Al Diamon

Al Diamon

Beautiful Losers

Maine Democrats need to find some really lousy candidates for major offices. Otherwise, the Dems could end up helping to elect Republicans like Paul LePage to the U.S. Senate and Bruce Poliquin to the governorship in 2018.

Fortunately, the donkey party is loaded with lame contenders. But before I pick through that sludge pile, let me explain why Democrats need to field a slate of hopeless cases in the next election.

If Gov. LePage follows up on his threat to run against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, the guv would be a clear underdog. LePage’s favorability rating has never nudged much above 40 percent, while King’s always sits comfortably in the mid-60s. In a two-person contest, LePage would lose in a landslide.

Of course, the 2018 contest won’t be limited to two people. The Green Independent Party may field a feeble candidate who’ll draw off 3 or 4 percentage points from King. The Libertarian Party might offer a Gary Johnson clone, who’ll take two votes from the sitting senator for every one he or she costs LePage. Add in a Democrat of unassailable mediocrity, and another 15 percent of King’s lead evaporates.

Suddenly, the race is a dead heat, and the enthusiasm of LePage’s deplorable supporters would give him a distinct edge over the laidback elitists who favor King.

Likewise in the next gubernatorial race. GOP U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is seriously considering a bid for the Blaine House, but doesn’t want to get bogged down in an ugly primary in which her refusal to support Donald Trump’s presidential bid becomes a major issue. To avoid that, Collins is said to be thinking of dropping her Republican affiliation to run as an independent.

If that happened, there’s little doubt Poliquin, currently the congressman from the state’s 2nd District, would seek the GOP nomination. In the primary, he’d be a clear frontrunner over state Senate President Mike Thibodeau, state Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason or Health and Human Services commissioner Mary Mayhew, all of whom have expressed interest in the office.

Of course, Collins would clobber Poliquin or any of the others in a nice, clean head-to-head fight. But, as with the Senate race, it won’t be that simple. The Greens and Libs could cloud the picture, and the Democrats, who haven’t won a Senate seat in Maine since shortly after the invention of the TV remote control, aren’t about to let such an opportunity slide by uncontested. What should be an easy win for Collins would suddenly become problematic, even if the Dem nominee drew something less than 20 percent of the vote.

Assuming the vast majority of Democrats would prefer to surrender these offices to Collins and King rather than risk them falling to Poliquin and LePage, the only solution is to offer up nominees so utterly unelectable as to guarantee they can’t play the spoiler. Those Dem voters will be pleased to learn their party’s bench is deep with candidates of surpassing shallowness.

Keeping in mind that Democrats need not just nominees who can’t win, but ones who can’t even contend, the party should immediately reject Attorney General Janet Mills, whose gubernatorial ambitions might attract support from middle-of-the-road independents. Mills’ candidacy would cut into the very bloc Collins must hold to beat Poliquin.

Instead, the Dems must turn to a proven non-starter. While it would be tempting to consider unsuccessful 2014 nominee Mike Michaud, he’d likely be just strong enough to hand victory to the GOP. Better to go with losers waiting to be proven like House Speaker Mark Eves, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap or soon-to-be-ex-state Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, all of whom have more ambition than common sense, and none of whom would attract enough supporters north of Augusta to fill the cast of an amateur production of “The Last Hurrah.”

For Senate, there’s Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, perennial congressional candidate Emily Cain, Judge of Probate (and previous loser for governor and senator) Libby Mitchell, and anybody named Baldacci (except maybe the one who writes those thrillers).

And let’s not forget failed 2012 Senate nominee Cynthia Dill, who last I checked was writing a political column for a newspaper.

Can’t get much lamer than that.

Got a better (by which I mean worse) choice? Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Take it to the streets

I've never considered vacationing in Lincoln, Neb. For good reason. According to Wikipedia, the major tourist attractions in the capital of the Cornhusker State (Really? That's your nickname — really?) include the Frank H. Woods Telephone Museum, the University of Nebraska's "dairy store" and the fact it's the hometown of Zager and Evans, whose 1969 hit "In The Year 2525" is still listed by the International Court of Justice as a war crime.

But I may have to reconsider.

Lincoln is one of a handful of U.S. cities that allows public drinking. Visitors can go into bars in the trendy Railyard district, buy a plastic cup of their favorite adult beverage and consume it in the streets. According to Stateline Daily, Lincoln legalized boozing on the boulevards in 2013 in an attempt to deal with a demographic problem Maine has been trying to solve for years.

