Capitol Notebook: Maine will miss state Sen. Anne Haskell

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During Anne Haskell’s second term in the Legislature, in 1991, Augusta was embroiled in a fierce fight.

That year brought a battle royal between Republican Gov. John McKernan and longtime Democratic House Speaker John Martin over McKernan’s proposed reforms to the state’s worker’s compensation system. State workers stormed the Statehouse, and Haskell’s hearing was permanently damaged by a bullhorn blasted into her ear by a demonstrator.

After the resulting government shutdown closed state offices and idled state park staff during the hot summer season, McKernan succeeded in passing worker’s compensation reforms, cutting insurance rates for businesses and spurring the economy. Martin’s long tenure as speaker finally ended after a ballot-tampering scandal snared his top aide.

Haskell says in her many years in the Legislature, there was no battle as fierce as that in 1991. Now, 28 years after she was first elected in 1988, she is stepping down from her Senate seat representing the northwestern part of Portland, and Westbrook.

Then known as Anne Larrivee, she was first elected in 1988 to represent the town of Gorham after serving on the Town Council. (She remarried after the death of her first husband, Peter Larrivee, which ended her first stint in the Legislature in the mid-1990s.) Now at 72, she is leaving to spend time with her husband, Lou Haskell, 84.

In those 28 years, Haskell has served both in the House and Senate and in the administration of Gov. Angus King. She has fond memories of her time working for King, where she served as his deputy to staff boards and commissions.

This term she has been the top senate Democrat on the committee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services. The panel has been fighting department proposals to curtail services, especially for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill.

Haskell is proud that the Legislature was able to turn back efforts to send forensic patients – those with mental illness who are hospitalized from the criminal justice system – back into a prison setting. She believes that they need a hospital level of care to give them a chance to recover from their illness.

She is a committed liberal and firm Democrat, believing that government should not fail to care for those who have had a rough start in life.

“We need to remember that there for the grace of God go I,” Haskell said over coffee last week. “We’re all just one fall or serious brain injury away from needing the help.” She worries about this administration’s plan to privatize such programs as ASPIRE, which helps welfare recipients find their way back to work and which she feels is effective.

While never the loudest voice or the first to speak, her experience and insights are respected.

“When Anne Haskell talks, everybody listens,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat who will exit the senate this year because of term limits.

Haskell and Gerzofsky served together on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, and Gerzofsky said their work together produced reforms including the end of harsh solitary confinement practices.

“Solitary confinement does not happen the way it used to,” Gerzofsky said. “We don’t warehouse people, we believe in corrections, and trying to make a better citizen than when they came in.”

In a world grown cynical about all politicians, Haskell and Gerzofsky restore faith in a state Legislature where the members work hard, and are accessible to Mainers.

And this year, the Legislature has been the only bulwark against an aggressive and erratic governor who fights over every issue, and enjoys punishing opponents.

Haskell and Gerzofsky are optimistic that this year’s election will increase Democratic majorities to withstand the assault of Gov. Paul LePage, whose most recent speech ridiculed the accents of the foreign workers who help staff the businesses in Maine’s short tourism seasons.

But when that Legislature convenes next January, the wisdom and experience of one of its most respected legislators will be sorely missed.

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