Governor Kenneth Curtis and the emergence of the modern Maine government

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Left to right is Polly Curtis, Paul Mills, and Former Governor/Ambassador Kenneth Curtis.

By Paul Mills

He is the last governor of Maine to have been born at home, the last to have been raised on a farm, and the last to have begun his education in a one room school house. He has, nevertheless been anything but primitive in his outlook, mindset, and philosophy.

Meet Kenneth Curtis, the Democrat who won Republican support in guiding Maine through one of the most eventful periods of its history, 1967 to 1975. By the late 1970s he was at the helm of the American embassy in Canada during a challenging episode of international relations there.

On his watch and largely under his leadership our present system of taxation and governmental administration emerged, one that is largely intact today. That foremost underpinning of state revenues, the income tax, was enacted in his first term. So too was the foundation for the state’s regulation of the environment, the Site Location of Development Act along with the creation of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Despite the perceived unpopularity of imposing the income tax he was re-elected to a second term that soon saw the creation of the modern cabinet system of executive administration. In this regard Mainers have gone back and forth in their outlook on gubernatorial power. Before taking a look at Curtis’s role a little background might be in order.

When Maine became a state in 1820 the governor had broad appointive power, choosing the attorney general, county sheriffs, all county commissioners, registrars and judges of probate, for example. To be sure, the legislatively appointive executive council did have the right to be consulted but the executive initiative of the governor was significant.

Through the 1840s and 1850s, however, much of this executive authority was stripped away from the governor’s duties. The attorney general became legislatively elected while the governor’s prerogatives with respect to choosing nearly all county officials gave way to the present system of popular election.

As the state moved into the 20th century the governor’s grip was increasingly reined in – this despite or perhaps because – government was acquiring many new missions. These included such contemporary mainstays as oversight of public utilities, highways, health, welfare and education. Thus as the arenas of responsibility for the 20th century state government expanded the autonomy of its chief executive became increasingly muted. This feature was largely due to the fact that the terms of office of agencies administering such domains never overlapped with those of the governor. Each new governor had to contend with several years of “hold-over” appointees whose terms often extended beyond that of the governor himself. The chair of the State Highway Commission, the Public Utilities Commissioners and state university trustees were all in for seven years; the terms of governors for most of the 20th century: just two.

By the early 1930s some of this was remedied under Governor Gardiner. The 1931 Gardiner Administrative Code abolished 28 state agencies and put four departments in their place. Over a dozen separate fiefdoms that ran the gamut from the Tuberculosis Board to the Crop Pest Commission were put under the single umbrella of the newly formed Health and Welfare Department, for example.

There still remained, however, for another four decades a proliferation of largely independent boards and commissions.

As Governor Curtis himself lamented in an interview a few years ago, “There was no accountability, you had over 200 agencies and boards and terms were not concurrent with the governor. And you couldn’t fire anybody or appoint anyone without executive council approval. So the loyalty of all your primary department heads were more to the executive council than they were to the governor. And you had so many of them there was no real way to bring them together.”

At Curtis’s behest, however, the legislature largely overturned such a cumbersome set-up and created the present cabinet system. By 1972, during his second term, 232 independent agencies and bureaus – many of whose chieftains were appointed years before by previous governors – gave way to 10 departments whose commissioners would be appointed by the concurrently serving Maine governor.

This achievement, taken with such other landmarks of the Curtis years as enactment of the income tax and enhanced environmental legislation, were all the more remarkable because they were put into law by a house and senate always controlled by Republicans. In the case of the income tax some rural otherwise conservative Republicans came on board because their own low income constituents were typically unaffected by the levy. Governmental reorganization picked up some GOP support because of the cost savings to which consolidation would give rise. Legislators also went along in part because they were also a victim of what amounted to an out-of-reach fourth branch of government.

Why else did the GOP go along with a Democratic governor’s proposals? “The atmosphere was different then than it was now,” as Curtis observed in a recent informal conversation with this columnist.

Curtis also recalled that even though he could always count on one third of the Republicans being against his programs the upside was that quite frequently some two thirds of them would try to work with him.

It’s also clear that a part of the different atmosphere was one created by Curtis himself, though the self-deprecating former governor would be the last to take credit for it. He is a leader who resonates an ability to blend ideological conviction with an intuition for accommodation and humility.

As Mahatma Gandhi once asserted, “I supposed leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.”

It’s Curtis’s instinct for just that which led to a number of other high level missions. Among them, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Ambassador to Canada and President of the Maine Maritime Academy.

The Canadian position was a dramatic one. Though his 15-month tenure there was brief it coincided with a significant role in the longest hostage episode in modern history. This was the Iran Hostage crisis when 44 Americans were seized at the American embassy in the Iranians capital Tehran by student followers of the Iranian Revolution. Six American off-duty diplomats – also intended targets of the hostage takers – eluded capture at the embassy itself. Because they took refuge at the Canadian embassy and homes of American friendly Canadian citizen in Tehran during the crisis, Curtis as ambassador in Ottawa was the contact through which crucial interaction concerning their status occurred.

Curtis’s tenure in Canada also was at a time of transition in Canadian leadership. As Governor Curtis’s wife, Polly, recalled recently, just five months into Curtis’s term the Conservative Government of Joseph Clark gave way to the restoration of a Liberal regime under Pierre Trudeau, father of the present Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. This introduced a new set of challenges, including becoming acquainted with the identity of the 35 new cabinet ministers Trudeau brought with him, Mrs. Curtis said.

The Curtises each into their 80s are now healthy, spry and active as ever. The former governor himself is now 88. He is senior counsel at the Portland law firm Curtis, Thaxter to which he commutes from their home in Scarborough. The couple are currently the oldest living former gubernatorial Blaine House partners.

The one-room schoolhouse in rural Leeds where Curtis spent the first eight years of his education closed down decades ago. The farm buildings where he grew up have been razed.

The legacy of his accomplishments and the implications for Maine’s future will certainly endure, however.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net

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