January 18, 2022

A new tone in Augusta?

Democratic lawmakers who threatened the party power structure in the Legislature are appreciative, relieved, but still apprehensive after receiving plum committee assignments.

The appointment of Marjorie Kilkelly of Wiscasset and John Michael of Auburn to their respective posts on the new Rules Committee and the Legal Affairs Committee surprised these two lawmakers, who had expected, in return for giving House Speaker John his first serious challenge in 18 years, total obscurity in the 116th Legislature.

Rep. Kilkelly campaigned relentlessly against Martin during the summer, but was crushed by him in the early-bird Democratic caucus in November. Michael then tried in the final balloting to weld House Republicans and Democrats into a solid coalition that would block Martin’s 10th term as speaker. Experience triumphed.

Given these appointments and the progress of the Rules Committee in altering the way the Legislature does business — cracking the old-boy network and providing broader access to the appropriations process — it is tempting to believe that the makeover is genuine, that these are more than superficial acts of charity by majority party leadership — charm-school Democrats, as they are referred to by Augusta Republicans.

It may be the real thing, for good reason.

Although he has been replaced capably by Sen. Dennis Dutremble, the absence of Millinocket’s Charles Pray is felt at the top of the party hierarchy in the capital. Pray and Martin were close. The speaker may have been tempted to take reprisal, but he exercised his power more efficiently stabilizing his base and deflecting the energy of opponents into other, more productive areas.

Anti-incumbent sentiment, the term-limit initiative and the public demand for an end to business as usual all have had an impact on the way lawmakers, including the speaker, conduct themselves as politicians. Forcing Kilkelly or Michael to walk the plank would fuel the fire outside Augusta.

But the biggest reason for the magnanimity may be simply that Martin sees the need for cooperation, and conciliation.

The scope and gravity of the problems facing this state cannot be addressed by political leaders who refuse to break the destructive pattern of behavior — the pettiness in pursuit of narrow personal interest — that has characterized four years of bitter, partisan conflict in Augusta.

If these appointments and changes in legislative process signal a new tone in Augusta, it is welcome. As the taxpayers of Maine have seen through two tortured budget cycles, there is no payback on vindictiveness.

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