Politics & Other Mistakes: The boring chronicles

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Janet Mills never came across as a dull person.

Until she became governor.

Al DiamonMills used to be engaging, forthright, funny and occasionally profane. When challenged, which she often was as Maine’s first female district attorney and attorney general, she could by turns be feisty, assertive and even haughty. What she wasn’t was a bore.

Maybe she’s still that way in private. But ever since Mills won the governorship four years ago, she’s transitioned from somebody you wouldn’t mind having a beer with to the sort of person who might host a cable TV show on the Watching Paint Dry channel.

Mills seems to have fallen into a pattern that’s long-established in the Maine Democratic Party. Former governor and congressman Joe Brennan never said or did anything interesting if it could be avoided. His example inspired (probably not the right word) the likes of Libby Mitchell, the Dems’ 2010 candidate for governor who finished a disastrous third in that race, and Mike Michaud, the ex-U.S. representative and the party’s failed 2014 gubernatorial hopeful, who only ever elicited a modicum of public interest when he announced he was gay.

It’s more than coincidence that both Mitchell and Michaud lost their bids for the Blaine House to Republican Paul LePage, the very guy that Mills is now running against. LePage is bombastic, untruthful, racist and often ill-informed. But like Elon Musk, he’s impossible to ignore.

If LePage were a professional wrestler, he’d be the kind who punches the referee and upends the judges’ table. He excites his followers because he doesn’t play by the rules. They like that about him because the rules have never worked too well for them, so they’re willing to toss them out and embrace radical – often nonsensical – solutions to their problems.

That sort of appeal can’t be counteracted with logic. It doesn’t yield to thoughtful arguments or carefully researched approaches. Attempting those kinds of responses is an excellent way to get your ass kicked.

And yet, that’s exactly how Mills has run her campaign for re-election. When LePage falsely claims Mills is handing out free crack pipes to addicts, she doesn’t suggest that maybe he’s been smoking the stuff himself. Instead, she offers up a convoluted explanation about mitigating the damage caused by addiction, while never clearly stating that some private group was responsible for the pipe giveaway.

Republicans backing LePage get a free ride when they assert that Mills raised the gas tax. Or plans to raise the gas tax. Or will force you to fuel your car with rat urine imported from China. The closest she comes to refuting those charges is a mumbled reiteration of her old pledge not to increase taxes.

LePage is having a fine time throwing around allegations Mills is responsible for education curricula that encourage little kids to decide they’re gay, lesbian, transgender or Democrats. Also, he doesn’t want schools teaching youngsters that people who talk like he does are racists. Mills’ belated response: an ad that seems to indicate she likes children and teachers and is sending them a lot of state money.

Mills went into this race having firmly locked down the votes of the state’s moderate bloc (eight Democrats, three Republicans, four independents and some guy who may be a misguided libertarian). She’s had to work harder to attract liberals upset by her opposition to tribal sovereignty, farm-labor reforms, closing the state’s only remaining youth prison and getting rid of dams on the Kennebec River. But in all those cases, she holds the same (or a more nuanced) position as LePage. The only way the left wing can punish her for her transgressions against the progressive protocols is to vote for a guy who’s even more repulsive to them than Mills.

Or they could just not vote for anybody for governor. Which amounts to the same thing.

Given Mills’ newly adopted lackluster persona and her campaign’s laissez-faire attitude toward unfair and inaccurate attacks, it becomes easier and easier for libs who supported her four years ago to take a pass on the gubernatorial contest this year. If significant numbers of them do that, you can chock another LePage victory up to the enduring quality of his opponents’ dullness.

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