"The question was how do we keep young people in our city," Tessa Warner, business manager of the district, told Stateline. "We set out to make it not a place for more people to drink more alcohol, but a place where people can come and congregate and socialize, and have a drink if they want."

Lincoln isn't alone in attempting to attract youthful imbibers. Canton, Ohio, in addition to being home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (motto: Concussions Are Junk Science And We Can Prove It), allows alcohol to be consumed al fresco in a designated neighborhood. Other cities in the Buckeye State (all the non-ridiculous nicknames were already taken, I guess) have followed suit, including Lancaster and Toledo. In Mississippi (the Septic Overflow State), Biloxi and Gulfport have joined the trend. In Alabama (the Rabid Bat State), it's Mobile. And in Tennessee (the Slurred Speech State), Nashville allows to-go cocktails near the Country Music Hall of Fame.

To assess the impact of these laws, I recently visited New Orleans, where both drinking in the streets and government corruption have always been legal. In traveling the colorful byways of the Big Easy (note the higher quality nickname), I encountered a wide range of people taking advantage of this libertarian-leaning toward libations. There were boomers in unfortunate Bermuda-shorts-and-sandals combinations, nursing Old Fashioneds. There were Gen-Xers pushing strollers and trying not to spill their rum concoctions. There were millennials who didn't appear to care whether they sloshed beer on their skinny jeans. They all seemed pretty happy.

Of course, there were also drunken louts on Bourbon Street, but Bourbon Street is an environment expressly designed for drunken louts.

In part, the crowd's genial attitude probably stemmed from the city's atmosphere. Beneath wrought-iron balconies adorned with bright flowers, music spilled from club doorways, competing with tunes from street musicians. Artists set up their easels on sidewalks. Horse-drawn caleches evoked an era devoid of internal combustion engines (but not external combustion politicians).

It's that combination that experts in urban planning say is necessary to keep outdoor drinking from becoming a public nuisance. "If it gets to be all about the alcohol, that's not good," Jim Peters of the Responsible Hospitality Institute (partly funded by the booze and beer industries) told Stateline. "You want vibrancy. You don't want chaos."

In general, municipalities that have tried this experiment have reported few problems. In some cases, a surcharge of a dollar has been levied on to-go drinks to fund additional police coverage. In a couple of instances, the areas where outdoor drinking is allowed have been altered to protect residential neighborhoods. But overall, the numbers show an increase in tourism and a negligible rise in misbehavior. Despite a shooting last week on Bourbon Street that left 9 people wounded and 1 dead, the French Quarter is generally considered safe. 

Would it work in Maine?

In places like Portland's Old Port, it might actually calm things down, since rowdy revelers would have to restrain themselves to avoid spilling their drinks. Ritzy resorts like Ogunquit and Kennebunkport attract sophisticates, who only get obnoxiously drunk in private. Bangor's waterfront, Bar Harbor's downtown and much of the midcoast have the necessary amenities. And Carrabassett Valley already has plenty of public boozing.

Legalizing outdoor drinking seems like a good fit. But it's difficult to imagine it happening in a state where there hasn't been an innovative idea since we came up with Prohibition.

I'll keep putting mine in a sippy cup. Got a better idea? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

25 Years of Fuzz and Fury

“As a young man, I put cleverness above respect for others. As a mature person, I hope that I wouldn’t do that … anyway I wouldn’t do it in writing about baseball. I might do it if I was writing about politics.”Bill James, baseball analytics guru

People often ask me if I regret any of the snarky things I’ve written about politicians in 25 years of churning out this column (as of last week).

The short answer is no.

The slightly longer answer is if I had it to do over, I’d be even nastier.

The longwinded answer is our political leaders get far too much uncritical adulation and not nearly enough derision. The more years they hang around, the more likely they are to be portrayed by their cult followers as bold figures dedicated to public service, when they’re actually Trumpish sociopaths. Longevity has a way of smoothing rough edges, blurring memories of ill-considered outbursts, exaggerating triumphs and obscuring failures.

In the long term, everyone looks like Mahatma Gandhi – even if, in the short term, they resemble Paul LePage.

What’s needed is not more insults, but more enduring insults, the sort of mud-slinging that sticks even on polished marble busts and gilt-framed oil portraits.

All the iconic images of Maine’s political giants are mostly products of fuzzy recollections and fawning acolytes. Take, for example, the late Republican U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.

