If ever there was a time for a true gentleman to step forward, this was it.
“As a lifelong, proud Republican who was overjoyed to see a Republican elected back into the Blaine House three years ago, I have one thing to say. I am embarrassed,” wrote state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, in an op-ed that quickly went viral last week.
He was referring, of course, to Gov. Paul LePage. And while it’s highly unusual, if not unheard of, for an assistant minority leader of the Maine Senate to call out a governor from his own party in a 719-word statement of conscience, Katz said in an interview Friday that he had no choice.
“There are times in my life when I really do sit there and wonder what my father would have done if he were in that seat today instead of me,” said Katz. “That’s why I wrote the article.”
His father was Bennett Katz, a much-loved and widely respected Republican majority leader who represented Augusta in the Legislature from 1962 through 1980.
Bennett Katz died in 2007 at the age of 89. But as Roger Katz took to his keyboard last week to once and for all denounce LePage’s antics of late — the nasty name-calling, the empty threats, the use of a sexual obscenity to denigrate a Democratic opponent — he could feel his father looking over his shoulder.
Roger Katz wrote of growing up in a “Republican household” where he got to meet his father’s many Republican friends. “Class acts like Joe Sewall, Ken MacLeod, David Huber and Sam Collins,” he recalled.
Class acts indeed.
Joseph Sewall served as president of the Maine Senate from 1975 to 1982. When he died last year, two hard-core Democrats of his era had no qualms about singing his praises.
“He was, in my opinion, one of the best presiding officers to serve in the Maine Senate,” said John Martin, who became speaker of the Democrat-controlled House the same day in 1975 that Sewall took over the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Joe Sewall was a true gentleman,” echoed Jim Tierney, who served as Democratic majority leader under Martin and went on to become Maine’s attorney general. “It was an honor to serve with him in the Legislature. We are a better state for his service.”
A “true gentlemen.” An “honor to serve with him.” How’s that for partisan name-calling?
Ken MacLeod became Senate president in 1969, the same year Maine first instituted the state’s income tax. He opposed it at first, but eventually came around to support it.
“I sided with the conservatives more than the liberals, except on the income tax,” recalled MacLeod in an interview with the Bangor Daily News.
The interview took place in 1993. Looking back more than two decades, MacLeod observed, “The average legislator then was of a higher quality than they are now. We had some real top-quality people in the Senate in both parties.”
Just a thought, but when was the last time you heard a seasoned politician use the words “top-quality people” and “both parties” in the same sentence?
David Huber served in the Legislature from 1973 to 1982, including a stint as the Senate’s assistant majority leader.
Along with his wife and fellow Republican stalwart, Sherry Huber, he went on to found the Maine Family Planning Association, which to this day cites them on its website as “individuals dedicated to the proposition that every Maine woman should have equal access to high-quality reproductive health services.”
A Republican champion for family planning. How, we can only wonder, might that go over today?
Sam Collins, uncle of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, served five terms in the Maine Senate from 1975 to 1984 and went on to sit on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Upon Sam Collins’ death last year at age 88, his son, Ed Collins, described a man who might have trouble being heard above the din that now passes for political discourse.
“He thought things through before speaking, and by the time he spoke, people listened,” said Ed Collins. “They knew he had something to say.”
So did Bennett Katz.
Back in 1999, on the 30th anniversary of Maine’s income tax, Katz sat down for an interview with this newspaper.
He recalled a political battle for the ages: The income tax legislation, supported by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders alike but not faring so well down in the trenches, had just squeaked through the House.
But there was trouble in the Senate, where the nose counters kept coming up one vote short of the 22 needed for passage. All eyes were on Sen. Carroll Minkowsky of Lewiston, the only Democratic holdout.
A fiscal conservative from a right-leaning district, Minkowsky had little to gain and a lot to lose by supporting the new tax.
But then Katz, the Republican, sat down for a quiet chat with Minkowsky, the Democrat.
“We talked about everything in the world, why we were in the Senate, our families. But we never talked about the income tax,” Katz recalled. “He then reached over and grabbed my hand and said, ‘Bennett, let’s go in and vote.’ I knew then it was going to pass.”
A short time later, on an oppressively hot evening late in June, the roll call reached Minkowsky. For 15 or 20 agonizing seconds, he looked around at his colleagues — some for, some against — and finally voted yes. On both sides of the aisle, the Senate chamber erupted with cheers.
In his ode to the good old days, Roger Katz remembered his father, Joe Sewall, Ken MacLeod, David Huber and Sam Collins as men who, whatever the battle at hand, “would never even have considered demonizing their opponents.”
“If they were here to see the end of this session, with the name calling and posturing, with the interests of political advantage pursued over the interests of real Maine people, they would have been appalled,” Katz wrote. “Then, if they found out that this was the tone set by a Republican governor, they would have been dumbfounded.”
Those are strong words from a normally quiet man. Words that many Republicans may have thought in recent weeks, but only one had the courage to actually say.
Which makes it all the more fitting to end with a footnote to that income-tax story: Watching his Democratic colleague single-handedly change the course of Maine history that sweltering evening left an indelible impression on Bennett Katz. In fact, he would later recall, it was the “most courageous single political action” he’d ever witnessed.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: