Capitol Notebook: Independent candidates battle Augusta partisanship

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The nasty rancor that marked the last legislative session has spawned candidates who want to go to Augusta to bridge the partisan gap.

Longtime legislators say this past session was the worst in recent memory. Angry recrimination marked a seemingly endless session, scheduled to end in April but lasting into September. The rancor was stoked by a belligerent governor whose angry personal attacks corrupted the atmosphere. As the Legislature dragged on, the two parties were unable to agree on simple procedural matters, including a usually routine bill to fix simple and typographical errors in laws already agreed to.

But some new independent candidates are running for Legislature this year on a platform of solving the dysfunction in Augusta.

Two important local races show this trend. Dennis Welsh, a photographer from Yarmouth, has cited what he calls the “intractable” gulf between the two parties as a rationale for his bid to unseat three-term Democrat Rep. Janice Cooper.

The race has been hard fought, and the exit of the former Republican candidate Rick Snow from the race has been a boon to Welsh.

Welsh’s cites rancor as his rationale for running.

“On the big issues, partisan politics stops discussion between people of different political persuasion,” he said. “Conservatives can’t talk to liberals.”

Welsh said he is seeking support for his campaign from people from all political walks of life.

“What’s happened is that the two parties are so intractable, they both look for complete victory,” he said. “If we work together, maybe we each get 85 percent of what we want because I think we mostly agree on the big things, taking care of our kids, protecting the environment, helping seniors to age in place.”

His opponent, Cooper, said the reports of rancor are overblown. She said legislators have been able to work together on key issues, especially in the all-important work of committees that review legislation before it goes to the floor.

“We can work together on the most important issues,” she said, noting that the blame for the recent partisan blockage is not shared equally. In the past session, Cooper said, a minority of Republicans in the House of Representatives constantly thwarted a wider legislative consensus as they routinely backed the vetoes of Gov. Paul LePage.

Welsh, who backed independent Eliot Cutler in the last two governor’s races, has avoided saying if he would caucus with either party.

In Portland, Crystal Canney is mounting an independent challenge for the state Senate.

Canney, a former television reporter and aide to former Govs. Angus King and John Baldacci, is running against longtime politico and first-term Sen. Ben Chipman in a Portland district that spans the peninsula, East Deering, and the immediate USM neighborhood.

Canney, a Bradford native, accuses Chipman of partisan showboating in Augusta, including leading a fight to impeach LePage when he did not have the votes to succeed.

“Is this what we’ve come to?” asked Canney, who accuses Chipman of a lack of bi-partisanship.

Canney accused Chipman, who ironically was a Green Independent in the state House of Representatives before becoming a Democrat to run for state Senate, of running a stealthy re-election campaign and failing to meet her in debates or neighborhood forums.

“I’ll debate him anywhere, anytime, even on my front porch,” she said.

Chipman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

She accused both parties of losing touch with voters, citing the sidelining of popular candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016 by the Democrats as an example. She said Democrats she knows have been urged to line up behind Chipman, as the party tries to reclaim the Senate, where they lagged by one vote last session.

Cooper said the rise of independent candidates “has become a thing,” but it remains to be seen if it is effective in a time when people seem to be staking their positions in the extremes of the two parties. And she added that certain party members have always been willing on occasion to cross party lines. The solution may lie in changes in party leadership, which will be determined Nov. 6 when Augusta welcomes a whole new cast, including a governor.

“It’s wishful thinking and naive to think that someone with no ties to a party can somehow cross party lines and solve the partisanship in Augusta,” Cooper said.

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

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