Al Diamon

Al Diamon

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Corn mash

I’m puzzled by Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s sudden concern about the health effects of ethanol. Last month, LePage ordered the Maine Center for Disease Control and the state Department of Environmental Protection to study whether ethanol emissions are responsible for an assortment of ailments, including opioid addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, asthma, higher crime rates, depression and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

One reason I’m puzzled is because LePage hates studies. For the past six years, he’s routinely vetoed any bill approved by the Legislature calling for any sort of studying, including for final exams. Now, he’s suddenly decided a study is urgently needed on an obscure topic he’s never before placed anywhere near the top of his agenda.

I’m also puzzled because, according to reliable sources, the governor is not inclined to shy away from ethanol, particularly when cocktail hour rolls around. I’m told he’s been known to imbibe distillates of corn and other grains with great enthusiasm. Perhaps, like me, LePage is only distressed when perfectly drinkable ethanol is diverted from the glorious task of producing whiskey, rum, gin and vodka to serving as a mere additive in gasoline.

According to the Portland Press Herald, LePage’s abrupt shift on ethanol – he vetoed a 2015 bill to study the effects of gasoline additives, calling such a measure potentially unconstitutional – may have been prompted by Ralph Stevens, a 77-year-old mechanic from South Berwick. While Stevens’ theories about the myriad afflictions that may be caused by ethanol have all the trappings of somebody who’s spent too much time huffing car exhaust from tailpipes, he does have at least a particle of credibility. Back in the 1990s, Stevens was among the environmental advocates calling for a ban on MTBE, a gasoline additive that polluted groundwater and – unlike ethanol – was of no use in mixing a decent martini. Perhaps his concerns shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

Except maybe they should.

I’ve done extensive research (by which I mean I’ve read one newspaper article and searched the internet for nearly 15 minutes), and I’ve been unable to find any non-lunatic source that supports Stevens’ claims. (Those inclined to send me links to anti-ethanol articles written by certified whackjobs should note that the operative word in the previous sentence is “non-lunatic.”) While it’s debatable whether the federal mandate requiring the addition of ethanol to fuel is sound policy, there’s no evidence the stuff has ever turned anybody into a heroin addict or a Democrat.

Nevertheless, GOP state Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick told the Press Herald, “Mr. Stevens and I have been researching the corn ethanol issue for six years and have compiled thousands of pages of documentation that show clearly the government boondoggle this is.”

Back in 2011, O’Connor was one of just three legislators who voted against a bill to ban the use of the chemical BPA in children’s products such as sippy cups. The health claims against BPA were somewhat less specious than those against ethanol, but O’Connor’s opposition wasn’t entirely inconsistent with her current position. In an op-ed that year in the Bangor Daily News, she claimed the legislation was pushed through by Archer Daniels Midland, the company that was manufacturing a rival product and was “one of the biggest corn lobbies.”

She went on to say, “I speculate that Archer Daniels Midland is aware that the government boondoggle of corn ethanol in our fuel is being seriously questioned and it is likely they will need new products to cover the loss of the billions of dollars of government subsidies when people finally realize corn ethanol for what it is, wasteful.”

Also, the moon landing was faked, and Obama is a Martian.

(On her Facebook page and in the Press Herald story, O’Connor dismisses anyone who disagrees with her assessment by repeatedly telling them to “pound sand.” Isn’t that fracking?)

Getting rid of ethanol in gasoline would raise the cost of a gallon by about $1.30. But that might be a small price to pay for curing PTSD, crime and liberalism. And if it freed up lots of corn for other uses, it could drive down the amount we’re paying for beer and booze.

Suddenly, LePage’s newfound interest in banning ethanol begins to make sense.


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School (funding) is for losers

Let’s discuss the mind-numbing topic of financing Maine’s schools.

Just kidding.

It’s summertime, and no normal person wants to think about paying for education. That can wait until fall. Or winter. This is the season for focusing on more engaging topics, such as beer, sex and afternoon naps. Although, to be honest, those things are mostly what I think about in fall and winter, too, leaving almost no space on my mental agenda for considering how to cover the costs of teachers, laptops and sex-education videos.

Given the likelihood most of us will be no more inclined to tackle the matter of school funding at some later date, we might as well get it out of the way now. There’s even a compelling reason for pondering the problem sooner rather than later. The November ballot features a referendum question that has nothing to do with beer, sex or afternoon naps (sadly, that’s all too often the case with referendum questions), but does attempt to address how we pay for schools.