There’s no doubt Smith paved the way for more women to enter politics. But in terms of her impact on legislation, she was a marginal figure. In Patricia L. Schmidt’s biography, “Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention,” she writes, “For many of her most ardent supporters, Margaret was the epitome of the gracious lady. Their highest praise cast her not as a policymaker or leader but as the gracious Grand Duchess – of the blood royal, but not in line of succession.”

The reality of Smith’s tenure in Congress is she was mostly a back-bencher, ignored by her male colleagues both because of her sex and her lack of interest in crafting significant legislation. Revisionist history defines her denunciation of Joe McCarthy as a pivotal moment, but that wasn’t exactly the case. “Margaret had led a charge that no one followed,” Schmidt wrote. “Her effort did little to stop McCarthy or demystify the man.”

How about the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie? He restored the two-party system in Maine. He championed the Clean Water Act. He was so medicated with a rare South American drug during his 1972 vice-presidential campaign that he was nearly catatonic, according to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson also swore Muskie’s campaign manager once told reporters, “My instructions are that the senator should never again be put in a situation where he has to think quickly.”

Is this literally true? Probably not

Is it poetically accurate? Pretty much.

The longer his career dragged on, the more Muskie mumbled through interviews, rambled through speeches and seemed lost in his surroundings. The Maine media pretended not to see it, fearful of tarnishing his legacy.

Bill Cohen? The former GOP U.S. senator spent his tenure as secretary of defense under Democratic President Bill Clinton refusing to sleep on military bases and instead demanded accommodations in four-star hotels. Immediately upon leaving office, he cashed in on his years of public service by starting a lucrative defense lobbying and consulting firm.

George Mitchell? As the Democratic Senate majority leader, he was revered for protecting the environment from attacks by Reagan-era Republicans. But Mitchell’s support of Reagan’s tax cuts and Wall Street-friendly policies was so ardent, it might make even Congressman Bruce Poliquin blush.

Surely Gov. Joshua Chamberlain, he of the victory at Little Round Top during the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg, maintains his heroic reputation more than a century and a half after saving the day for the Union.

Actually, Chamberlain’s role is almost entirely a myth created by Hollywood. According to historian Martin Pengelly, his triumph over the Confederates was of little consequence in the battle, and was due, not to brilliant tactics, but to “chance, circumstance and human error.”

That legacy endures in our era of Trump and LePage. Somebody needs to keep pointing it out.

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Can't Accept It

Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor and vocalizing blockage in our plumbing, has some new problems. In the Nov. 8 election, voters approved several laws LePage opposes, and unless he decamps to Washington for a job in the Trump administration (secretary of racial profiling?), he’s going to have to enforce them.

Or maybe not. LePage has never felt any great compulsion to follow the will of the people, as shown in his repeated refusals to issue public-lands bonds that were approved at the ballot box by substantial margins. So if he doesn’t want marijuana legalized for recreational use, a higher minimum wage, increased taxes on the wealthy to pay for schools or elections decided by ranked-choice voting, he might use the authority vested in him by … I dunno, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, maybe … to block their implementation.

Take legal pot, for instance. The rules governing how it’s to be grown and sold are supposed to be drafted by LePage’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (motto: Bringing Farmers, Tree-Huggers and Lumberjacks Together In Bureaucratic Harmony). But even before the referendum earned the narrowest of victories, DACF commissioner Walter Whitcomb told Maine Public Radio, “We’re simply not set up for that.”

If LePage resembled a normal governor, he’d tell Whitcomb to relax, inhale, hold it, hold it a little more and exhale. Once the commissioner felt better, he’d find a way to muddle through the process of regulating weed wholesaling and retailing. After all, that can’t be much more complicated than deciding how many trees to cut down (all of them) or how much habitat for endangered species to preserve (none of it).

But LePage isn’t normal, so it’s all but certain he’ll do everything in his power (and a few things that might not be) to block legal marijuana. In speeches last month, he claimed that if he did what chief executives in several states that have legalized the sticky icky have done and facilitated the creation of a new industry, he’d be breaking federal law and could be impeached. Apparently, he hasn’t noticed that the other governors haven’t had that problem.

Instead, LePage has promised a lawsuit to block ganja sales. While that futile measure drags on for months, Massachusetts and other pro-pot states will be stealing all that psycho-active business – and the accompanying taxes – that could have stayed in Maine.

Speaking of taxes, the referendum imposing a 3 percent surcharge on rich people’s incomes to pay for better schools has exactly no chance of finding its way into the governor’s next budget. While Democrats in the Legislature might try to insert the measure in the spending plan, nearly unanimous GOP opposition would make passage all but impossible. An intense partisan standoff over the issue could easily lead to a state shutdown, just in time for next tourist season.

