A new, and feisty, political culture in Maine

For longer than anyone alive can remember, the culture of Maine politics has been one of collaboration, deference, respect, pleasantness and accommodation. Republicans and Democrats, while philosophically opposed, always seemed to get along well, work together and keep the poisonous political ankle-biting to a minimum.

That culture is now changing.

This can of course be a bad thing. The last thing anyone wants to see is that Maine can be infected with the same dysfunctional politics that is pervasive across most of the rest of the country. Mainers respect good natured, well-intentioned, independent-minded leaders, and no one wants to see public officials devolve into partisan sniping.

It can also be a good thing, too. Too often, Maine leaders have had a go-along-to-get-along attitude, failing to take principled stands when they were necessary. Mainers have a certain no-nonsense personality that demands things get done, and sometimes our collaborative political culture has gotten in the way of anything meaningful being accomplished.

One needs to look no further than the brewing war between Gov. Paul LePage and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree to see the changing nature of the state’s politics.

LePage is now famous in Maine and beyond for having less regard for making friends and being polite than telling what he believes to be the truth and getting things done. “Go along to get along” is not in his DNA.

Pingree, though, is no less confrontational or ideological. Indeed, I would argue she is much less interested in working together than LePage is and that the only difference really is that she stays quieter and tries to pretend that she isn’t militantly partisan.

Their two orbits recently collided, showcasing the new paradigm in Maine.

After the Supreme Court ruled on the president’s signature healthcare initiative, Pingree sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to block state cuts to Medicaid, which were passed by the Maine Legislature.

Her letter essentially argued that the federal government should intervene in the state of Maine’s business, overrule the decisions made by the lawfully elected Legislature and governor and impose its will. Federalism, to Pingree, is apparently dead.

LePage had no interest in hearing that. He sent a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, replying to what Pingree had requested and directly challenging many of the assertions she had made. Then he wrote a letter to Pingree and in characteristic style pulled no punches.

In the letter, LePage accused Pingree of becoming “part of the jet-setting Washington culture that keeps people dependent on government handouts” and said her letter to Sebelius was “careless in its facts” and “irresponsible and a disservice to Maine people.”

LePage believes that Pingree is attempting to use the power of the federal leviathan to overrule the legitimate power of the state to decide its own affairs, and he is more concerned about fighting that action than being nice and deferent to a member of Maine’s congressional delegation.

Pingree, for her part, probably believes that using the power of the federal government to force a state to do something she believes is a positive thing is justified, which is why she sent the letter in the first place.

Many people will likely decry this turn in Maine’s politics as unwelcome. I, for one, am glad to see a little more fight in the people we elect to represent us and a little less politeness. From my perspective, when I saw what Pingree had done, I was outraged and had no interest in playing nice just for the sake of playing nice.

When I saw LePage’s letter to her, I smiled and felt some satisfaction that somebody was finally calling a spade a spade.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.