The question reads: “Do you want to add a 3 percent tax on individual Maine taxable income above $200,000 to create a state fund that would provide direct support for student learning in kindergarten through 12th grade public education?”

Or to put it more succinctly, “Do you want to soak the rich to pay for schools?”

In general, I’m in favor of taxing people who aren’t me, which is why I think there should be onerous duties levied on tofu, Zumba and “Independence Day” sequels. Forcing somebody with lousy taste in food, exercise or entertainment to pay is nearly as attractive as putting that burden on the wealthy. But, as is often the case, it’s not that simple.

According to the initiative’s supporters, this new tax would raise $157 million a year, enough cash to increase the state’s share of local education expenses from the current 47.5 percent to 55 percent. In theory, this would result in lower property taxes and better schools.

In reality, it would result in neither.

Those whose memories haven’t been dulled by beer, sex and afternoon naps may recall that in 2004 voters approved a referendum requiring the state to pay 55 percent of the cost of education. That proposal became – and still is – the law of the land. But like so many laws of the land that proved inconvenient, this statute has been routinely ignored by the Legislature and the governor.

How can they do that?


Every two years, the Legislature approves a budget allocating money for schools. And every two years, that figure is preceded by legal gobbledygook explaining that notwithstanding the will of the people, our senators, representatives and governor are permitted by the state Constitution (Article IX, Aisle 13, Shelf 3, right next to the tofu, Zumba outfits and “Independence Day” DVDs) to do whatever they damn well please, which is why they’re not funding education at anywhere near the legally mandated level of 55 percent. No mere referendum can compel them to do so.

If this new initiative passes, it will meet much the same fate. The 3 percent surcharge will almost certainly go into effect – politicians love tax increases for which they can’t be blamed – but there’s little chance the extra cash will be used to boost the state’s share of school costs. If Democrats are in charge when the tax kicks in Jan. 1, 2017, they’ll be inclined to use that funding for higher teacher salaries and to pay for expensive new education programs so kids won’t grow up to embrace a life of beer, sex and afternoon naps. If Republicans are in control, expect the money to be siphoned off for income tax cuts. If the current split in state government persists, expect absolutely nothing to happen. The money will just sort of evaporate like GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin when he’s asked about endorsing Donald Trump.

I’d like to see the state pay more than half the cost of local education. Hell, I’d like to see them pay the whole bill. But given the proclivities of our elected leaders, that’s never going to happen.

Best to spend your summer not thinking about it.

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Poor loser

Mark Holbrook has worse manners than Ted Cruz. (He refused to shake his opponent’s hand after a debate and mocked him online for being divorced and remarried.)

Holbrook is less electable than Carly Fiorina. (He’s a right-wing extremist running in a congressional district that skews strongly to the left.)

And Holbrook’s public persona makes Donald Trump look normal – almost. (He included a quote on his website claiming President Obama pitted “his Muslims against Christians.”)

Naturally, Republicans in Maine’s 1st District decided in the June primary that Holbrook of Brunswick would be the ideal candidate to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in November.

That’s because the state GOP seems incapable of grasping the concept known as “productive defeat.”

That term was probably invented years ago by some obscure political scientist, although it’s also possible I just made it up. Either way, it’s a useful tool for political parties seeking to build for the future. Here’s how it works:

Party X has no chance of winning a particular election. The seat is held by a popular incumbent. The demographics favor the opposition. The fundraising has been pathetic. The rest of Party X’s ticket has a better shot at victory, so it makes sense to direct resources where there’ll do the most good.

Even though that race is a certain loser, Party X’s candidate looks good on TV, works crowds like a pro and articulates positions clearly. That’s not going to be enough to win this election, but it could prove sufficient to set up the sacrificial lamb for future success. If Party X is willing to expend some effort on this race – enough to prevent a landslide loss – it might be rewarded with a solid nominee for something in the next election cycle.

Maine’s political landscape is cluttered with the results of productive defeats. Pingree got clobbered by Republican Susan Collins in the 2002 U.S. Senate race, but built on the name recognition and favorable media coverage from that campaign to win a congressional seat in 2008. Collins lost badly in her 1994 gubernatorial bid, but rebounded to take the 1996 Senate race. Republican Bruce Poliquin went nowhere in bids for governor (2010) and senator (2012), before finally figuring out how to disguise the fact he’s an obnoxious toad in his 2014 run for the 2nd Congressional District seat he now holds. Democrat Shenna Bellows lost to Collins in 2014, but demonstrated the campaign chops that make her the odds-on favorite to win a state Senate seat this year.

