Senators open mouths, insert feet

When it comes to acting in haste and repenting at leisure, how about state Sen. Michael Willette of Aroostook County? He got swept away in the spirit of lighthearted fun and reposted an image of President Obama with a caption saying he would deal with ISIS “at the family reunion.”

Willette seems mostly to regret the posting, not the sentiments behind it. He called the original post “too good to pass up.” Though this is his first Senate term, he is not without political experience – he spent two terms in the House. How on earth anyone, let alone a public figure, can be so cavalier about public statements in this day and age is a wonder.

“Like too many people these days, I fell into the trap of posting something first and then thinking later,” he said. So really, he’s just like the rest of us, other than being an elected representative. And a “trap?” Is it a trap to open your mouth to allow the insertion of your foot?

Further evidence of what Willette called an “error in judgment” soon followed, including this remark about Muslims: “Round them up and air drop them back into the rubble and hell holes from whence they came.”

An apology on the floor of the Senate did not appease irate Democrats, who are demanding the senator’s resignation. Republicans, who like their federal counterparts, just won control of the Senate, have made clear their disappointment in their colleague, but are not ready to give him the heave ho.

When a member of the legislature crosses the line of common decency, a line that continues to grow fainter, what corrective options are available to the institution? An apology on the floor of the Senate is a painful and embarrassing act for the member, but is not seen by the public as being all that weighty.

The senator could resign, but so far, Willette has said he will not. The state constitution provides that a senator may be impeached, tried before the Senate and removed from office, but there is extreme reluctance to override the vote of the electoral district that sent the individual to office, except perhaps for criminal cause. That leaves a censure or the senator’s removal from his committee chairmanship.

There has never been a censure in the Senate, and only one in the House, in 2001. Maine’s only stated grounds for such action is “disorderly conduct.” A censure would prolong the political furor, and given the current political climate, could lead to a flurry of demands for censure for transgressions great and small.

Removing him from his chairmanship could be the answer. He is Senate chairman of the State and Local Government Committee. Chairmen serve at the will of their party’s leadership. His removal would acknowledge that Willette’s remarks have made it awkward, uncomfortable or intimidating for some Mainers to interact with the legislature.

This might not fully assuage the Democrats’ feelings, but the public would likely feel that justice had been served. Republican leadership has acquitted itself well in the Senate so far. Dealing swiftly with this unfortunate incident would assure us that they intend to stay the course.

For sins of omission, there is “the dog ate my homework.” For sins of commission, we now have “the snowstorm.” That was Arizona Sen. John McCain’s excuse for the Republican-sponsored letter to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” It was “kind of a very rapid process,” said the senator. “Everyone was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm.”

If one were going to intervene in international politics, is that something that would be done “very rapidly?” Leaving your office early, picking up extra milk or taking work home are all things you do “because of a snowstorm.” Firing off an ill-considered letter to foreign leaders? Not so much.

To make a bad decision worse, unidentified Republican aides are reported by the Daily Kos to have said the letter was a “lighthearted attempt to signal to Iran and the public that Congress should have a role in the ongoing nuclear discussions.”

Lighthearted? Since when has that been the approach to foreign policy, much less nuclear weapons? Newly empowered in Washington, Republicans seem to be making every effort to reduce the chances that they will be trusted with the majority in the future.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the instigator of the letter, is new to Senate service, never mind foreign policy, having only been in office for two months. More seasoned signers do not have that excuse. Already in a hole with the “snowstorm” excuse, McCain kept digging. “I sign a lot of letters,” he said. “I saw that it looked reasonable to me, and I signed it.”

The senator went on to say that “given the blowback,” Republicans “probably should have had more discussion about it.” No. The proper time for discussion is before a letter is circulated and signed, not after the blowback.

In Maine, neither Independent Sen. Angus King nor Republican Sen. Susan Collins signed on. Too bad not everyone has such clear-headed representation.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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