Harpswell tea party leader rips, but will he run?

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BRUNSWICK — A photographer tries to take Andrew Ian Dodge’s picture, but the man who has become one of the leading national spokesmen for the tea party is having difficulty sitting still.

Dodge, 42, shifts on his bar stool, as if subconsciously seeking the shadows made elusive by the midday sun. He obsesses over the dark circles under his eyes; he’d been out late picking up a friend at the airport.

His hangdog appearance, as he describes it, is why he prefers to meet people in dark bars.

“I think you have enough to make me look like a hound of hell,” he says as the photographer leaves.

Dodge has staked out a quiet corner of Byrnes Irish Pub, a new establishment in Brunswick’s Maine Street Station, a taxpayer-subsidized development project. Dodge, a libertarian and assailant of government intervention, acknowledges the irony of his temporary haven.

Per usual, he is dressed entirely in black, save for a white scarf with a pattern of skulls and crossbones. For the next two hours, Dodge, a Harpswell resident, freelance science fiction writer, musician, blogger, cancer survivor and state coordinator for the Maine Tea Party Patriots, discusses his increased national profile. 

And, of course, there’s the rampant speculation that Dodge is the mystery challenger in next year’s Republican primary to a tea party pariah, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Speculation about Dodge’s run in 2012 has generated buzz locally and nationally. A recent story in Washington, D.C.-based Roll Call stopped just short of announcing his candidacy. Dodge, for his part, has done nothing to discourage the rumors, appearing on local radio shows to whip up the intrigue.

During last week’s interview in Brunswick, he coyly deflected a question about a potential campaign.

“I couldn’t possibly comment,” he said, bowing his head to disguise a wry smile.

As a recent report in the publication Mother Jones noted, the tea party appears to be influencing policy-making even when its candidates lose. The mere threat of a challenger has establishment politicians on edge, which, some say, is the point.

Dave Weigel, a D.C.-based reporter for Slate and a former reporter for Reason, a libertarian magazine, has been immersed in the movement from jump street. Weigel said the tea party doesn’t care as much about running candidates as it does getting politicians to do what it wants.

“There’s been a couple of instances when somebody crosses them, or doesn’t live up to a promise,” Weigel said. “They don’t forgive them because they want to get a meeting. They call it out.”

“This isn’t normal politics,” he added.

Tea party spokesman

Dodge, whose blunt, colorful quotes have made him one of the national media’s go-to spokesmen for the movement, is keenly aware of the new dynamic. 

It was Dodge, after all, who co-authored a letter by GOProud, signed by 14 tea party activists, warning Republican congressmen against running “down any social issue rabbit holes.” The sharply worded missive came on the heels of comments by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who told religious groups, “You can’t be a fiscal conservative and not a social conservative.”

To some, the letter signaled a potential fissure in the GOP. But Dodge later told Weigel that it was designed to “stiffen” Republican backbones.

“I don’t see the Republicans being dumb enough to chase social issues,” Dodge said.

It remains to be seen whether Dodge’s hints about running against Snowe are a red herring. Weigel, who has known about Dodge since 2002, said he never considered Dodge a politician.

“I don’t even think of Andrew as somebody who needs to acquire political power,” Weigel said. “He’s just this blunt activist who demands accountability. He’s really not impressed by power.”

One thing is certain: Dodge has taken great pleasure in tormenting Snowe with innuendo. Dodge claims to have had “extensive conversations” with the candidate who will run against Snowe. Dodge describes him as a wealthy man from southern Maine.

“Whoever gets the national money behind him, it’s going to be a bloodbath,” Dodge predicted. “It’s going to be a nasty, nasty campaign.”

Background, politics

Dodge lives in the High Head section of Harpswell, a thin peninsula jutting into Harpswell sound. With homestead exemptions, the property, which is owned by his mother, is valued at around $740,000, according to the town assessor’s office.

Dodge says he scratches out a living with his freelance writing. However, his father, Arthur Dodge, who last year succumbed to pancreatic cancer, was a chemical engineer for Texaco, and Dodge is in line to receive a significant inheritance.

Dodge’s upbringing has made him both well-traveled and well-educated. He has lived in England, Honduras and Miami. He graduated from Colby College and has a post-graduate degree in legislative politics from the University of Hull in the U.K.

He describes himself as a 19th-century Gladstonian liberal, the British free-market, limited-government doctrine embraced by Winston Churchill.

“I have that coastal Maine attitude,” he said. “I call it, ‘don’t ask, don’t give a damn.’ It’s just, ‘leave me alone.’ People want to be left alone. Let them get on with it.”

Dodge’s time in England appears to have shaped him the most. His wife, Kim Dodge, is English. His speech is sprinkled with British vernacular.