So what does this have to do with Holbrook? Other than his being, like Poliquin, an obnoxious toad?

Nothing, actually. Holbrook is going down to a non-productive defeat in November, awash in his rancid rhetoric excoriating Islam, immigrants, transsexuals and anybody even slightly to the left of Ben Carson. It’s likely he’ll never be heard from again, outside of crazed conservative social media.

But the missed opportunity for a productive defeat has a lot to do with the guy Holbrook beat in the GOP primary (pending a recount, which if it reverses the outcome, means there’s no point in reading the rest of this column) by a mere 55 votes out of over 20,000 ballots cast. Ande Smith of North Yarmouth came off as reasonable (although anybody not named LePage would look reasonable compared to Holbrook). If Smith had won, he’d likely have attracted enough general-election support to avoid embarrassing the GOP. He’d have been well positioned to run for something in 2018.

Unfortunately for his political career, Smith’s defeat by Holbrook wasn’t productive. Generally regarded as the frontrunner in that race, Smith raised more money and built a bigger campaign organization. He was an outsider, but not given to insane rants and wacko conspiracy theories like his opponent. His views were close enough to the mainstream to avoid scaring off moderates and liberals who make up the majority of voters in the 1st District.

But moderates and liberals don’t cast ballots in Republican primaries. Extremists, however, do. Despite GOP state chairman Rick Bennett’s claim that both primary candidates “have bright futures in Maine public life,” Smith’s failure to overcome the kooks will taint his reputation. Without serious revamping, he’s got nowhere to go.

Republicans wasted one here.


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Minimum effort


There are two kinds of people claiming to support a higher minimum wage in Maine:

1. Those who genuinely believe raising the minimum from $7.50 per hour to $12 in several steps by voting for a referendum on the November ballot will improve the lives of folks who are struggling to make ends meet, and …

2. Liars.

To help distinguish between the two, a little history might prove useful. But first, let’s take note of a comment Peter Gore, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of government relations, made to the Bangor Daily News earlier this month.

“I don’t think anyone has argued that the minimum wage shouldn’t go up,” Gore said.

That’s true – except for Gore, business groups, Republicans and an unlikely ally (who’ll be unmasked in a few paragraphs) – all of whom have long records of opposing even modest increases.

For instance, in 1988, they claimed adding a dime an hour to the base wage of $3.75 would wreck the state’s economy. The Democratic Legislature did so anyway. The economy hardly noticed.

The GOP probably could have avoided this year’s referendum if they’d accepted a Dem plan in 1990 to index the minimum to inflation, making raises automatic. But Republicans foiled the effort by claiming it would “cause small-business owners to drown in a tide of rising labor costs.” The next year, the feds jacked the rate to $4.25 per hour. Nobody required mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

In 1995, Gore said a bill to boost the minimum to five bucks would “place Maine at a disadvantage.” Then, a more influential politician killed the measure by claiming it sent the “wrong signal.” That person was independent Gov. Angus King, now our junior U.S. senator, who’d go on to veto wage increases in 1998, 1999 and 2000, arguing they’d have “an adverse impact on all workers by discouraging the creation of new jobs in our state.”

During this period, Gore was far from silent, telling a legislative committee, “[I]t’s the small business guy who would get hurt in this” and “We oppose unilaterally increasing the minimum wage because Maine is in competition globally for jobs and opportunity.”

Even though the wage didn’t go up, those jobs and opportunities never arrived. Could it be there’s not much correlation between base pay and economic development?

By 2001, Maine was tied with New Hampshire for New England’s lowest minimum, at which point both King and Gore had an epiphany: Maybe a modest increase wouldn’t be that drastic a change, after all. A measure to raise the wage in two steps to $6.25 passed easily and was signed into law.

In 2004, another increase was approved, this time to $6.50, over Gore’s half-hearted opposition: “Our economy just doesn’t warrant that.” In 2006, he actually admitted a two-step boost to seven bucks an hour wasn’t a big deal to the chamber’s members. In 2007, a bill to establish a $7.70 minimum did become a big deal for the chamber, with Gore’s boss, president Dana Connors, telling legislators, “It’s too much, too soon and it goes too far” (the same argument Gore is using against this November’s referendum). The Legislature eventually approved a gradual increase to $7.50, where the state minimum has languished ever since.

