Picking the next U.S. senator from Maine is a no-brainer, now that independent Angus King is officially in the race. Here’s a guy that everybody from the wackiest Tea Party fruitcake to the most zoned-out Occupy Maine flower child can support. Because unlike the gridlock-loving candidates of the major parties, this man espouses beliefs that are not only in line with the furthest extremes of political thought, but also those of the mushy middle.
How is that possible? Easy.
King, the former independent governor from 1995-2003, says he isn’t a liberal or a conservative. He’s always claimed he favors a pragmatic mix of political philosophies that results in him standing in the ideological center, leaning left on social issues, bearing right on fiscal matters. Or sometimes, the other way around.
He says that means he supports the same things most people in this state do. What could be better than that?
Except he doesn’t. And, come to think of it, neither do they.
It’s easy to see why King was a popular governor. He served during the greatest peacetime economic boom in U.S. history. The state gained more than 75,000 jobs. Budget surpluses totaled over $400 million. He cut the sales tax from 6 percent to 5. He expanded Medicaid and other welfare programs. He put laptops in classrooms, so kids could watch porn. And he carefully disengaged from the nastier political issues of the day, leaving such unseemly disputes to his underlings.
Although, if they happened to work out an acceptable compromise, he was quick to claim credit.
King waltzed through his eight years in office on the strength of his likable demeanor and superb communications skills. He gave a lot of speeches full of airy goals that today seem slightly absurd. He warned of the “downsides of prosperity,” in particular suburban sprawl and the loss of Maine’s essential character, as corporate types from major cities flocked here to co-opt our lifestyle and subvert our rural character. He told folks in depressed parts of the state that the answer to their problems was within themselves. By which he meant not to expect much help from Augusta, because the governor didn’t have a clue what to do.
You can get away with that stuff when there’s plenty of money to spread around. And until King’s final year, there was. He managed to spend hundreds of millions on all sorts of projects, boosting the state budget by nearly 90 percent. But in 2002, that came to an end. A nasty recession hit Maine, leaving a shortfall of almost $250 million.
King, the alleged fiscal conservative, emptied the state’s Rainy Day Fund. The socially liberal governor called for cuts in Medicaid and other human services programs. The financial hawk wanted to delay scheduled income tax cuts, and allow cities and towns to impose a local-option sales tax. But true to his left-wing side, he insisted on spending at least $25 million on those laptops.
Faced with these inconsistencies, King shrugged in that engaging manner he has and admitted his patchwork of financial gimmicks would leave his successor with a budget hole of at least $750 million (it turned out to be $1 billion). His recommendation: The next resident of the Blaine House could always raise taxes.
As King left office on the eve of the worst recession since the 1930s, he still had a rosy vision of the future. He said that by the time the new governor would be forced to deal with the unpaid bills he was leaving behind, the economic downturn would be over, and the money tap would be flowing again. He told Down East magazine that in the next decade (the one that’ll be over in January), Maine would gain 100,000 jobs, would have no casinos and its population would be “older, richer, more diverse.”
He was right about older.
The weird thing is the public bought his fairytale vision. King was so smooth behind the podium or in front of the camera that no matter how contradictory or silly his comments were, they came across as reasonable, even desirable. His approval rating nudged down slightly as the deficits mounted in 2002, but he was still the most popular politician in the state by a wide margin. If, as was rumored, he’d gone ahead with plans to run for the U.S. Senate that year, he probably would have won, and nobody today would even remember who Susan Collins was.
But he didn’t do it. Instead, he bought an RV and toured the country with his wife and kids. Eventually, he returned to Maine and got into the business of putting heavily subsidized wind turbines on previously pristine mountain tops.
As King wrapped up his administration, he told the Maine Sunday Telegram, “Almost certainly, I will not run for anything again. I’ve learned in this life you never say never, but I have absolutely no intention of running.”
Just enough wiggle room there, so no snarky columnist could someday dig up that quote and throw it in his face.
As I said, problem solved.
If you’ve got a beef with Angus as a senator, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.