Before Mainers got around to voting on a minimum wage increase, LePage’s opposition had already slipped the feeble bonds of rationality. He told a Lewiston audience the leaders of that effort “should be sent to jail” for crimes against the elderly because the measure would increase their cost of living. Among the problems with LePage’s idea is that the only way there’d be enough room in the corrections system for all those liberal political activists, is if the state stopped filling up jail cells with pot dealers.

While the guv ponders that conundrum, he can take heart in knowing he has an unlikely ally in his efforts to prevent the state from electing his successor using ranked-choice voting. Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills (who wouldn’t mind being that successor) has stated that using an instant runoff system violates the state constitution, which appears to require winners in races for governor to achieve a mere plurality. A lawsuit seems a certainty, but LePage need do no more than sputter pointlessly, while leaving Mills to do all the legal heavy lifting.

The referendum process is an important part of our democracy because without it the governor could find himself with a shortage of controversies to occupy his days. If that happened, he might have to do some real work or spend more time lobbying for that job in D.C.

Ignore new laws if you must, but don’t ignore me. My email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

No trophies

Traditionally, my first column after an election is devoted to the Gaggie Awards, recognizing entertaining political incompetence. Unfortunately, that won’t happen this year.

Or, maybe, ever again.

The Gaggies were named for Hayes Gahagan, an independent U.S. Senate candidate in 1978 who held one of the most titillating press conferences in Maine history. Shortly before election day, he announced that unknown, subversive agents had altered his campaign photos by implanting subliminal images of female genitalia in his hairline.

“This is no joke,” Gahagan said. “It’s a national scandal, and I’m not the only candidate.”

He was, however, the only candidate to make such a claim (others may have feared doing so might cause a youthful Donald Trump to grope their heads). Also, when journalists examined blow-ups of Gahagan’s coiffure, they found no unusual anatomical details, although they did find evidence the candidate should employ a stronger dandruff shampoo and a psychiatrist.

Gahagan lost to Republican Bill Cohen, who also had impressive hair, even if it lacked subliminal enhancements.

But back to the Gaggies. In past years, I’ve had little trouble finding worthy contenders for these honors. But in sifting through this batch of nominees, it became obvious they hadn’t upgraded their stupidity to match that of Trump, Hillary Clinton and Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor and ambulatory trash bag filled with used hypodermic needles.

Take for example Rick Snow, a GOP state House candidate from Yarmouth, who offered this logically impaired argument against raising the minimum age: “Where would that money be spent? We’ve heard about the opiate issues in the state of Maine. Are we going to add more income to individuals so they can spend it on illegal activities?”

Snow later told the Portland Press Herald, “[M]y brain was moving much faster than my mouth,” although it seems more likely the opposite is true.

What’s notable is how unremarkable Snow’s comment seems when considered next to the bombast spewed out by Trump, Clinton and LePage. Compared to them, he might be making polite dinner conversation.

Republican state Rep. Larry Lockman of Amherst claimed he didn’t need to register the New England Opportunity Project as a political action committee because the flyer it sent out wasn’t attempting to influence voters. The pamphlet was headlined, “Should Maine taxpayers continue to give welfare benefits to Islamic State terrorists living in Maine? Ask Jeff McCabe!”

Not surprisingly, McCabe, current Democratic representative from Skowhegan and state Senate candidate, answered Lockman’s question with a “No.”

Lockman used to be a lot more Gaggie-eligible. Last year, he called an Episcopal lay preacher running for Lewiston mayor “an anti-Christian bigot.” He’s referred to homosexuality as “a perverted and depraved crime against humanity.” He once suggested that if women were free to have abortions, men should be permitted to rape them.

Lockman has since dialed it down some, although not to the point where he might be mistaken for a normal person.

I’m writing this column before voting results are known, but in the unlikely event Brewer City Council candidate Randy Tompkins got elected, he’ll have to attend meetings via Skype. According to the Bangor Daily News, his bail conditions prevent him from having contact with some city officials or entering many municipal buildings. Tompkins is accused of falsely claiming a city employee tried to take his wheelchair from him, as well as failure to submit to arrest.

Still, his anger-management issues pale when compared to the average voice-mail message from LePage.

Finally, the Gaggies have always held in special esteem candidates who extol their virtues in the third person. But Trump owns this egomaniacal category so thoroughly that when GOP state Sen. Rodney Whittemore of Skowhegan told the Morning Sentinel, “Rodney Whittemore is not a career politician. Rodney Whittemore is a patriot,” it seemed quaint. And when the Press Herald asked Republican state Rep. Michael Timmons of Cumberland about reports he folded under pressure from GOP leaders on votes to release bonds for public lands and set solar-power policy, he claimed it was “a set-up to make Mike look bad.”

