Politics & Other Mistakes: The eternal lawmaker

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It’s tough to write Democratic state Rep. John Martin’s obituary. Mostly because it’s tough to tell if he’s really dead.

During a career in Maine politics that’s lasted more than a half-century, Martin of Eagle Lake has had a stake driven through his heart. He’s been drawn and quartered. He’s been burned, hanged, and electrocuted.

Yet, after each execution, there was Martin, still alive. Or at least undead.

Al DiamonSince he was first elected to the Legislature in 1964 – back when the average house cost $13,000, gas went for 30 cents a gallon, and President Lyndon Johnson and his cronies were fabricating the Gulf of Tonkin incident that would lead to a dramatic escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War – Martin has served in either the state House or Senate for all but four years. He was speaker of the House for two decades and a major force behind the scenes, even when he wasn’t in office.

Now, he’s once again being forced out by term limits, and at age 80, there’s speculation his career as the state’s premier powerbroker is at an end.

Don’t bet more than you can afford to lose.

“There are other things I could do, you know,” Martin told the Bangor Daily News. “But I’ll be running my summer camps this summer, so I’ll have a lot of time to think about things.”

If Martin is truly gone, he won’t be soon forgotten. His legacy includes writing the rules under which the Legislature operates. His fingerprints are all over a wide variety of environmental laws, including shoreland zoning. He successfully blocked numerous gun control measures. His opposition to abortion and gay rights was a significant roadblock to liberalizing those laws for many years.

But his most enduring impact on state government is a law he neither sponsored nor supported.

After his top aide was found to have tampered with ballots during a 1992 recount of a legislative race, a wide range of political activists collected the signatures to put a term-limits law on the ballot. Martin was the poster boy for this campaign, with his opponents (many of them his fellow Democrats) arguing his long tenure in office had allowed him to accumulate too much power.

The voters approved the measure in 1993 by a wide margin. It limits legislators to four consecutive two-year terms, and Martin’s enemies celebrated his certain demise.

Guess again.

Although he’d been forced out of the speakership (after a bitter two-year battle) by his proximity to the ballot-tampering scandal and his frequent displays of arrogance, he remained in the Legislature, jumping from the House to the Senate and back again with only two short breaks. Even more confounding to his critics, he continued to exert enormous influence, mostly because he knew where the bodies were buried, and he understood the rules better than anyone else.

“In this last session, more than half the questions posed to me were on parliamentary process,” Martin told Maine Times in 1996. “This will get worse. Keep in mind that 80 percent of (the) Maine House next time will have been there one term or less (and) the system cannot function when you reach levels like 80 percent.”

The result of all that legislative inexperience caused by term limits was an increase in Martin’s political power. As a former legislator told the Associated Press in 1998, “He will be able to wreck and derail just about any piece of legislation being proposed.”

Hyperbole? Only slightly.

In the decades since he left the speaker’s rostrum, Martin has thwarted governors, co-opted the authority of subsequent legislative leaders, and cleared the way for bills that appeared to align favorably with his outside business interests. Whether it was convincing a state board to buy land that was said to provide access to his summer camps or easing environmental regulations on a Canadian company seeking mining permits at the same time the company forgave significant debt owed by one of Martin’s businesses, he’s always managed to skate just shy of the corruption line.

There’s no reason to think he’s mellowed. He certainly hasn’t expired. So, this isn’t an obituary.

It’s more of a warning.

Raise a ruckus that will raise the dead by emailing [email protected].

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