For much of the past few years, John Michael has been chucking rocks of reform at any politician who dares swim in the ideological mainstream.
Now Michael, a state representative from Auburn, hopes to take his upstart, often combative, brand of politics to Washington as a member of Congress from the 2nd District.
And being Sam Michael’s boy, his political style is colored with a bit of theater.
Sam Michael, now 88, is a former sports promoter, state athletic commissioner, and operator of the Bangor State Fair.
John Michael’s assorted business experiences have taken him from part owner of Speedway 95 in Bangor to promoting rock concerts to delivering self-confidence lectures in Scandinavia.
But now, Michael, an independent, faces Democrat John Baldacci of Bangor, Republican Rick Bennett of Norway and Green Party candidate Charles FitzGerald of Dover-Foxcroft for the seat being vacated by Republican Olympia Snowe. Snowe, of Augusta, faces U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews, D-South Portland, for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat George J. Mitchell, who announced last spring that he would not seek re-election this fall.
Yet the early chapters of the John Michael story are uncharacteristically traditional. While the Michaels were marginally active in Democratic politics, John didn’t get his feet wet until college.
After graduating from Lewiston’s Edward Little High School in 1968, Michael went on to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., where he graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He supported Democrat Edmund S. Muskie, working for the Maine senator’s presidential campaign in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 1972.
Two years later, he worked on Mitchell’s failed bid for governor.
“I like George personally; I just don’t agree with some of his policies,” Michael, 44, said.
While many politicians who disagree in private will grin and bear it on stage, Michael in the last few years has become one of the state’s most outspoken critics of The Establishment.
Michael, who says he was once an “automatic partisan,” now enjoys shocking his former Democrats.
This past spring, Michael abandoned the Democratic Party and is now, along with Ralph Coffman of Old Town, one of two independent legislators.
When Mitchell announced his retirement, Michael bid farewell to “the head of the Maine Democratic mafia.” He also once accused Mitchell of working behind the scenes to defeat term limits — a Michael passion — and said the majority leader was “too much of a coward to come out and fight like a man.”
Later, he called President Clinton a “lying gigolo, crooked to the bone.”
During one legislative session, Michael spoke on the House floor against a bill that would make marital rape illegal. Michael now says it was spontaneous rebellion against a special interest group, even though he supports women’s issues. “I thought the feminists had pushed too far on that thing,” he said.
He called then-Speaker of the House John Martin a “dangerous despot” and led the charge to remove him from the speaker’s office last year. Later, Michael drew up a chart of votes against legislative leadership to illustrate who did and did not support Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat.
Although Michael has a definite flair for theatrics and some of his critics say he is self-serving, in private he is quietly articulate. Often, some of his pit bull-style offensives against party politics are delivered with a soft chuckle.
Michael, who has never married, is currently unemployed and campaigning full time.
First elected to the Maine House in 1978, he challenged old-style politics, but he still worked within the party system.
Even then, the themes that fuel him today began to emerge.
Although he failed to win election to the state Senate in 1986, he was re-elected to the House in a 1991 special election. When he returned, Michael said his old party colleagues had become The Establishment. Soon afterward, Michael was involved in a bitter floor fight with fellow Democrats when he supported a proposal to cap campaign contributions at $100.
Then, in 1992, Michael was disgusted to discover that a quarter of Maine’s emissaries to the Democratic National Convention were so-called “super delegates,” those who earn their coveted places because of high rankings in the party hierarchy.
“I thought, we could clean up the Maine Democratic Party, but so what?” Michael said, adding that he believed the problem’s roots extended beyond the state to national politics.
Although many of Michael’s maverick ventures collect more press ink than victory marks, he has been known to startle political watchers with the occasional upset.
In 1984, Michael was the southern Maine coordinator for Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s victory over Walter Mondale in the Maine Democratic caucuses. And he was co-manager of former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s “We The People” presidential Democratic caucus win two years ago. That same year, 1992, he was the only legislator running for re-election to openly declare his support for Ross Perot.
In his congressional campaign, Michael is echoing some of Brown’s populist issues from 1992. Michael has pledged not to take money from political action committees or corporations. If elected, Michael said, he will return $100,000 of his $133,000 salary to the federal treasury, bringing his income down to the level of the average Mainer.
“Listen, 33 grand will work just fine,” said Michael, who researched living costs in Washington.
Michael has at least a temporary history of living cheaply. As New York Newsday reported two years ago, he spent only $12.25 during a week’s stay in New York City while attending the Democratic National Convention. He had prepaid his hotel room, fed himself on free food at receptions, and generally spent the rest on tips.
Despite his “Rebel Without a Party” image, there is a handful of politicians Michael holds in high regard, such as outspoken Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat. But for the most part, the candidate dismisses members of Congress as self-interested, beholden to special interests and out of touch with their constituents.
He notes, with scorn, that many members of Congress were elected in 1992 on platforms of cleaning up the mess in Washington.
“But now, the money is escalating to the point where they just say, forget it,” he said, adding later, “These guys are trapped — they’re taking the money every politician knows they shouldn’t be taking.”
Like the proud political mentor that he is, Brown is watching the Michael race from California and he hopes to campaign for him this fall.
“This is the spirit of `We The People,”‘ Brown said of Michael, a friend of 14 years. “These clowns down in Congress are not getting anything done.”
Even if Michael loses, Brown says, his campaign will help put career politicians on notice.
“Until someone’s willing to lose on principle, no people of principle will get elected,” Brown said.
Some say Michael’s maverick status serves his own ego more than Brown’s populist ideals.
“When John Michael stepped in, it’s like he took the heart right out of us, drained us,” said former Brown campaign worker Jimmy Cook. “It was so obvious he was in it for himself.”
PERSONAL: Single. The son of Sam and Doris Michael.
EDUCATION: B.A. in political science from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., Class of 1973.
EXPERIENCE: Formerly, president and part-owner of Speedway 95 in Bangor, vice president of the Bangor Agricultural Fair, and an international consultant and lecturer on communications topics. Democrat from Auburn to the state House of Representatives, 1978-1986, and 1991 to present. Southern Maine coordinator for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign; co-manager of former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s 1980 and 1992 presidential campaigns in Maine.
OFFICE SOUGHT: Congressman for 2nd District. His opponents are John Baldacci, Richard Bennett and Charles Fitzgerald.