Disappointment at the lack of cooperation and collaboration at the state and national Capitols, and a level of disrespect there that has created dysfunctional legislative bodies, has left the electorate disillusioned. What’s to be done about it?
I would give this advice to the freshman legislator who already has developed a reputation for his hard-charging, take-no-prisoners style, including tough (some say disrespectful) questioning of the public at hearings. He reminds me of myself at his age.
As the youngest member of the Winthrop Town Council, I alienated all my fellow council members, unable to be a team player, impatient, eager to lead but knowing little about what it takes to be a leader.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, I managed and worked on political campaigns from individual legislative districts to statewide contests, directed forward by a philosophy that winning is everything, and everything you do in a campaign is justified if you win.
It was only after I accepted the position of executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine in 1993 that I began to learn how to succeed in politics and government. Up until then a rabid Republican, I quickly had to take on a nonpartisan demeanor and posture. Two people helped me a lot: Beth Ahearn, at that time the lobbyist for Maine Audubon; and Paul Jacques, a leading Democrat in the House of Representatives.
Both taught me how to be a good, effective lobbyist, focusing on collaboration, nonpartisanship, working with all legislators and making no enemies. Above all, they emphasized, you must at all times be honest. Reflecting on this now, it is surprising that it took me so long to figure that out.
As I write this column, I am enjoying a cup of coffee in a Fryeburg Fair mug presented to me by one of the finest gentlemen ever to serve in the Maine Legislature, Rep. Harry “Pinky” True. I modeled my behavior after legislators like Pinky, a man of principle who knew how to work with others and get things done.
I’ve often told the story of an encounter with then-freshman Don Marean. In his first term in the Legislature, Don was assigned to the Agriculture, Forestry, and Conservation Committee, where we suffered a blistering battle that year about the state’s proposal to acquire land east of Mount Katahdin and give it to Baxter State Park. Snowmobiling and hunting would be banned there, and on behalf of Maine’s sportsmen, I fought hard (and unsuccessfully) to stop the purchase.
Don, who favored the proposal, pulled me aside just outside the House chamber on the third floor of the Capitol one day, and, obviously angry, said, “George, I’m going to do everything I can to get you fired.”
Nonplussed by that statement, I suggested to Don that we take seats on a nearby couch, where I told him I was going to ignore his statement because none of us could afford to make enemies at the Legislature and I was certain, in due time, that he and I would work together on some issues.
Not only did we do that, but we also became very good friends. I credit Don with thinking about what I said to him that day and acting positively on that advice. He returned to the Legislature this session, after two years away, and continues to be one of my favorite legislators. If we had more Don Mareans in the Legislature today, things would be working a lot better.
Nothing has caused more harm to the Legislature than term limits. It’s taken away experienced leaders, forced legislators to make their marks quickly, and made it much more difficult for them to develop good relationships with people in both parties.
But even term limits, or the exuberance of youth, don’t excuse disrespect or dishonesty at the Capitol. I’m seeing too much of that this session.
I complained to a committee’s Senate leader about one freshman who berated a member of the public who was testifying at a hearing. This legislator told the person who was testifying that he was not credible and then cracked a joke about his testimony. Too many legislators don’t seem to understand that public hearings are for the public, and not the time for legislators to express their opinions.
For sure, we’re blessed with many fine legislators, people who are there to serve, who desire to work together, who despise the atmosphere of partisanship, and who try to work around and through it. Let’s hope that in the next few weeks, these fine folks prevail.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352; or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.