Bills calling for further hikes were introduced in 2009, 2011 and 2013, the last of which passed, only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. But by 2015, both Portland and Bangor had approved higher local minimums, and the Maine People’s Alliance was on the verge of collecting enough signatures to force that aforementioned statewide vote. Too late, Gore and the Republicans noticed the writing on the walls consisted mostly of polls showing overwhelming popular support for a higher minimum. In a desperate attempt to head off the referendum increasing the wage to $12 by 2020, after which it would be indexed to inflation, Gore offered “a more reasonable alternative,” a gradual rise to $10 with no indexing.

That idea went nowhere in the Legislature, but does allow Gore to claim he favors an increase, even if it’s one he’s opposed in the past and is employing now in a feeble attempt to divide wage-hike supporters.

If that’s not lying, it’s pretty damn close.


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You get what you pay for

Maine legislators earn about $22,000 for a two-year term, somewhat less than the going rate for freelance political columnists. This seems fair, because state senators and representatives are only funny unintentionally.

Nevertheless, there are frequent calls to raise legislative salaries, with proponents arguing that such miniscule compensation prevents average working folks from serving. As a consequence, the Legislature is overrun with retirees, lawyers, rich people and teachers (who have a special legal exemption that preserves their jobs while they’re off in Augusta voting for higher pay for teachers). People living paycheck to paycheck (call-center employees, wait staff, factory workers, drug dealers, political columnists) can’t afford to take unpaid leave to spend nine of the next 24 months under the State House dome.

The result is a governing body that doesn’t reflect the state’s population. The fishing industry is underrepresented, as are forest products, agriculture, janitors, panhandlers and political columnists, while the educated, wealthy and old have a disproportionate role in setting state policies. The Maine Legislature looks too much like Cape Elizabeth and not enough like Caratunk.

Several proposals have been floated for correcting this misalignment. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Paul LePage called for cutting the size of the Legislature and using the savings to increase compensation for the remaining members. As with most LePage ideas, this one was accompanied by a spittle storm of insults and accusations of incompetence, guaranteeing that the legislative targets of his verbal assault would treat his plan with all the respect due a dog poop deposited on the front lawn.

There are, however, other proposals on how best to set the level of legislative pay. As University of Missouri political science Professor Peverill Squire (I am not making up that name) told the FiveThirtyEight blog, “The question of salaries has haunted American legislatures since the 1640s. It has been a chronic issue where lawmakers generally ask for more pay and the public is almost always resistant.”

The public has good reason. As Squire and others have pointed out, high pay bears only the slightest correlation to high quality. States providing the most generous legislative compensation – New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania, for instance – sport above average rates of corruption and idiocy. But Squire also noted that reasonable pay rates (a term that’s as squishy as “reasonable Donald Trump statements on race and religion”) do seem to be necessary to produce orderly governance (although that’s skewed by a couple of other factors I’ll get to in a moment).

By national standards, Maine’s legislative pay, which averages about $11,000 per year, is on the low side. Research by Squire and Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief shows the median annual wage for all legislators in 2014 was $20,833. But that doesn’t include per diems that can add as much as 10 grand per year to paychecks, although in Maine they’re only worth an extra $4,800.

Even with that perk, FiveThirtyEight found just 12 states pay their senators and representatives as much as that state’s median household income, and Maine isn’t close to being one of them. Our state’s median in 2014 was $49,462, while legislators’ pay plus per diem totaled a mere $15,852.

Before we rush to close that gap, consider that researchers have discovered that the quality of legislating isn’t necessarily elevated by fatter paychecks. Of more importance is how long legislatures are in session and the size of the legislative staff (no anatomy jokes, please). The studies found that longer sessions and more staffers greatly enhanced (ahem) the efficiency and professionalism of state legislatures.

Maine is on the short side in terms of the duration of sessions (although anyone who’s actually sat through one will tell you they last longer than the average ice age), at about six months in odd numbered years and three months in even ones. And according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, we have one of the smallest staffs in the country relative to the size of the Legislature, with little more than three-quarters of a staffer per legislator.

I hope the part that’s missing isn’t the head.

Better state government is expensive. Like better political columns.

Oh, wait.


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Let’s get filthy

To clean up politics, we’ve got to get dirty.

