The Universal Notebook: In praise of Republicans past

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Given what the Republican Party has become, it helps to remember that it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when Republicans, especially here in Maine, were progressive, civic-minded individuals who worked to solve problems and to make Maine a better place to live, people you could be proud of regardless of party.

When I was growing up, most adults I knew, including my parents and grandparents, were Republicans. The classic Maine Republican was fiscally cautious, socially progressive and committed to doing what was right. The paragon of these virtues was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the witch-hunter who saw phantom Communists the way some delusional individuals saw Muslims dancing on the rooftops of New Jersey on 9/11.

Then we had Bill Cohen, one of the first House Republicans to break with his party and vote to impeach President Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigations. Cohen went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate and to serve as secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton back in the day when it was still desirable to be bipartisan.

More recently, of course, we’ve had Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins. People argue about how moderate they really are, but Snowe saw herself as too moderate for the GOP as it drifted to the right and off the charts. She cited “dysfunction and political polarization” as the reason she decided not to seek re-election.

Collins has a reputation for working across the aisle, but bipartisanship puts her in awkward positions in this winner-take-all era. After admirably refusing to support Donald Trump, she is now struggling to get back in his good graces by supporting Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s controversial nominee for U.S. attorney general.

These big-name Republicans come first to mind when waxing nostalgic about Republicans past, but the people I miss in the public life of Maine are a little less well known.

For example, I miss Rep. Stan Tupper of Boothbay Harbor, one of the founders of the Wednesday Group of progressive Republicans in the U.S. House. Tupper was one of two Republican sponsors of Medicare and helped pass both the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

And I miss S. Peter Mills Jr. of Farmington. Mills served in both the Maine house and senate, but his finest hour may have been when, as U.S. attorney for Maine, he sued to stop the paper-company log drives that fouled and monopolized Maine rivers until the 1970s.

Those who were not around in the 1960s and 1970s would probably find it hard to believe that Republicans were once in the forefront of environmental protection in Maine.

While in the state Legislature, Horace Hildreth Jr. of Falmouth authored the bills that created the Land Use Regulation Commission and the Site Location of Development Law. He then used some of those first environmental laws to successfully oppose several oil refinery proposals along the coast. Harrison Richardson, Hildreth’s law partner, pushed the LURC bill through after Hildreth left the Legislature and wrote and passed an important oil pollution control act.

Harry Richardson, of Cumberland, was also one of Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis’s Republican allies in passing the state income tax in 1969. Another Republican supporter of the income tax was Sen. Bennett Katz, whose son Roger Katz is now one of the few progressive Republicans left in Augusta.

Republican state Rep. Marion Fuller Brown of York championed Maine’s ban on billboards, which finally passed in 1977. Novelist Kenneth Roberts, an arch-conservative Republican from Kennebunkport, would have applauded Brown’s billboard ban as he inveighed against unsightly road signs for decades.

And the Maine roadside also got a little cleaner in 1976 when Maine’s returnable bottle bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. John McKernan, became law. The bottle bill was a bipartisan affair promoted by two men who later became governors, McKernan and now-Sen. Angus King, who was hired to lobby for the bill on behalf of the Coastal Resources Action Committee, a group co-founded by Horace Hildreth.

With Gov. Paul LePage appointing people to the Land for Maine’s Future board who oppose conservation, Donald Trump appointing a man to head the Environmental Protection Agency who opposes environmental protection, and Republicans in Congress trying to repeal the Endangered Species Act as an inconvenience to industrial development, it’s hard to imagine Republicans were ever concerned about the environment at all, but they were.

But that’s a thing of the past.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.