LEWISTON — “What is going on with Jared Golden?” asked the title of one of the progressive Maine People’s Alliance weekly podcasts this month, shortly after the 2nd District representative became the only Democratic member of Congress to vote against his party’s popular $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill.

The question has been asked a lot in political circles in the aftermath of Golden’s March 10 vote, which was quickly followed by a vote opposing the Democrats’ effort to close gun background check loopholes (a position shared by only one of his House colleagues) and preceded by lonely nay votes on the George Floyd police reform act, the December 2019 impeachment charge against President Donald Trump that he obstructed congressional investigators, and the reappointment of Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.

“We do have this whole Maine tradition of liking people who seem to be independent-minded, but there are limits to that,” says Amy Fried, who chairs the political science department at the University of Maine. “We’re in a more polarized, partisan era.”

Golden, who in 2018 became the first person in 102 years to unseat an incumbent representing Maine’s 2nd District, has emerged as something of a maverick in his 27 months on the job, generating anxiety among progressives eager to change the country’s course and leave the Trump era in its wake. Democrats may like his ability to win in Trump country – he outperformed Joe Biden by the widest margin of any victorious Democratic House member in November’s election – but wonder why Golden has broken with his colleagues on some of his party’s top priorities even as he champions other progressive causes.

Not a few Republicans see him as a Democratic analog to Olympia Snowe, who once held Golden’s seat, or Sen. Susan Collins, both of whom have occasionally broken with their party leadership. “I think it’s rather refreshing to see somebody on either side of the issue willing to weigh the issue and come to their own conclusion about what the right thing is,” says Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, a two-term state Senate president who sought the Republican nomination for governor in 2018. “I disagree with Jared probably 85 percent of the time, but that’s better than 100 percent.”

But how does Golden decide what to support and oppose? Does he triangulate his positions to keep viable in a district that went for Trump by 7 points last November, or are there deeper principles at work?

In a wide-ranging two-hour interview at his Lewiston home, Golden answered questions about his political philosophy, its effectiveness for his constituents, and what it says about bipartisan-minded centrism in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In 2018, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden became the first person in 102 years to unseat an incumbent representing Maine’s 2nd District. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

He presented himself as an opponent of a deeply corrupted U.S. political system, beholden to money and the interests of those with it, whose influence has caused the chronic neglect of the interests of the working and struggling middle classes, poisoning the well of American society. He sees his mission as confronting the rot wherever he finds it – even within his own party – while modeling and fostering a more considered and ideally bipartisan approach to governance.

“I’m deeply skeptical of the entire system,” Golden says, hopping up and pulling books from his living room shelf that he says inform and reflect his world view: the late journalist William Greider’s books on the corrosive influence of the Federal Reserve and money in politics; NPR reporter Sarah Chayes’ “On Corruption in America,” which argues the U.S. is in a second Gilded Age in which plutocrats protect their advantages through political donations; conservative scholar Arthur Brooks’ call to transcend the self-destructive “culture of contempt” that is destroying American society; and a bevy of biographies of the late Robert Kennedy, whose assassination marked the symbolic end of the liberals’ New Deal dream of a government that intervened for the underprivileged.

“I look at Washington and see a very broken place, and so do most of my constituents,” he says as he puts Andrew Bacevich’s “Limits of Power” back on the shelf. “The status quo is terrible, and it hasn’t been going well, and I would apply real skepticism to both parties and to the establishment in general. And that’s the attitude I went to Washington with.”

GIVING AND GETTING PUSHBACK

That stance sometimes puts him at cross-purposes with the House’s Democratic leaders and most of his colleagues, including 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree. He sees relief funds going to families making up to $160,000 a year and sees a party that reflexively identifies with the affluent at a time of growing inequality. He’s frustrated by his major coastal metro colleagues’ fixation with reversing Trump’s reduction of the state and local tax exemption, an effort that would help owners of homes few Mainers could own. He doesn’t see how you can have change if your party has the same leaders – Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – for nearly two decades.

“I am often viewing myself as almost there to fight and push back against a system I think is not serving this district well,” he says.

When his fellow Democrats are pushing back too, he’s all in, as with the For the People Act election and campaign finance reform package, a law prohibiting employers from engaging in a range of union-busting practices, or January’s impeachment of Trump for his role in inciting the attack on the Capitol to overturn the 2020 election. When they aren’t, he says, they can’t count on his vote.

That’s given him a record that’s among the most conservative in the House Democratic caucus: the 12th most as of last week, based on the bills he’s sponsored, according to the ideological analysis tracker at GovTrack.us, the independent open government project. During the Trump presidency his votes aligned with the president’s preferences 13 percent of the time – the 119th most among House Democrats, according to the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight – despite his constituents voting for Trump twice by wide margins. (Pingree’s score, by comparison, was 10.9 percent.)

“I think most of Golden’s colleagues will understand that, of all the House Democrats, he is one of the most in need of a hall pass, so to speak, to vote against leadership from time to time,” says Kyle Kondik who tracks Congress at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and points out that Golden now holds the most Republican district of any House Democrat in the country. Maine’s 2nd District went for Trump by 7.4 percentage points in November, by far the widest win of the seven Trump districts still held by Democrats. (The next reddest is Wisconsin’s 3rd District, which Trump won by 4.7 points and is held by a 13-term Democrat, Ron Kind.)

