Politics & Other Mistakes: Lost in the sound of separation

6 mins read

I’m in favor of politicians telling lies.

Wait, that didn’t come out quite right.

While it’s true that candidates’ falsehoods, fibs and fabrications make a columnist’s job easier, I could still eke out a living even if every pol in Maine suddenly became a fountain of factuality. That’s because most campaign discourse would still be laced with enough stupidity, ignorance and arrogance to fill several volumes the size of the state budget.


Al Diamon

Which, come to think of it, is itself a decent source of falsehoods, fibs and fabrications.

So it’s not as if I’m defending untruthfulness simply to provide myself with job security. I have embarrassing video of the editor for that.

What I’m in favor of is letting candidates say whatever they want – true, false or impossible to determine – and allowing voters to decide on its validity. It’s an odd concept found in the Bill of Rights called “freedom of speech.”

For more than a century and a half, this method of sorting the scummy from the scummier was standard procedure in Maine politics. It produced public servants such as Percival Baxter and Ed Muskie, as well as an entire political party whose name made it clear what it was offering: the Know Nothings. Although today, I think they’re called Green Independents.

This system also gave us some schlubs, which is why the Legislature created the Joint Standing Committee on Legal and Veterans Affairs, so the clunkheads would have someplace to play where they couldn’t hurt anyone.

That setup worked well enough, until the latter part of the 20th century, when somebody (possibly the Joint Standing Committee on Legal and Veterans Affairs) decided that what this state needed was “ethics.” At first, it seemed like an attractive concept. After all, who isn’t against stealing, cheating and having sex with interns?

Aside from members of Congress, former presidents, and the occasional Clean Election candidate.

To make sure Maine had all the “ethics” it could stomach, the Legislature created the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and empowered it to enforce all kinds of silly laws.

In this way, the innocent voters were protected from Michael Mowles. In 2006, the ethics commission ruled that Mowles, a candidate for a state House seat in Cape Elizabeth, had violated the law by using two endorsements without the written consent of the endorsers.

Shocking, I know.

Mowles was running in the Republican primary against Jennifer “Fuddy” Duddy. He produced a campaign brochure, which included complimentary quotes from several people, among them GOP U.S. senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Their statements were left over from Mowles’ 2004 run for the Legislature, and he added a notation (in small type) to that effect.

Duddy complained to the ethics commission that Mowles had re-used the quotes without getting fresh permission from Snowe and Collins, who don’t normally endorse candidates in primaries. The commissioners agreed and fined Mowles a buck. He appealed to Superior Court to overturn the commission’s ruling, but to no avail. Mowles, who had by then lost the primary, next took his case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that his free-speech rights had been abridged. On Oct. 21, the court agreed and declared the law restricting the use of endorsements unconstitutional.

“When the government undertakes to tell politicians what they can and cannot say in the course of an election, we must all be cautious,” wrote Chief Justice Leigh Saufley for the unanimous court. “The government may restrict the speech of political candidates only when it can clearly advance a compelling reason for the restriction. Avoiding substantive confusion among the voters regarding political issues simply does not present such a compelling interest.”

This decision bodes well for both free speech and the possibility that ethical determinations could once again be made not by a government commission, but by ordinary citizens casting ballots. Before that can happen, though, the state’s highest court needs to throw out a few more statutes.

Earlier this month, the ethics commission got a complaint about a Republican state Senate candidate from Orono, who distributed a flier criticizing not only her Democratic opponent, but also other area Democrats for being part of what she called “The Baldacci Bunch.”

That’s illegal?

Yes, according to the ethical overseers. The Maine Clean Election Act prohibits candidates receiving public money from attempting to influence races other than their own. Commissioner Francis Marsano was quoted in the media as saying, “I think what is important here is to send a message that this type of expenditure should not be made.”

In China, maybe.

The Marsano Mob (am I allowed to say that?) needs a reality check. I hope there’s another appeal, and this time, the justices give candidates back the right to be not just prevaricators but provocateurs.

Tell me the truth by e-mailing aldiamon@herniahill.net

Print Friendly, PDF & Email