Can former Republican Party chair shed baggage of LePage era in run for the State House?
With the election of Gov. Janet Mills in November 2018, Maine was able to turn the corner on the ugliness, lawlessness and cruelty of the LePage administration.
Whether you agree with Mills on every issue is immaterial. The state of politics in Maine has changed and that gives me hope for the future of the United States.
We have put behind us a government based on fear, name-calling and, all too often, lies. Gov. Paul LePage was unhinged and politics in the state reflected it. It took the extraordinary skill of Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau with an assist from then-Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson to keep the government functioning.
With Mills, there are still partisan differences and intense political debates. But we no longer have a governor who is erratic, hateful and threatens violence, appealing to the worst of human nature for political power.
The turnaround also has me watching one particular race for the Maine State House.
Former Maine Republican Party Chair Rick Bennett has announced that he is running for the state Senate. Bennett served as chair of the state party during some of the worst of LePage’s antics and refused to take any significant action to hold the governor accountable or to grind the sharpest edges of his worst behavior.
Like much of the Republican Party in Washington for President Donald Trump, Bennett became a loyal enabler for politics at its worst.
And I was surprised by it.
Bennett has served in the Maine Senate before. In fact, he reached a power-sharing agreement with then-Senate President Mike Michaud, a Democrat, when the Senate was evenly divided. While there were of course disagreements on policy, the two were able to work collaboratively to ensure that the Senate ran smoothly and the work of the people could get done.
Bennett also wrote a regular column for the Lewiston Sun Journal, which I edited for a short time. He was smart, reasonable and moderate.
During the LePage years, the Republican Party in Maine was anything but those things.
Bennett should be a favorite to return to the State House. Senate District 19 is a reliable Republican seat, Bennett is well known and the current officer holder, Republican James Hamper, is term limited.
Here’s what I’m curious to see: Will the moderate Bennett, the person who ran against John Baldacci for a seat in the U.S. House and for the GOP nomination when U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe retired, return? Or will Bennett adapt to the Trump era — much as he did during the LePage era — and run a slash-and-burn campaign that seeks to divide Mainers against one another?
It’s not clear to me if national politics can recover from the damage done by Trump. He has broken the law, torn down the norms of democracy and put his personal profit and ambition above the well-being of our country.
But in Maine, we have seen that with a skilled and thoughtful leader at the helm, we can repair the damage and return to a politics where the political parties are competitors, not enemies.
Bennett represents the next test.
If he campaigns and serves as the leader who helped guide an evenly divided Maine Senate and showed thoughtfulness and an ability to work across the aisle, then our state will demonstrate — again — that the politics of division and lunacy can be overcome.
However, if he adopts the passions, positions and rhetoric now more common in his party and a tone that treats Democrats and the press as non-legitimate enemies of the people, then we will know that the poison of the LePage-Trump era requires an antidote stronger than former Republican moderates.
The Republican Party needs to demonstrate that it’s up to the task of governance and upholding the law. Bennett, if he’s up for it, can show them how to do it.
David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.