Which it did. But compared to Donald, Hillary or Paul … meh. No Gaggie for him.

Don’t complain by emailing me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. that there are hardly any Democrats mentioned above. Most Democrats are too dull to win Gaggies.

Your problems will be gone

The campaign is almost over, so it’s time for me – a wise and experienced Maine political observer – to tell you – an obvious doofus – how to vote. You probably don’t believe you need my help in casting your ballot, but clearly you do, because of one or more of the following factors:

1. You have a homemade Donald Trump sign on your front lawn with his name misspelled.

2. You think ranked-choice voting will improve our electoral process, just the way public campaign financing and term limits have.

3. You’ve started getting paranoid, so you just went outside to check the spelling on your Trump sign.

4. You can’t wait to get to the polls to vote either for or against Paul LePage – even though he’s not running for anything this year.

5. You can’t name your state representative, your state senator or a single member of your local school board, but you can list every player on the New England Patriots roster and a dozen members of the practice squad.

6. You brag about being able to do that while drunk.

7. You just found an alt-right website that spells it “Trummp,” so that’s gotta be correct.

8. You’re voting no on Question 3 because you saw a sign on your neighbor’s lawn telling you to do that – although you’ve got no idea what Question 3 is supposed to do. Something about welfare, maybe.

9. You’re the sort of doofus who takes a selfie in the voting booth.

10. You actually are Paul LePage, and you claim the misspelling on your “Trummp” sign is the result of vandalism by out-of-state drug dealers. You don’t necessarily believe those creeps are black or Hispanic, but you’ve got evidence in a three-ring binder indicating there’s a 90 percent chance they are.

11. You think the election is rigged. You’re not sure by whom, but your best guess is black guys in a car with Massachusetts plates. Either that or radical Islamic terrorists.

12. Wait, it could be Russians.

Fortunately, no matter how many of these afflictions you suffer from, I’m sure I can help. Well, not if it’s number 10. Or any of the other ones with misspelled Trump signs. But most of the rest.

The problems facing this state are not, as most politicians claim, simple. They’re complicated, and the solutions to them are, likewise, complex. Liberals will tell you everything would be swell if we just expanded Medicaid, welcomed immigrants and ate more kale. Conservatives insist we could achieve a more perfect union by cutting taxes, creating more charter schools and jailing anyone who doesn’t stand up during the national anthem. Moderates are wedded to the concepts of civility, compromise and ranked-choice voting. All of them are wrong.

It took a long time for Maine to get into the economic mess it’s in, and it will take even longer to get out. Doing so will require patience (I think moderates are in favor of that), diligence (a solid conservative value), innovation (liberals are so down with that) and beer (everybody’s friend). Unfortunately, the solution isn’t sexy, the impact isn’t immediate, and the idea isn’t the least bit original.

Rather than dithering around with tax breaks for call centers and bond issues for nebulous research and development projects, the state should invest in bringing high-speed broadband to the underserved hinterlands. In time, that would attract all manner of entrepreneurs to parts of Maine devastated by loss of jobs and out-migration of young people, because those are places where rents are cheap, and the quality of life is high (if you happen to like trees and/or kale). This wouldn’t solve all the state’s problems. But over the next decade or so, it would put us in a position to address many of them. It would broaden the tax base, thereby allowing tax cuts. It could increase diversity, thereby making us … uh … more diverse. It might cause us to forget all about silly ideas like ranked-choice voting, but probably not.

So, when you go to the polls on Nov. 8, vote for anybody who’s in favor of this – which will be a lot like not voting at all.

And always use Spell Check on political signs.

Yoo kin e-male mee at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Time to leave

If you think there’s a housing crisis in Portland, your idea of what constitutes a crisis is seriously warped. Compared to a real shortage of accommodations, Portland is a home-hunter’s paradise.

For an example of a place where it’s almost impossible to find shelter, try visiting GOPville. Here are some nearly factual excerpts from Craigslist postings offering Republican rentals:
“If you don’t believe Obama is a Muslim, you won’t be living here.”

“Potential renters will be required to sign an affidavit stating they have evidence the election is rigged.”

“All windows must be covered by ‘Trump for President’ signs until election day, and aluminum foil thereafter.”

