Maine’s King Makes Independence A Virtue

By: - November 30, 1999 12:00 am

AUGUSTA, Me — Governing a state as a political independent, without the backing of a major party, is sort of like going to the senior prom without a date. While you may be able to dance with whomever you want, you have to be very careful not to antagonize anyone else’s partner.

Angus S. King, Jr., the Independent governor of Maine, knows what it’s like. He won the governor’s office in his first try at elective politics in 1994 by the narrowest of margins against candidates of the two major parties. Last year, King was reelected in another three-way race with more than 60 percent of the vote.

“He’s obviously done a hell of a good job reaching out to people, right across the political spectrum. He works very hard at the job…He’s at every crossroads dance, “says Patrick Murphy, president of Strategic Marketing Services, a Portland-based polling organization.

But unlike Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, the nation’s only other independent governor, elected last year as the Reform party’s candidate, King hasn’t made much of a name for himself nationally.

King “has avoided being in the national limelight to a large extent, and he has really pretty much stuck to trying to do the job in Maine,” says Kenneth Curtis, a former Democratic governor of Maine.

King believes there are several benefits to being free of party affiliation.

“It gives me a much broader scope of people to appoint,” he says, explaining that Independents don’t have patronage obligations. “In terms of deciding policy, it’s a lot easier as an Independent. You don’t have to worry about what the effect of your decision will be on the party’s allegiance to one constituency group or another.”

Having no ready-made allies can be a drawback, King admits. “As somebody once said to me early on, there’s nobody in the legislature with any stake in your success. I have no automatic friends in the legislature, but I have no automatic enemies. I have 186 skeptics.”

Libby Mitchell, a Democrat, was one of the skeptics when she served as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives from 1996 to 1998. Working with an Independent governor, she says, was “a different kind of relationship.”

Mitchell, now a fellow at the Muskie Institute of Public Affairs in Portland, says King’s lack of party allegiance made compromise even more of a political art.

“The governor owed our party nothing, and he owed the Republican party nothing. What he needed from us was our votes. So each of the three had to negotiate,” she says.

Another skeptic-turned-admirer is Mark Lawrence, the Democratic State Senate leader. “There were unique circumstances in this case for Governor King to get elected, and I think he knew how to take advantage of those circumstances and seize the opportunity. And once he got into office, he knew how to take advantage of the opportunity presented to him,” Lawrence says.

Those circumstances involved a bitter fight between King’s predecessor, Republican John R. McKernan, Jr., and the legislature’s Democratic majority, led by the longtime speaker, John Martin.

“They weren’t talking to each other,” says L. Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College. “They shut down the Maine state government in the budget battle. And Angus came in and basically said, ‘Look, we’re going to do this differently. We’re going to be civil.”

What King did, says Maisel, was to use his political savvy to stake out “a very careful middle ground, and he has not alienated either side in the government.”

King, 55, also was able to capitalize on his personal wealth, using it to self-finance his 1994 campaign. A native of Virginia who moved to Maine soon after graduating from law school, King worked for then-U.S. Sen. William Hathaway, a Democrat, and as a legal aid attorney before becoming host of a Maine public television program.

In the late 1980s, he started an energy conservation consulting business. He sold the company in January 1994 for almost million, pocketing million after paying off loans and capital gains taxes.

“If I hadn’t been able to spend three-quarters of a million dollars — I raised three-quarters, I spent (another) three-quarters — Joe Brennan would be governor. You have to be able to afford a real campaign,” King says, referring to his Democratic opponent in 1994, a former governor who was the odds-on favorite early in the race.

Many Maine politicians and academics say King as governor has shown excellent communication and political skills. But they criticize him for putting too much emphasis on attracting tele-marketers and other employers with a grab bag of tax breaks, at the expense of improving the state university system.

King’s charisma will be his legacy, according to Maisel.

“There is not (much in his record that provides) a firm foundation on which to build a lot. It is based on him,” Maisel says.

Michael Hillard, an associate professor of economics at the University of Southern Maine, agrees. “There’s no vision. Angus King’s vision of a future is a (state) that is friendly for business, that’s doing well on the Internet and bringing in call centers.”

King shrugs off the criticism and slaps down suggestions that as Independents, he and Ventura are unique. “I do think there is a national frustration with the parties, and this kind of thing can and probably will happen in other places,” he says.

In fact, non-affiliated governors are not all that unusual in Maine. James Longley, who led the state in the 1970s, was also elected as an Independent.

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