Capitol Notebook: Impeachment debate shows need for recall process

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Shouts of “LePage is a fascist” and “dereliction of duty” rang out from the Statehouse gallery last week after the House of Representatives nixed a move to impeach Gov. Paul LePage. Amid the shouting, the order was given to “clear the gallery” and spectators retreated under the watchful eye of Capitol police.

The shouters symbolized a strange, frustrating end to an oddly truncated floor debate that shot down the impeachment effort. The way the debate played out on the House floor stalled a full discussion of the merits of impeachment, and highlights the need for a recall process to be added to the Maine Constitution so that voters can decide if a public official should be removed from office.

The motion before the House called for a committee to investigate eight charges against LePage, including the governor’s intervention that cost House Speaker Mark Eves a job at Good Will Hinckley. More serious charges included his refusal to issue voter-approved bonds for land conservation, and interfering with the administration of the quasi-judicial processes in unemployment hearings and in cases before the Maine Human Rights Commission.

The House Republican leader, Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, stymied the debate by jumping from his seat to argue “points of order” at almost every turn, successfully thwarting speakers who backed impeachment.

Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, running the debate after the recusal of Eves, then became more strict at gaveling down members of his own party who spoke for impeachment. Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, was interrupted as she described the history of the term “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the phrase used in the federal Constitution to describe impeachment. As she explained, it concerns dereliction of political duty and abuse of office, rather than the criminal violation that we would usually associate with the word “misdemeanor.”

“An impeachable offense is one that goes to the heart of the government’s ability to function fairly and effectively,” said Cooper, who stressed that it is a political, rather than legal judgment. She cited LePage’s actions of withholding information from the Legislature, as well as refusing to let his commissioners testify before committees, as issues that should be considered in an impeachment review.

But in the end, the motion was voted down by Republicans and 25 Democrats.

Those who voted against impeachment are likely hoping that the coalition that emerged among Democrats and some Republicans last year will continue and enable them to work around the governor. The key problem on their plate is funding programs to address the state’s drug epidemic. The strategy for that effort has already caused a rift between lawmakers and LePage. Legislators want to finish this short session as soon as possible and return home to campaign for November’s election.

A recall process added to Maine’s Constitution would provide a mechanism for voters to review the actions of a governor who has abused authority, and remove the person from office.

It would be similar to current provisions in the Maine Constitution that allow for a people’s veto process for laws passed by the Legislature, as well as an initiative process to bring matters forward for the voters to consider. These measures require the gathering of a significant number of signatures before sending issues out to voters.

A bill to enact a recall process may be introduced in this session, but would need the approval of legislative leaders to go forward in the short session. A recall process could provide the safety valve for voters to recall any public official who they feel has seriously abused his authority. There would still be a high bar to recall a public official, but people would not have to shout from the gallery for their voices to be heard.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.