October 28, 2020


On the 25th anniversary of his death, what would Gov. James Longley have said about the 25 Maine lawmakers who plan to spend $1,500 to $2,000 each to go to a legislative conference this week in Seattle? We think it would be something like, “Can’t just five or six of you go and take notes to share with the others?”

The insurance executive from Lewiston, who made his public entrance as head of Gov. Kenneth Curtis’ team that assembled the Maine Management and Cost Survey, then served a single, tumultuous, popular term as governor, died of cancer a quarter century ago today. His idea that government could be run efficiently to provide needed services remains as current as the latest government reforms circulating through Augusta.

A former Democrat, Gov. Longley ran for governor in 1974 as an independent after presenting more than 800 recommendations for state cost-savings through the survey and believing they were coolly received by Gov. Curtis. His opponents were Democrat George Mitchell and Republican James Erwin, neither of whom took his candidacy seriously enough. By attracting many new, nonparty voters, Mr. Longley won 39 percent of the total vote, future U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitchell had 37 percent and Mr. Erwin, 24 percent.

In endorsing Mr. Longley in ’74, the BDN noted several compelling reasons for electing him but offered this warning: “He does not strike us as a patient man, and his will to achieve is bound to create division, and quite possibly even counter-productive conflict.” There was plenty of that, but looking back on a time of rapid expansion of government locally and of Watergate nationally, two attributes were striking about Maine’s first independent governor: he anticipated the tax protests that hit and have stuck in Maine so that now both political parties understand the public outrage; and he showed that a person speaking his mind forthrightly would be trusted to run government. At the end of what he promised would be his only term, it was widely felt that he could have won re-election.

Gov. Longley had endless conflicts with Democrats as he tried to push through budgets without raising taxes; his fights with the teachers’ union and with the university system had effects that lasted long after he had left office. He was sometimes overridden and sometimes penny wise but pound foolish, but his broader message of frugality seems more relevant than ever today.

That’s a lesson lawmakers should continue to heed, and they don’t even need to go to Seattle to learn it.

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