In contrast, Portland has newly refurbished apartments suitable for working-class families that can be rented for little more than a handshake and a promise to eventually pay the security deposit. Suburban houses with large yards on quiet, tree-lined streets are readily available for the price of a decent restaurant meal and a generous tip. Luxury condos with water views, indoor parking and illegal immigrants to handle the menial chores sell for monthly payments lower than the average annual income in Guatemala.
(All prices quoted in the preceding paragraph are for comparison purposes only, and are not intended to reflect reality.)

These days, the Maine GOP isn’t exactly a welcoming place – particularly for those who hold moderate views. Gov. Paul LePage, the nominal head of the party and a mildew-infected water balloon, has twice publicly stated he thinks advocates for a higher minimum wage should be jailed. LePage favors deterring drug dealers through racial profiling, since he’s convinced most of them are black or Hispanic. And the governor has suggested he’d like to shoot at least one legislator and one editorial cartoonist, which is well over the bag limit.
With few exceptions, Republicans have failed to repudiate these statements, and more than a few members privately agree with them, although they’ve been smart enough to avoid discussing that with Billy Bush. Overall, the party’s message is clearer than that of a Portland landlord who refuses to take Section 8 vouchers:
Anyone to the left of congressional candidate Mark Holbrook should consider relocating to the nearest homeless shelter.

This exclusionary attitude is likely to have serious consequences for the GOP, both immediate and long-term.

Let’s start with the morning after the Nov. 8 vote. While Democrats are convinced they’ll wake up that day having won control of the state Senate, the odds of that happening have been shrinking in recent weeks. In parts of the 2nd District, several seats that once looked shaky for Republicans have shifted from purple toward red (despite LePage’s claims of widespread voter fraud). Two experienced political operatives told me the GOP could well hold onto the Senate by a single seat.

Trouble is, that 18-17 margin will almost certainly include state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, a moderate who’s been a regular target of LePage’s venomous excretions. Saviello, who used to be an independent (and before that, a Democrat), has notified party leaders that unless they agree to rule changes designed to increase collaboration and compromise in the Senate, he’ll once again become unenrolled, leaving that chamber with no clear majority, and himself holding the balance of power.

Even more disturbing for Republicans is the increasing likelihood that the state’s most popular politician may leave the GOP.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, one of the few Republicans with the guts to repudiate Trump, has been considering a run for governor in 2018. One impediment to Collins’ plan is that she’d have to slog through an ugly GOP primary against one or more ultra-conservative challengers, most notably LePage’s commissioner of health and human services, Mary Mayhew. The easiest way to avoid engaging with the alt-right would be to run as an independent, an option Collins is said by several insiders to be giving serious consideration.
Defections by Collins and Saviello might embolden other disillusioned GOP moderates, leading to their eviction from their abodes, a move that could cripple Republican chances of winning statewide races for years to come.

That’s probably not enough of a threat to deter the party’s extremists. They’re all in on the idea of building an ideological wall.

Even if they have to pay for it.

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Illusion of progress

I usually don’t enjoy debunking what appears to be good news. So when my wife tells me we’re using less heating oil this year, I see no reason to mention it’s because the furnace is broken.


If she compliments me for only sipping a couple beers during a long Sunday of watching football, there’s no need to speculate that it might have something to do with those shots of bourbon I gulped whenever she left the room.


And if Maine Citizens For Clean Elections is elated that, thanks to public campaign financing, the amount of private money being donated to legislative candidates is down this year, it seems as if pointing out that those intrepid citizens are delusional would be cruel.


So, call me cruel.


In September, MCCE sent out a news release stating 63 percent of those running for seats in the state House and Senate are using taxpayer money to fund their races. Or is it 62 percent? The release used both numbers. But why quibble over a few thousand of your dollars.


Anyway, 60-something percent is a boost from the 2014 election, when scarcely more than half of potential legislators were sucking on the public teat. But it’s a long way from 2008, when over 80 percent got cash that otherwise could have gone to schools, highways or lower taxes.


The reason for the wide swings in participation has to do with federal court decisions that freed certain types of political action committees to spend unlimited amounts of “dark money” without having to reveal the sources of their cash. This made these super PACs more attractive to major donors with something to hide.


A decade ago, before the legal changes, these groups spent barely $16,000 on Maine elections. By 2014, that figure had increased ten-fold, and the total will almost certainly more than double this year.


