call votes to evaluate the performance of legislators.
Unfortunately for MCV, its Scorecard had only four Senate and four House votes in 2011 and four Senate votes and six House votes in 2012. All but one Senate Democrat (Sen. Troy Jackson, a logger from Aroostook County) scored higher than every Senate Republican. In the 151-member House, only five Republicans tied or exceeded the score of the lowest-rated Democrat, giving the Scorecard a partisan slant — even though that is not what MCV intended.
A good example of the problems encountered with basing scores only on roll call votes would be Tom Saviello, Senate chairman of the critically important Natural Resources Committee, who got a score of 33. Saviello’s score was unfair and did not represent the outstanding job he did — against very strong pressure from the LePage administration and some of his Republican Senate colleagues — in leading the Natural Resources Committee through some very difficult issues and creating positive results.
Saviello did win some praise in the Scorecard’s narrative portion for his work on two bills.
I’ve been told that MCV’s board will look beyond the scores this year and endorse some Republicans who may have fallen short on a few votes but who came through in other ways. Saviello — on that basis — should certainly win the MCV endorsement.
That would be very good news. We’re all conservationists and environmentalists, whether we hunt or hike, swim or ski or snowmobile, or spend our time fishing or birdwatching. SAM and MCV ought to be able to agree on the candidates who share our outdoor values.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmith [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.