Instead of squandering millions of dollars on public financing of campaigns through Maine’s Clean Election Act, it’s time to acknowledge reality. Providing a few thousand bucks from the public coffers to a legislative candidate doesn’t reduce the amount of private funding expended on any particular race. It just diverts money that might have been donated directly to the campaign to political action committees (some run by the allegedly “clean” politicians themselves) and other outside groups with difficult-to-discern agendas and a roster of donors they’re legally allowed to keep secret.

Campaign-finance reformers’ efforts to get the big money out of politics have only succeeded in making it tougher to figure out where the private cash is coming from. That’s because the Clean Election crowd has always been obsessed with the amount spent, rather than the intentions of those behind those huge checks.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution that relieves taxpayers from the burden of paying for politicians’ lawn signs and TV spots, and makes it easier to figure out who’s buying up candidates for nefarious purposes.

I call it the Maine Dirty Election Act.

Let’s face it, nearly all hotly contested campaigns are dirty. But under the current complicated system, it’s almost impossible to figure out who’s shoveling that dirt. Shadowy organizations with names like the Concerned Citizens Intent on Improving the Lives of Every Mainer Except Possibly the Poor and Middle Classes and Assorted Others of Their Ilk operate on the political fringes because that’s the easiest way to influence outcomes. By limiting or banning direct contributions to candidates, we’ve made it more inviting for odious special interests to cloak their activities behind these legal – but reprehensible – fronts.

But what if individuals could give any amount to any politician. The only requirement would be that such contributions must be fully disclosed immediately upon receipt. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have to be treated like people for political purposes, they too should be allowed to donate without limits. The catch is they must reveal the names of their principle owners, their top management and all of their spouses, kids, pets and BFFs.

I can hear the Clean Election crowd howling in protest that this system would allow rich people and their corporate cronies to buy candidates wholesale. But the wealthy already do that. Under the current rules, we just don’t know about it. The Dirty Election Act would fix that by making it clear (I know, ironic, isn’t it) exactly who is a bought-and-paid-for puppet of whom. Then, if we bothered to do a little research, we could decide which candidates to support or oppose accordingly.

“People are angry,” said a prominent political activist in a recent newspaper op-ed. “People are frustrated with a political and economic system that leaves too many behind. People want a government that either works in the interest of the American people or gets out of their way.”

I could endorse those sentiments if the activist in question wasn’t Andrew Bossie, the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. I have a sneaking suspicion he’s not really committed to that “gets out of the way” philosophy and wouldn’t be supportive of my system that does just that – while saving money and increasing transparency – possibly because if he did so, he’d be out of a job.

Instead, Bossie and his cohorts want to increase the amount of public funding available to “clean” candidates, apparently believing the $4 million per election cycle we’re now wasting hasn’t produced a Legislature sufficiently filled with extruded Play-Doh blob-oids incapable of accomplishing anything unless instructed to do so by their secret financial benefactors.

Dirty elections wouldn’t be pretty, but they’d be free, both from costs to taxpayers and undue restrictions. Clean elections conceal their ugliness better, but they carry a high price tag and beget ever more complex regulatory structures. In March, for instance, Bossie’s group released a poll asking voters if they favored forcing gubernatorial candidates to use public money. Such a law would almost certainly be unconstitutional, but the organization nonetheless took pleasure in claiming “almost half” of those polled supported the idea.

Get real. And then, get dirty.


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Blue newspaper

Republican Gov. Paul LePage loves to tell audiences that buying a Maine daily newspaper is like paying someone to lie to you.

Of course, the same could be said of the factually challenged governor.

Matthew Gagnon, the chief executive officer of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, sent out an email recently attacking the state’s largest daily. “It's no surprise that a libral (sic) rag of a publication like the Portland Press Herald reguarly (sic) disregards inconvenient facts and omits information to paint conservatives in a negative light,” Gagnon wrote.

It appears spell check is guilty of the same crime.

In early May, the Maine Sunday Telegram published an in-depth investigation of questionable tactics used in an undercover sting operation by the Maine Warden Service. The agency responded by accusing the paper of printing “misrepresentations and inaccuracies.”

The wardens seem to believe those words are synonyms for “facts.”