For instance, the Associated Press reported a super PAC called Progressive Maine (a project of soon-to-be-ex-legislator Diane Russell) is using 50 grand it got from unknown sources in California to defeat Republican legislative leaders. Meanwhile, GOP Gov. Paul LePage is heading something called ICE PAC (early fundraising for a possible U.S. Senate bid in 2018), which has over $300,000 to spend attacking legislators who don’t support tax cuts (read: Democrats).


Meanwhile, according to the Portland Press Herald, political parties are pouring cash into close races. These “independent expenditures” amounted to nearly $500,000 by early October, significantly more than the record spending of two years ago. That figure also dwarfs the $160,000 decline in private donations to campaigns that MCCE is so excited about.


Obviously, the big money has shifted from contributions that can be monitored to super PACs that can’t.

Contrary to common sense, MCCE believes this change is due to a 2015 referendum that allowed publicly funded candidates to qualify for additional money if they’re targeted by outside forces. Instead of having to scuffle along with a mere $5,000 in taxpayer money, a state House candidate could pull in $15,000. On the Senate side, the maximum allocation could increase from $20,000 to $60,000.


According to MCCE, this modest adjustment was an unqualified success – depending, of course, on your definitions of “unqualified” and “success.” In a news release, MCCE executive director Andrew Bossie said, “Mainers want their elected leaders accountable to everyday people in their district, not wealthy special interests that can afford high-priced lobbyists and donors that make big campaign contributions.”


Maybe. But as long as rich folks can get more bang for their bucks if they don’t bother with piddling payouts to individual candidates, they’ll devote their resources to super PACs, where they don’t have to worry about limits on how much they give or reveal their names. Public financing does nothing to deter this shift into the shadows. MCCE’s celebration of the decline in private funding looks like a cynical attempt to justify taxpayer funding.

Or they could be naïve.


Sort of like when my wife gives me a peck on the cheek for picking up my dirty underwear. No need to shatter her illusions by revealing the dog dragged them out in the backyard and buried them.


Could that be a metaphor for something?

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System failure

Even Paul LePage, Republican governor and cloud of alien flatulence, knows referendums are bad. That’s because LePage keeps a three-ring binder showing 90 percent of Maine’s referendum questions are written by African-Americans and Hispanics from out of state, which explains why they contain words like “popo,” “bae” and “fleek.” That inner-city slang could only have been brought here by drug dealers from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.


Or, possibly, poseur white kids.


But that’s not why LePage, who insists he’s not a racist, opposes all five of the referendums we’ll be voting on this fall.


“I believe three of the questions on the November ballot are unconstitutional,” he wrote on a conservative website. “If they pass it will be impossible to uphold my oath of office.”


LePage is probably wrong about two of the three. Question 1, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use, conflicts with federal law, but not necessarily on constitutional grounds. Question 3, which requires background checks for private gun sales, has been litigated elsewhere and found not to violate the Second Amendment. As for Question 5, ranked-choice voting does appear to violate the state Constitution’s provisions requiring governors to be chosen by a plurality of the votes cast, and that municipal – rather than state – officials count ballots. If it passes, the courts will have a fine mess to sort out.


In addition, Question 2, which would hike taxes on the rich to pay for schools, attempts to bypass the legislative budget process, a shift that’s, at best, constitutionally problematic.


The bottom line: LePage is still right about legislating by referendum being wrong. As former GOP legislator Jonathan McKane put it in a recent newspaper op-ed, referendum campaigns result in “loose, oversimplified language [being] foisted on an unsuspecting public who are then bombarded with deceptive advertising.” If these measures pass, McKane said, we’ll see “more weakly drafted, unresearched, partisan and risky laws” in future elections, resulting in all manner of “disastrous consequences.”


McKane attributes the sudden surge in referendums to wealthy special interests. LePage claims liberals are behind these campaigns (everybody knows blacks and Hispanics are all left-wingers). They’ve both got it wrong.


The reason Maine is suffering from an infestation of citizen-initiated measures of dubious merit is because our elected leaders failed to do their jobs.

Maine’s referendum process, which requires organizers to gather signatures of registered voters equal to 10 percent of those who cast ballots in the most recent gubernatorial election, was put in place back in 1492 or maybe 1776, and was meant to provide the public with an outlet for their frustration on occasions when the governor and Legislature refused to deal with a pressing issue. For decades, these officials recognized that if they didn’t take some sort of action, voters might do so on their own. This possibility persuaded many a recalcitrant senator and representative to negotiate a compromise, rather than risk allowing normal people to meddle in matters they were incapable of fully comprehending.


