By Tom Lamia
As I suggested last month, Maine has sent more than its share of respected political personages to the national stage—to the U.S. Senate in particular. Former Senators include: Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie, William Cohen, George Mitchell, and Olympia Snowe. They distinguished themselves and their home state by principled, effective leadership within the Senate and beyond. Two, Smith (R) and Muskie (D), ran for President. Cohen (R) and Mitchell (D) served in national and international positions of great responsibility—Mitchell as Senate Majority Leader and mediator of the world’s most intransigent disputes (e.g., Palestine, Northern Ireland, MLB steroid use). Cohen (R) served as Secretary of Defense in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I) now hold Maine’s U.S. Senate seats and are solidly in the Maine mold of serious, non-partisan, and effective legislators.
But this column is not about any of them, nor is it about dispassionate, high-minded state and national government service. This is about a troubling reflection in Maine politics of the class struggle and negative emotion that now have a firm hold on our country.
Near me, in the twin villages of Newcastle and Damariscotta, Frances Perkins is revered. The Perkins house on the river in Newcastle was built in the mid-18th century and has been occupied by the Perkins family ever since. The Frances Perkins Center in Damariscotta is an active local cultural center. Visitor tours of the Newcastle house and of the family cemetery plot (where Frances is buried alongside her husband) are conducted in the summer months.
Before Franklin Roosevelt was a four-term President, he was Governor of New York. He succeeded Al Smith, who had served four terms in that office. Smith ran for President in 1928 and lost, which ended his political career. In 1918 (before women could vote), Governor Smith appointed Frances Perkins to the state’s Industrial Commission, a labor law enforcement agency. Later, after serving as Chair of the Commission under Smith, Governor Roosevelt appointed Perkins to the new post of Industrial Commissioner in 1928. After his election as President in 1932, Roosevelt asked Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor.
Perkins said she would serve, and become the first woman ever of cabinet rank, only if Roosevelt agreed, in writing, to pursue a list of policy objectives that became the basis for the New Deal: a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation, abolition of child labor, federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, Social Security, a new federal employment service, and universal health insurance. He agreed. When she left the cabinet in June 1945, only one of the objectives remained undone: universal health insurance. That one is still a work in progress.
Until March of 2011, Frances Perkins and other Maine labor notables, including World War II icon ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ were celebrated in a 36-foot-long mural bolted to a wall in the Maine Department of Labor Building. (Rosie was a wartime employee at Bath Iron Works).
In 2011, a new breed of politician, Governor Paul LePage, ordered the mural removed after just two months in office. Two weeks later, the mural was gone and a public outcry began. The Governor defended his action, noting that “some business owners” had complained. After some delay, a single letter, addressed to the Governor was offered in support: “Welcome to Augusta. You are doing a great job. Keep it up.” Then the writer expresses “disbelief” that the mural includes “a figure which closely resembles the former Commissioner of Labor [Perkins]” and asserts that it “is nothing but propaganda.” Finally, the fully-capitalized demand: “MR. LEPAGE, PLEASE TEAR DOWN THIS MURAL,” is followed by a reassuring “Keep up the good work. [Signed,] A Secret Admirer.”
Does this sound familiar? The effusive praise, the “fake news” reference to propaganda? The apparent premise that government takes sides (the mural was said to be inconsistent with Maine’s “pro-business” policies)? All of this gives new meaning to “Moxie” in Maine: not just a soft drink, but a communications technique as well. Even the unavoidable thought that the anonymous author of the letter could be the addressee himself comes to mind. Conclusion: It is not possible to escape Donald Trump by moving to Maine; his avatar has preceded him in elected office.
The further lesson: In 2014, LePage was re-elected with 48% of the vote—up from 38% in 2010. It was another three-way race. This time, the independent candidate, Cutler, narrowly defeated in 2010, was far behind. The upstate conservative Democrat, Congressman Mike Michaud, who led in the final polls, was five points back.
Do not think that your outrage at bullies and boors will prevail by the weight of logic, just goals, or mannerly conduct. There is a more severe form of outrage out there and those in its sway are fired by it and singularly focused on having it prevail over logic, just goals, and mannerly conduct.