Despite these mostly specious attacks, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at the state’s newspapers. The copy editing is sloppy (the Lewiston Sun Journal has run headlines referring to the NFL team in Seattle as the “Mariners,” even though that’s the city’s baseball team, and the wire-service stories correctly identified the football team as the Seahawks). Upper management is timid about publishing anything that hints of, you know, S-E-X (rumors of Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling’s affair with a prominent lobbyist were ignored for weeks by the Press Herald until the story broke on a monthly magazine’s website). Enormous effort is wasted on trivialities (the Bangor Daily News website can’t go a day without a story about how Maine rates as a place to walk your dog or as a producer of quality meth or as a venue to have an affair with a prominent lobbyist). And papers are losing quality journalists (the Press Herald recently bragged about being a finalist for a major business journalism award, but two of the three reporters who wrote the articles on poor oversight of state development investments have since left the paper).

Whether it’s these shortcomings, the political attacks or demographic trends, the state’s dailies have been bleeding readers for more than a decade. From its high-water mark of an average of nearly 80,000 copies sold daily, the Press Herald now unloads just over 31,000, according to new figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. The Telegram, which once boasted circulation of 120,000 each week, is down to less than 48,000. Those figures represent a loss over the last year of 8 percent for the Press Herald and 7 percent for the Telegram.

Other papers showed similar declines. AAM reports the Bangor Daily shed 8 percent of its readers this past year and is now selling about 27,500 papers on weekdays and a bit over 34,000 on weekends. The Sun Journal is off 9 percent both on weekdays (17,873) and Sundays (19,515). The Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta slid between 5 and 6 percent for all editions. (The state’s other two dailies, Biddeford’s Journal Tribune and Brunswick’s Times Record haven’t submitted circulation figures to AAM for several years.)

There is one glimmer of hope in the AAM statistics. The Press Herald, Telegram, KJ and Sentinel – all owned by Maine Today Media – added significant numbers of paid subscribers to their digital editions. The increase in online readers in the last 12 months more than offset the loss of print customers. If these figures are accurate (counting digital subscribers sometimes reflects certain fudge factors), Maine Today’s total circulation is now its highest since 2012, with a combined readership of over 45,000 for the Press Herald and over 62,000 for the Telegram (although it’s worth noting that online readers are far less valuable to advertisers than buyers of the print edition).

This turnaround isn’t showing up at other papers. The Bangor Daily, which places heavy emphasis on its online offerings, added just 31 new digital customers, hardly making a dent in the 2,500 print readers that vanished. The Lewiston paper, which has always appeared to be double-counting its online audience (it claims over 25,000 e-readers, 8,000 more than its weekday print circulation), lost over 600 digital customers.

Maybe Mainers are taking LePage’s advice, after all.


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I wanna be your dog

I suspect Bruce Poliquin has hired one of my dogs as a political consultant.

Which might not be a bad move on the part of the freshman Republican congressman from Maine’s 2nd District –  if he gets the right advice. You know, like how to look so cute when being scolded that there’s no chance he’ll be punished.

Me: Bad boy, Brucie, bad boy. You switch positions on issues such as LGBT rights, foreign trade, funding Planned Parenthood and gun control based on how they affect your chances of re-election. You consistently support legislation helping rich people and big banks avoid paying their fair share. You try to distract me from your misdeeds by introducing meaningless bills like the one denying welfare benefits to terrorists. You’re a bad, bad boy.

Him: (rolls over, wags tail, looks at me with big brown eyes filled with love, while whimpering to indicate he wants me to scratch his belly)

Me: Oh, Brucie, how can I stay mad at you, when you engage in such adorable, nonverbal modes of communication. Here’s a doggie treat in the form of a campaign donation. But you be a good boy from now on.

Unfortunately, that’s not the lesson our representative has learned. Well, maybe not so unfortunately. The thought of scratching Bruce Poliquin’s belly is repulsive.

No, the tactic he’s adopted from my dog Hooper, a 12-year-old terrier-hound mix with slightly less intelligence than my couch, is how to deal with uncomfortable interactions with the real world.

Hooper is not only dopey, but also mostly deaf. When called, he either doesn’t pay any attention or reacts with a look of mild confusion while remaining sprawled on the couch in case he needs to seek its wise counsel concerning whatever issue may have arisen.

Poliquin has obviously studied Hooper’s methods. Reporters in Washington have twice approached him asking if he’s going to endorse Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. Poliquin knows that no matter what he answers, it’s bound to do some political damage. If he says yes, it fires up liberals and provides fodder for attack ads from his Democratic opponent, Emily Cain. But, more importantly, a yes reply also threatens to inflame the passions of many conservatives, who don’t trust Trump. That latter group is a crucial part of Poliquin’s base he can’t afford to alienate.