“I’m deeply skeptical of the entire system,” U.S. Rep. Jared Golden says of the U.S. political system. He sees it as beholden to the interests of money and those with money. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

If history is any guide, being unreliably partisan is an asset in the 2nd District, whose voters sent moderate Republicans Olympia Snowe and Bill Cohen to represent them in Congress, backed native daughter (and occasional party defector) Susan Collins in her Senate races, and sent relatively conservative Democrats like John Baldacci and Mike Michaud to the US House.

“I think he’s very much reminiscent of Olympia Snowe when she held that district, only in an opposite situation,” says former state Senate president Kevin Raye of Perry, who was Snowe’s longtime chief of staff. “He has shown a willingness to buck party leadership when he thinks that’s the right thing for his district, and I know he’s earned the ire of more liberal members of the Democratic establishment, just as Olympia was often in the crosshairs of the more conservative members of Republican establishment.”

Political scientist Jim Melcher of the University of Maine at Farmington puts it this way: “He’s one of a series of Democrats running in the 2nd District who are more conservative than some of the Democrats in the 1st District would like him to be.”

OPPOSING THE RELIEF BILL

Discontent with his defections is clearly growing within the Democratic base. Marie Follayttar, executive director of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, the progressive activist group, says Golden is out of step with the times: a national emergency brought on by the pandemic and pro-Trump Republicans’ effort to effectively end democracy by blocking the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimate election didn’t go their way.

“Calling for things like bipartisanship in a time when half your colleagues don’t believe in a valid system seems a little out of touch with the moment,” she says.

Follayttar argues that when Golden breaks with his colleagues it’s often justified by elaborate arguments about perceived imperfections with the legislation or process at hand that nobody else is fixated on. “He presents all these concerns about the system but absent an outreach plan to advocacy organizations to help him change it,” she says. “If he’s arguing for policies that are completely impossible and unrealistic to pass and he isn’t trying to build coalitions to support them, I don’t know why he wants to lead.”

“There’s a problem when you consistently alienate your base,” she warns.

His opposition to this month’s COVID-19 relief bill may be especially problematic for him as polling shows the $1.9 trillion package has wide support, including a majority of Republicans.

“You have to make sure that if you are disagreeing with your administration that you are doing it because it will have a negative impact on the people in your district,” advises former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who held Golden’s seat for four terms starting in 1995. “He has got to be careful here, because he’s now navigating in very treacherous waters.”

Golden provides a detailed explanation for his opposition, which boils down to its being wastefully targeted – see those checks going to households making $150,000 – and far bigger than is needed at this time, when the economy appears to be turning the corner and hundreds of millions of dollars from previous relief packages remain in the pipeline and unspent.

“This bill was structured behind closed doors by party leaders and was filled with all kinds of pork that lobbyists rushed into it,” he says. “I’m not a budget hawk, but when you’re passing COVID response bills to the tune of $4 trillion and everyone knows the Biden administration will be rolling out an economic recovery plan next, you have to ask yourself about the trade-offs.”

Democratice U.S. Rep. Jared Golden opposed the COVID-19 relief bill, even though the $1.9 trillion package has wide support, including the majority of Republicans. He thought it far bigger than needed now and “filled with all kinds of pork that lobbyists rushed into it.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

EXPLAINING HIS VOTES

Similarly, he says he opposed the HEROES Act — a $3 trillion relief package House Democrats passed in 2020, knowing it had little chance of getting through a Republican-controlled Senate — because House Republicans could have accepted a $1 trillion compromise bill that might have actually won Senate support and become law.

His vote against one of two articles of impeachment in late 2019 was the result of weeks of research, he says, wherein he concluded the House hadn’t exhausted its remedies to overcome Trump’s obstruction and refusal to honor congressional subpoenas.

“Fighting for those subpoenas, trying to get people in front of Congress and the courts is perhaps more important than the final verdict itself if you care about transparency,” he says. At the very least it might have led to judicial rulings on the limits of executive privilege and clarity on the checks and balances.

He was one of two Democrats to vote against the police reform bill March 3 because he opposes a measure ending qualified immunity for police officers who criminally violate people’s rights. He says Congress should instead clarify the relevant statutes “finding the right balance between people’s statutory and constitutional rights and protecting law enforcement officers who have to make tough decisions.”

On March 11 he and Ron Kind were the only Democrats to vote against closing loopholes in background checks, including the “Charleston loophole,” the statutory requirement to let a gun purchase occur after three days if the FBI hasn’t concluded the check – so named because this rule allowed a felon to obtain the firearm used to kill nine South Carolina churchgoers in 2015. That same day Golden was the only Democrat to oppose a bill requiring background checks for a variety of private firearm transfers that received eight Republican votes. He argues it’s what his constituents want, noting they rejected similar measures in a 2016 state referendum. “I’d say there are much better policies you could pursue that might bring more benefit,” he says.

He also may have irritated his base by refusing to say whether he would vote for Collins or her 2020 Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, at a time when activists were pressuring Collins – for whom Golden once worked as a staffer – to take a position on Trump’s re-election. In the presidential race he endorsed a longshot candidate, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose name didn’t appear on Maine’s ballot.

“He does have to have some concerns with Democratic voters feeling a lack of trust in him and, while they wouldn’t vote for a Republican, could decide to sit out a midterm race,” says Fried, though she notes the gubernatorial contest may help him in that respect in 2022.

As for future ambitions, Golden says he’s really not thinking about running for the Senate or governor or anything else. But if he did, Raye, a moderate Republican who tried and failed to win the 2nd District seat three times, thinks he has a shot.

“Historically people from the 2nd District tend to do well in statewide elections,” he says, pointing to Cohen, Baldacci and Snowe. “He has managed to win on the same ballot with Donald Trump.”

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