But since LePage assumed office in 2011, the process of productive give and take has been largely absent from the State House. This governor doesn’t do deals. GOP legislators have sometimes backed LePage’s hardline positions, resulting in stalemates. At other times, Republicans have ignored the guv, thereby allowing certain issues to wither away. Democrats, realizing middle ground was nonexistent, saw no political advantage in offering concessions.


The result: Nothing happened.


Take for example, the minimum wage. The measure on the ballot calls for annual increases until the base pay reaches $12 per hour, after which it will be indexed to inflation. But two years ago, the governor and Legislature had every opportunity to pass a more modest hike to $10 per hour with no indexing. They refused to do so.


On gun control, there have been numerous chances ever since the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 to pass a more limited background-check bill, but it never got traction.


Marijuana legalization? Education funding? Election reform? All issues on which lawmakers could have acted responsibly, but instead punted.


Into that leadership vacuum stepped – depending on your viewpoint – assorted disgruntled citizens, devious political manipulators, or suspicious characters from out of state named “D-Money,” “Smoothie” and “Michael Bloomberg.”


No wonder our system is more frazzled than fleek.


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Pot of gold

“Caregiver” is a lovely word. It conveys all that’s best about humanity, such as our capacity for compassion, selflessness and quality TV programming.

On the other hand, “dope dealer” is an ugly term, carrying connotations of greed, corruption and sports-talk radio.

Strangely enough, in Maine, caregivers and dope dealers are often the same people. It’s as if “Masterpiece Theater” was suddenly interrupted by audio from “The Herd with Colin Cowherd.”

As the state prepares to vote on whether to legalize pot for recreational use, it’s worth noting that a sizable percentage of the illegal weed sold here currently comes from what the law refers to as “medical marijuana caregivers,” a term that conjures up images of humanitarian volunteers sharing doobies with Ebola victims. In reality, this sort of “caregiver” often makes a significant portion of his or her income selling weed to folks who have no health-related excuses to be smoking it.

Caregivers manage to justifying their dope dealing. They’ve told me they only sell to people with medical problems for which marijuana isn’t legally recognized as a treatment option, such as opioid addiction. They’ve told me they consider it wrong to deny the kind bud to those who wish to use it for relaxation. They’ve even occasionally admitted they do it for the money, because care-giving may be heartwarming, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

There are about 3,000 of these caregivers in Maine, each of whom is allowed to grow pot for five patients. By exploiting a legal loophole of constantly rotating their client lists, many caregivers actually serve far more than that. But even this skillful juggling of the books may not be enough to keep up with the high costs of electricity, hydroponics and security systems. So for many, retailing some of the crop to the general public is a business necessity.

How many caregivers are also illegal dealers isn’t known, but estimates by several involved in the sleazy side of the business ranged from 25 percent to 75 percent. By any calculation, that makes caregivers a major player in the illegal drug trade. But despite the criminal implications, that doesn’t mean those involved lack standards.

“I don’t sell to kids,” one caregiver told me. I later witnessed him making a deal with a couple guys who appeared to be not much more than 18. Even if the referendum is approved in November, that transaction still wouldn’t pass legal muster, because the minimum age for pot purchases would be 21.

“If they don’t buy it from me, they’ll get it from somebody else,” another caregiver added. “At least my product is high-quality with no additives or other crap like you might get on the street. It’s the same stuff I sell my medical patients.”

Quality is certainly important, even in the gray market. Caregivers need positive word of mouth, because they can’t expect glowing online reviews on Zagat or Yelp.

Of course, most of this hypocrisy will go up in smoke if the voters decide on Nov. 8 to end the prohibition against pot. Caregivers can stop pretending they’re Florence Nightingale in gardening overalls and embrace their role as entrepreneurs. One caregiver/dealer told me he and others are already drafting business plans.

“We’ll be using the craft beer industry as a model,” he said. “The big guys will try to corner the market, just like Budweiser and Coors, but we’ll market ourselves as premium brands responsive to local tastes, like little breweries do with their tap rooms.”

It would appear that in the much-anticipated legalized future, less of the average caregiver’s business will be off the books. There’ll be semi-accurate spreadsheets for the tax people and dues paid to trade associations and local chambers of commerce. There’ll be marketing budgets and investor opportunities. And there’ll be an intense public relations campaign.

Because these budding horticulturists are going to need a new name for their occupation. “Dope dealer” reeks of criminality and prohibition-era politics. And “caregiver” isn’t going to cut it when it becomes obvious they don’t actually care for their customers or give anything away.

“Pot opportunist” gets points for accuracy, but I can’t see that getting approved by the PR experts.

How about “eco-hedonist”?


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