At the same time, the congressman doesn’t have the luxury of blowing off Trump. Refusing to endorse him would be perceived by many potential donors as disloyal to the Republican Party. Without their support, Poliquin’s chances of winning a second term diminish greatly.

The best course for a smart pol is to do what Hooper does. Silence offends no one.

Although, it can make even someone as short as Poliquin look like a giant dork.

In March, a reporter from Politico asked him if he was backing Trump. Poliquin admitted that was a “good question.” Then, he shut up and waited awkwardly for an elevator to save him from having to say what he really thought.

In May, after liberal blogger Mike Tipping made public a tape recording of Poliquin telling a GOP women’s group that he didn’t even know what half of Trump’s policies were, but was ready to lead the charge in the House to refine and implement them, a journalist from Roll Call repeated the endorsement query. Poliquin “refused to answer or acknowledge the questions” and “stared straight ahead and occasionally looked at his phone, walking briskly from the House floor to another press conference.”

That’s exactly how Hooper would have handled it – except for the phone.

Hooper, however, has an excuse. He’s a dog. He has no idea who Trump is and would only care about his candidacy if doing so involved pork chops.

Poliquin isn’t deaf, and he’s probably smarter than my couch. The only reason he’s not answering is because he’s fundamentally dishonest and is hoping to deceive at least some of his constituents about his intentions.

One last point: Trump needs the endorsement of an insignificant congressman from northern Maine about as much as he needs more orange facial makeup. It’s likely The Donald doesn’t even know who Poliquin is.

Hooper, apparently, does know – and that’s disturbing.


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Diminishing returns

As Donald Trump has so colorfully reminded us, size matters. Nobody wants to be perceived as … er … teeny weenie.

Given the populist belief that bigger is better, it’s difficult to understand the logic that drives persistent efforts to reduce the size of the Maine Legislature. As pitiful as the current House (151 denizens) and Senate (35 critters) have been, there’s nothing to indicate that a legally mandated shrinkage would improve their performance.

The most recent legislative shriveling initiative splashed down like a cold shower from Republican Gov. Paul LePage in March. LePage has always been fairly balanced in his support for contraction (government spending, solar power, Democrats) and expansion (manufacturing, mining, his waistline). But when the guv introduced his proposal, his spokesman said cutting the Senate to 25 seats and the House to 100 was necessary because the current configuration made it “hard to work together, keep everyone informed and get work done.”

Of course, the same could be said of the governor, and no one is claiming that sweating 50 pounds of blubber off his gut would improve performance.

Over the years, misguided reformers from both major political parties have advocated for a smaller Legislature, claiming it would increase efficiency. There’s no evidence of that in states like Rhode Island, where there are only 113 legislators, but the economy sucks and corruption runs rampant. Meanwhile, New Hampshire, with 424 senators and representatives, enjoys boom times and minimal graft.

It could be argued that cutting the size of the legislative appendage is another one of those feel-good reforms – such as term limits, publicly financed campaigns, ranked choice voting, recycling congressional candidate Emily Cain – that produce no discernable improvements in the body politic. But there’s another reason to resist efforts to chop off a sizable portion of the legislative branch:

It would leave rural Maine with almost no representation.

Actually, rural Maine doesn’t have much in the way of representation now. Most districts are of LePage-like dimensions, and most legislators already come from larger municipalities. A smaller Legislature would exacerbate that problem. Add to that the demographic trends that have seen steady out-migration from the state’s economically depressed countryside, and the next census could leave Aroostook County, which is bigger than Rhode Island, with less representation than the average North Korean peasant.

If Maine had only 25 senators, it’s probable that 15 of them would come from the 10 largest cities. While LePage might have deluded himself into believing that fewer senators would be easier to deal with, he apparently hasn’t noticed that most of the state’s biggest municipalities are heavily Democratic. Likewise in the House, losing 51 seats would hasten the shift of power from northern Maine, where the GOP has an edge, to the southern part of the state, where Dems prevail. Reduction would likely leave LePage with a Legislature firmly in the hands of the opposition.

It’s worth noting that this scenario is almost certainly going to occur over time, even if there’s no legislative deflation. As mills continue to close and forestry jobs disappear, the entire half of Maine north of Bangor will gradually revert to wilderness interrupted by meth labs and the occasional national park advocate. Legislative representation in these sparsely inhabited regions will become the responsibility of absentee officials in distant locations.

