December 11, 2012

MIKE TIPPING: Legislators shouldn't let life under dome blur link to constituents

Mike Tipping

One of the greatest ideals of democracy is a close, intimate connection between the people of a state or country and the individuals who represent them in government.

As Thomas Paine wrote, upon this "depends the strength of government and the happiness of the governed."

In Maine, with our large number of state representatives, our legislative term limits and a system of clean elections through public financing (now crippled, unfortunately), legislators are theoretically closer to the people they represent than are politicians in almost any other state in the country.

Even here, however, there's a tendency for that connection to become frayed.

What's more, some forces are working actively to weaken it: lobbyists with corporate agendas, institutions that are resistant to change and the alienating effect of Augusta itself.

Dozens of times now, I've heard the State House described by those who serve and work there as being like a high school for adults. It has cliques and hierarchies, customs and norms, and a complex web of social interactions among legislators, lobbyists and staff. It can be insular, reactive and full of unproductive drama. Those who get caught up in this bubble can forget what they've come there to do.

A good example is last session's budget debates. Far too many progressive lawmakers thought they could make a deal with Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans.

They allowed cuts to health care and assistance programs and gave in on huge new tax breaks for the wealthy in a compromise that they hoped would stave off even worse cuts targeting the poor and the vulnerable.

They were wrong.

Instead, LePage came back later that year with a proposal to cut health care for another 65,000 Mainers, and Republicans eventually passed a devastating budget on a party-line vote.

During the election season, it was obvious that Democrats realized they had made the wrong decision. In fact, both the party and outside groups heavily targeted Republicans for voting in favor of that same 2011 budget.

"Nichi Farnham voted for tax cuts for Maine's millionaires, paid for by retirees and seniors," read the front of a mail piece sent by the Democratic Party in the Senate District 32 race in Bangor. Most other races with Republicans who voted for the unpopular tax cuts saw similar ads.

Now that they're back in control of the Legislature and with LePage still in the Blaine House, Democrats will face renewed pressure to make compromises for the sake of strategy or expediency.

There's just as much risk of them falling into the same kind of trap. The example of LePage can be instructive in this case. While he certainly has alienated a large portion of the electorate with his hard-right policies and offensive statements, he also has proved that he's his own man and that no one, not even his own beleaguered communications staff, can tell him what to do.

In spite of two years of divisive remarks and a belligerent attitude toward his fellow public servants (including his wielding of the veto like a club against a Legislature controlled by his own party), public opinion polls show LePage still maintains the support of slightly more than the percentage of voters who put him into office in the first place.

Imagine how well Democrats can do if they show the same kind of backbone, minus the destructive behavior, and stand up for a set of values that are vastly more popular than the ones LePage espouses.

This session presents a new opportunity. With more than a third of House members and almost half of senators new to their offices, many legislators will be confronting the Capitol bubble for the first time.

My recommendation to them is to figure out now how they're going to keep a steady grip on the values they ran on, maintain a close connection with their constituents and resist getting distracted or confused by what happens under the State House dome.

The budget once again will soon come down to a choice between the tax rates of the rich and vital public goods such as education, health care and retirement security that deeply affect many people. Newly elected legislators just ran races where they knocked on thousands of doors and talked face-to-face to the individuals who rely on these programs, sometimes for their lives.

It's important that legislators continue to maintain those connections and never allow those people to become just a political poker chip, or a line in a budget document.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes a blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. Email to writebacktomike@gmail.com

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