Playing fair doesn’t pay off

Now that the gubernatorial meltdown has progressed from the dropping-of-jaws phase to the gnashing-of-teeth phase to the glowering-from-our-respective-corners phase, it is time to give a little attention to the fallout.

Action, if we can call it that, on Gov. Paul LePage’s stunningly intemperate phone call to Rep. Drew Gattine, is off the table for the time being. It certainly will be featured in many a political campaign in the next six weeks, and there no doubt will be efforts to address it in one way or another come January when the new legislature convenes. But for now, it slumbers.

The subject on which the record could use a little straightening is the performance of Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau. In 2014, while Republicans celebrated winning control of the Maine Senate, Democrats were sure their worst nightmares had been realized when the conservative Thibodeau was elected president.

From the get-go, Thibodeau has exceeded expectations. Neither party had the catbird seat. Democrats were playing defense against a Republican Senate and governor. They could block plays, but were not likely to be able to advance any of their own initiatives.

Republicans were hampered by a governor who railed against his own party members, refused to allow his commissioners to attend legislative committee meetings and walled himself off from the media on a regular basis.

Had Thibodeau taken the same tack as House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, who has maintained solidarity with LePage since he became the House Republican leader, it would have further entrenched the partisan divide in Augusta. Instead, he elevated the proceedings with measured statesmanship.

Though his conservative beliefs may not have changed, Thibodeau showed a distinct ability to manage the legislative system. Even-tempered, level-headed and fair-minded, his leadership was exactly what was prescribed by a soul-searching report undertaken by Republicans after their 2012 loss to Barack Obama. Predictably, this earned him the title of RINO (Republican in Name Only) from the far right, but really, it is this type of leadership that distinguishes Maine from Washington, D.C., a distinction that grows more tenuous every year.

Thibodeau chided LePage on some of his more abrasive statements and weathered a storm of hostile robo-calls in return. When the governor refused to swear in a Democrat who won a mid-term special election, Thibodeau suspended all roll call votes of any significance until she was seated.

He worked in close consultation with Senate Democrats. It mattered. At the end of last session, the Senate minority leader offered his thanks to Thibodeau on behalf of his caucus for treating them “respectfully.” One Democrat proposed that Thibodeau receive the “Right Man at the Right Time” award in acknowledgement of his even-handed management of the Senate.

Thibodeau was quick to criticize the governor for his infamous phone call, but it was soon apparent that Rep. Fredette had no interest in a special session to consider a broad legislative response. At a meeting of leadership, Fredette reiterated his unwillingness to convene at all, making the discussion moot.

From the beginning, Thibodeau set his Senate Republicans apart from their colleagues in the House. “With all due respect,” he said on Aug. 31, “I completely disagree with Representative Fredette’s position.” He called for “an acceptable plan for corrective action… .”

Just what that might be was not clear, but Senate Republicans did not rule out a special session. However, Democrats rushed from the meeting to the media with a game plan that did not jibe with Thibodeau’s understanding. Democrats had gone a step too far, and the discussion ended.

Thibodeau’s sense of betrayal was palpable. “They said one thing behind closed doors and quite another to the TV cameras,” he said. Yet he still did not let up on the governor, saying LePage “has crossed several lines that should never be approached ever again.” He went on to say “I believe there is no doubt he would benefit from additional help to address his explosive behavior.”

All through the 127th Legislature, Thibodeau gingerly trod a path toward progress, staking out the interests of his caucus while making it possible for Senate Democrats to come along. After all that, Democrats took the bit in their teeth and ran off the track.

Other than House Republicans, few in Maine will defend the governor on this one. There is plenty of frustration about the failure of the legislature to hold the governor to account, but the bar to do so is quite high and requires the cooperation of all factions within the Maine State House.

Democrats are clearly trying to paint this one as a Republican failure, but that is patently unfair to the Senate president who worked so hard to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that was this session. In the waning hours of the 127th, what both sides could have held up as a model effort in bipartisan governance was tainted by the Democrats’ bid to gain the political edge. Sen. Thibodeau deserved better, and so did we.

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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