He is also steeped in British politics. He claims as a friend Daniel Hannan, the conservative member of European Parliament and tea party hero who wrote the book “The New Road to Serfdom.”

Dodge draws English and European examples of the perils of socialism, a doctrine he claims is being advanced in the United States by President Barack Obama. 

“The bizarre thing is that European countries are moving away from socialism,” he said. “America is adopting it, but the rest of the world is cutting it back. … It’s because this country never went through the grinding socialism that European countries did.”

Dodge described the end-game for libertarianism as a restoring of “all the usurped powers of the federal government back to the state level,” or even the municipal level.

He called it “constitutionally mandated localism.”

“We take all the powers that are demonstrably suited to the lowest level of local government because it’s closest to the people,” he said.

In addition to opposing government intervention in bailing out the banking and auto industries, Dodge would support legalizing marijuana and lowering the drinking age to 18.

Dodge’s limited-government belief system appears unshakable, particularly when it comes to a government-run health-care system. Dodge said he barely survived colon cancer, having “died twice” because of a hospital-administered morphine overdose following a surgical procedure.

He speaks compassionately about the patients he met during chemotherapy.

But Dodge bristles when it’s suggested that cancer survivors might benefit from a federal health-care law that prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

“I know of car insurance companies that will give you insurance even though you’re a (expletive) idiot driver,” he said.

Sharp tongue

Weigel, of Slate, described Dodge as blunt. That might be an understatement.

His trenchant speech isn’t always directed at his ideological opponents, either.

During the gubernatorial campaign, Dodge openly seethed after Republican Paul LePage suggested during a Portland forum that the tea party had courted him, not vice versa.

In a story in Mother Jones, Dodge lashed out at LePage and his apologists in the tea party.

“(LePage) expects the tea party to be his bitches and I’m not,” Dodge said. “… (The tea party) seems to think the more thuggish he is, the better he does. They don’t understand there’s a difference between running and governing.”

Dodge, an admitted skeptic of LePage, is still annoyed by the governor-elect’s comments about not seeking tea party support.

“It was so insulting,” Dodge said. “I mean, I was at the first (tea party) event (LePage) was at, and he was sucking up like you wouldn’t believe.”

Dodge also believes LePage is being “scrubbed” by his handlers.

“The spinning to defend him gets funnier and funnier,” he said.

Dodge’s comments about LePage have sometimes put him at odds with local members of the tea party.

His GOProud letter attracted national attention, but it also drew fire from social conservatives who called Dodge “a pig” and “a liberal” suffering from “flashbacks.”

But he keeps firing back.

Recently, when LePage told the National Review that he’d back Snowe for re-election in 2012, Dodge could barely contain his mockery of those who didn’t see it coming. Posters on the tea party site for the Maine Refounders, which is separate from Dodge’s group, shot back, claiming he didn’t speak for Maine tea partiers.

Others accused him of practicing witchcraft.

Dodge, who typically dresses in black and admits that there are Halloween party photos of him wearing an eye patch, a leather kilt and similarly themed costumes, laughs it off. But he can’t resist needling his detractors on the religious right.

“If you really want to wind them up, just let them know that the Puritans were socialists,” Dodge said.

A self-proclaimed deist, Dodge likened his tiffs with the more religious elements of the party to the political arguments he had with his father, the ideological inspiration for his activism.

“We would get into absolute barneys over (politics),” he said. “But we were on the same side. … I think it’s one of the things the tea party movement is realizing now. … That’s the point where the tea party is, and people come to that point via completely different routes.”

To run, or not to run

On the surface, whether Dodge joins Lisbon Falls Republican Scott D’Amboise in challenging Snowe might seem irrelevant. Although some polls have suggested that Maine Republicans want a more conservative candidate in 2012, other surveys have shown the three-time senator to be popular with a wider cross-section of voters.

Add the fact that Snowe has never lost an election in Maine, and it would seem that any challenger’s quest would be quixotic at best.

But the tea party has changed the traditional dynamic. It has already succeeded in sacking moderate Republicans, and although some wonder – or hope – that the movement will dissipate, it has proved deft at wielding its new-found power.

Dodge, who has toured the country to speak at national rallies, has seen the influence firsthand. He believes that strict free-market conservatives like himself can coalesce with the social conservatives in the GOP establishment.

“We have a formula that works,” he said. “We just can’t screw it up like we did in the ’90s.”

The question remains locally, however: If Dodge runs, will he get backing from members of the Maine movement?

“I think there’s a chance that more of these people will begrudgingly like me,” he said. “I admit, I’ve been an arrogant so-and-so at times. … There are some people in some groups that adore me and there are others that think I’m demon spawn.”

Steve Mistler is the Statehouse reporter for the Sun Journal in Lewiston. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell, leader of the tea party in Maine.