At least, they won’t have to put up with the meth stink.

Whenever these issues are raised, certain individuals – whom I’ll politely refer to as drug-addled numbnuts – always announce that the solution is returning Maine to the system it once used of allocating two senators to each county. In this way, the few remaining residents of Piscataquis, Somerset and Franklin counties would have as much influence in the upper chamber as those of Cumberland, York and Androscoggin, where most of the state’s population resides. Trouble is, this arrangement violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-person-one-vote rule. It also grants more political juice to trees than people.

What LePage and other shrinkage advocates don’t seem to understand is that the Legislature, like Congress, is inefficient by design. The drafters of the state and federal constitutions erected these obstructions because they recognized that citizens needed to be protected from ill-considered laws proposed by small-minded demagogues.

And that was huge.


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It’s not over

It’s time to relax and take a break from politics.

The Legislature has adjourned, not to return until December when there’ll be some new faces, but many more old faces, so don’t expect any change.

Gov. Paul LePage has announced he’ll no longer make as many public appearances, because “rich college kids” and “idiots” show up to protest the idiotic things he says, while the media ignore his accomplishments and make a big deal out of him being offensive and inaccurate.

There are five referendum questions to be decided, but not until November, and most of us already know how we’re voting on legalizing pot, ranked-choice voting, raising the minimum wage, requiring background checks for private gun sales and some kind of education-funding thingy that (like all education-funding thingies) promises more than it can deliver, because our elected leaders regard education-funding-thingy referendums as mere suggestions that are meant to be ignored.

As for the presidential race, it’s all but settled, which means we no longer have to pay attention to one nominee’s inability to be truthful and the other’s inability to perform even a flimsy imitation of a normal human being.

There’s nothing to do except kick back, open a cold one and – wait – primary election? WHAT PRIMARY ELECTION!??!

Apparently, against everyone’s better judgment, Maine has scheduled a primary for June 14. This will be an opportunity for voters to decide such important questions as which of two right-wing Republicans will be given the honor of being crushed by 1st District Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. If you care deeply about this matter, please get help.

Also, there are several intra-party squabbles over legislative seats. I’d list some of the more interesting ones, but because they’re legislative races, there aren’t any interesting ones. Nevertheless, as a public service (and because I’m nowhere close to my word count), I’ll mention a few, so you can see why democracy is a highly overrated form of government.

Democrats in Biddeford, Alfred, Arundel, Dayton, Kennebunkport and Lyman will have to choose between boring-but-rational state Sen. Susan Deschambault and eccentric-but-annoying Joanne Twomey, a former Biddeford mayor and legislator best known for once throwing a jar of Vaseline at LePage’s feet during one of those public events the governor has cut back on. Twomey may make some noise, but Deschambault will slide to victory like she was greased with you know what.

On the Portland peninsula, the most liberal Senate district in the state, two of the most liberal state representatives in the state are looking to succeed Justin Alfond, the term-limited incumbent. Democrats Diane Russell and Ben Chipman are in a frantic contest to prove who’s the bigger leftist, while a third candidate, Charles Radis, has deluded himself into thinking he has a chance, even though he’s a doctor and ought to know better.

Senate District 2 takes up a chunk of Aroostook and Penobscot counties roughly the size of Afghanistan, only with a worse economy. Republicans state Rep. Ricky Long of Sherman and Presque Isle resident Emily Smith both contend they’re the best bet to hold the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Mike Willette (he of the offensive Facebook postings), but it may not matter because Democrat Mike Carpenter of Houlton, a former legislator and attorney general, is the early favorite in the November vote.

Another open Senate seat, this one in the Gardiner-Hallowell area, due to the retirement of Republican Earle McCormick, has prompted primaries for both parties. Democrat Shenna Bellows, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, is the Democratic frontrunner, with George O’Keefe and the delightfully named Terry Berry offering such competition as they may. The GOP race features Bryan Cutchen and Maureen Blanchard, both of whom may be swell people, but I haven’t bothered to check.

In Saco, Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino has had her fill of Augusta. The Dem primary to replace her features state Rep. Justin Chenette, one of the party’s bright young polliwogs, against state Rep. Barry Hobbins, a dinosaur thought to have gone extinct centuries ago.

The political season isn’t over yet. There are still important decisions to make. Like what kind of beer to drink while ignoring the primaries.


There may be other candidates I didn’t get around to insulting.  Suggestions can be emailed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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