Politics and Other Mistakes: Licensed to ill

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My critics often complain that, rather than engaging in the complex process of finding solutions to the state’s problems, I prefer the easier route of wallowing in insults, smear tactics, bathroom humor and innuendo. These complaints often come from people who are mentally warped, morally twisted, flatulent and suspected of appearing in crack-smoking videos with either Amy Winehouse or Olympia Snowe. (It’s hard to tell with the bad lighting.)


Al Diamon

Nevertheless, I take such negative judgments seriously. In an effort to disprove these allegations by constipated, sexually promiscuous mutants with links to terrorists and/or the Baldacci administration (it’s hard to tell with the bad lighting), I’m devoting this column to my plan to improve state government in one simple step:

Fire Matthew Dunlap.

Dunlap is Maine’s secretary of state and, by all accounts, a nice guy. He reads books, hunts deer and knows how to mix a decent martini because he used to be a bartender. He’s had other jobs, too: radio-show host, proofreader, textile-mill worker and dishwasher. You end up doing that kind of work if you decide in grad school to study literary theory. They’re laying off literary theorists all across Maine.

Fortunately for Dunlap, he’s shown some aptitude for politics. In 1996, he got elected to the state House of Representatives from Old Town. He impressed Democratic leadership, and in his second term, he was appointed chairman of the fish and wildlife committee, a position that allowed him to sponsor legislation banning lead sinkers and protecting snapping turtles. During his eight years in the House, he also talked a lot about tax reform. You know what that amounted to.

Forced from office by term limits in 2004, Dunlap decided to run for secretary of state, a position for which he possessed no obvious qualifications (“Would you care for a cocktail with your driver’s license?”). That hardly mattered, because in Maine the job is filled by the Legislature, where he was generally well liked. And how much trouble could he get into issuing learners’ permits?

An idiot could do it. Several have.

Dunlap, however, had problems. In his first year, legislators complained that people trying to renew their licenses at Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices were being forced to wait hours. Dunlap blamed the delays on computer problems and got the Legislature to authorize extra staff to speed things up.

In 2006, there were news stories about drivers being arrested for operating after their licenses were suspended. Except their licenses weren’t suspended. Again, Dunlap faulted the computers.

Later that year, the federal government filed suit against the state because the secretary of state’s office had failed to implement changes in the voting-rights law. The error, according to Dunlap, lay with those darned computers.

In 2007, with the state facing a budget crisis, the governor asked Dunlap to cut spending by $300,000. He decided Maine could do without primary elections, an idea met with near-unanimous opposition. The fault this time appeared to be the software in his brain.

Also in 2007, news stories called attention to the state’s lax rules for issuing drivers’ licenses. Maine was one of the few states that didn’t require proof of residency, let alone evidence the applicant was in this country legally. Dunlap became the chief defender of the status quo. The state had “an already rigorous license issuance process,” he told the Associated Press. After the U.S. attorney announced that illegal aliens were being transported to Maine to get licenses, Dunlap wrote an op-ed for the Forecaster in which he claimed it was a “fallacy” that tightening the rules would halt the practice. Besides, he noted, letting suicide bombers have licenses had its advantages. “If individuals are in the system,” Dunlap said, “you can track them.”

The Legislature did change the rules to require some semi-legitimate indication an applicant resided in the state, although Maine still has more than 5,000 licenses issued to people with no Social Security numbers. Dunlap said there could be reasonable explanations for that. They could be babies or something.

Before the residency regulations got changed, Robert O’Connell, Dunlap’s director of licensing, helped Niall Clarke, a guy he met in a Boston bar on St. Patrick’s Day 2006 get a license. Clarke was an Irish national with just two weeks left on his visa, but thanks to O’Connell, he took his written, vision and road tests in a single day. A few months later, Clarke, now an illegal alien, used his license to buy a gun, which he used to hold up a Bangor bank.

Last month, Dunlap finally decided O’Connell hadn’t done anything wrong. “He is now clear and it is now over,” he told the Bangor Daily News. “There has been no discipline because there’s nothing to discipline him for.”

It’s time the Legislature helped Dunlap maximize his potential. Find him a bartending job.

Place your drink orders by e-mailing aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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