Capitol Notebook: Maine, the way politics shouldn't be

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The tone of Maine’s political conversation has reached a new low. A strange incident in Saco last week, and the bizarre reactions to it, paints a bleak picture of our rapidly sinking political dialogue.

Last Thursday, as Gov. Paul LePage spoke at a forum promoting his plan to cut the state income tax, a former legislator and Biddeford mayor began yelling and approached the dais where he was sitting. As she was removed by the governor’s police force, she tossed a jar of Vaseline onto the stage.

The reason she chose that particular item has to do with previous comments made by LePage, which are best forgotten. After the incident, which ended the forum, the jar-thrower, Joanne Twomey, chatted with supporters and videographers outside the Thornton Academy auditorium.

Within minutes, the story lit up Facebook and newspaper web sites (“Former legislator throws a jar of Vaseline”) and her behavior was deeply analyzed, for and against (“Joanne you’re a hero, I’ll be right there with you.” “She’s crazier than a loon.”).

While Twomey’s actions were being disowned by some Democratic party officials and many Biddeford residents, comments on websites blamed LePage for the incident and urged people to bring the same projectile Twomey had used to future town hall meetings. The comments attacked Twomey, LePage, and everyone else it seemed. Many comments on the Bangor Daily News website were removed for their offensiveness, failing to meet what seems to be a very low standard.

Republicans, thrilled for a cheap shot, blamed the entire Democratic Party for this solo act of guerrilla theater.

Meanwhile, Twomey was restored to prominence, and remained on the front page of the newspaper two days later. The governor, happiest on the field of battle, any battle, pronounced himself “energized” by the encounter, and vowed to continue his statewide travels touting his income tax cut, and observed that any behavior, civil or uncivil, was fine “as long as they don’t bring guns.”

LePage blamed the incident on the Maine People’s Alliance, which he said had planted people in the audience. And it’s true that before “the incident” several people began shouting questions from the floor, attacking LePage’s plan to tax some nonprofit organizations. LePage engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with the questioners, and acknowledged that the plan to tax nonprofits would not pass the Legislature.

The governor is comfortable with the Twomey style of politics, which mirrors his own aggressive, name-calling style. He recently warned members of his own party that he would “rip them a new one” if they didn’t back his plan for reinforcements for Maine’s drug war. His strategy with the Legislature is to hold bills hostage if they don’t pass unrelated proposals (see Bonds, Land for Maine’s Future). As a result, Republican legislators walk a fine line these days.

His behavior can elicit equivalent reactions. And that’s unfortunate because there are some parts of the budget that merit support, and his town-hall meetings are a good-faith effort to present his proposal. Many of those on the opposing side are unwilling to give him any credit for positive aspects of the budget, like his plan to expand the sales tax. All of it deserves a reasonable discussion – absent the histrionics.

When the income tax was enacted in the early 1970s under Gov. Kenneth Curtis, it was a bipartisan group of legislators who passed it. They put the needs of the state above party politics. The hallmark of Maine politics has always been a reasonable civility; if that has vanished in this angry new world, too bad for us.

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