Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Eliot Cutler Discovers Peter Mills

May 10, 2006 - Bangor Daily News

By Eliot R. Cutler

When I was a youngster growing up in Bangor during the 1950s, I was mystified by my parents' voting patterns. Moderately liberal Democrats who almost always voted for Democrats in national elections, they remained registered Republicans who religiously voted in the Republican primaries for state and local offices until long after Ed Muskie, Frank Coffin, Bill Hathaway and others had firmly established the roots of the Democratic Party in Maine. They voted in the Republican primaries, they explained, because those were the elections that mattered.

Well, we've come full circle. The 2006 Republican primary for governor is at least the first election that matters this year, and I am voting in it - even though I had to leave my party to do so. Maine's voting laws are quite flexible in this respect, and what I did is something a lot of Maine Democrats ought to consider doing this year. Allow me to explain why and how I did it.

Our state is in crisis. Maine is plunging further and further toward a combination of high taxes, poor services and an aging population that will be a toxic combination for the quality of life that has made Maine precious and unique and for those (fewer and fewer) of our children who choose to stay in Maine and enjoy it.

Several months ago, a longtime friend asked me whether I thought the state of Maine could be rescued without first suffering a catastrophe. A catastrophe so bad it literally forces reform on our state government that will hurt a lot of folks very badly who can not afford to be hurt any more than they already have been. We must try to avoid that kind of calamity.

Historically, some troubled state and local governments (New York City, for example) have had to confront catastrophe before their citizens mustered sufficient political will to reform, while others (Massachusetts, Chicago, Atlanta and Milwaukee come to mind) steered clear of - but not before careening dangerously close to - the abyss.

I think that we in Maine can reform before ruin forces it upon us; but not unless we first elect a new governor. I hope that we do that this year.

I voted for John Baldacci in 2002. I think he has many good instincts, that his heart is in the right place, and that he is an honest man.

Like me, he is a Bangor boy. Indeed, some of my fondest childhood memories are spaghetti dinner at his parents' Baltimore Restaurant, il ristorante sotto il ponte. By no means is our friend Baldacci solely responsible for Maine's problems.

Yet, Gov. Baldacci shows no signs that he understands how serious Maine's problems are or that he is willing to break political eggs to fix them. At this point in Maine's history, we need strong, disciplined and forceful leadership from a governor who deeply understands the needs of Maine people and the mechanics of state government, and who is capable of making the latter meet the former.

It sounds misleadingly simple, but we need to be much more realistic about who we are and where we live. It would be great if Maine shared a border with more than one other state (or at least with some state other than New Hampshire), if we were a Canadian province for commercial purposes, or if the water were warmer and the winters shorter. But to freely translate an old Yiddish expression, if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a truck.

By dint of political geography and for other reasons, we live in a chronically poor and financially challenged state. Consequently, we Mainers need to be especially realistic about what we should expect from state and local government. We should expect governments to provide genuinely essential services like public health and safety, to invest wisely in the development of our human capital, to protect and conserve our natural resources, and - importantly - to be managed in ways that do not unduly constrain economic opportunity for the people who live here.

In an era when the most expensive state government functions are education and health care, we are not doing as good a job in Maine as we need to do of figuring out how to provide those services to our citizens efficiently, effectively and at a reasonable cost, and of tightly managing other government services so that we can afford to make greater investments in those two essential areas.

The Blaine House seems seized by NIMTOO (Not In My Term of Office) thinking that papers over our health care crisis with a Dirigo health plan which covers too few people at too high a cost, that advances tired notions that pay only studied lip service to regional government and regional planning and that tries to borrow several hundred million dollars to fund the current services budget.

I am disappointed that John Baldacci has not provided the kind of leadership that Maine so desperately needs, but I am confident that Peter Mills can. I know Mills. I have worked with him.

He has an exceptionally sophisticated understanding of state government operations and public finances - almost more than we have a right to expect in this time of stress. Indeed, in my view, it is Maine's sheer dumb luck that Mills is available and is willing to serve as governor.

Understand, I am a Democrat - or at least I was until a few months ago. An Ed Muskie loyalist, I spent seven years on his staff. I was President Carter's White House energy czar and associate director of his Office of Management and Budget. I served in high level positions in five presidential campaigns for Democratic candidates.

In good Maine tradition, though, I have been a pretty independent Democrat. I voted twice for Angus King. I always voted for Jock McKernan, and I always will support Olympia against any challenger. I would wager that a lot of registered Democrats in Maine have voting histories not too different from mine.

Thinking about putting myself in a position to vote in the Republican primary was a lot harder than the process of actually doing it. I went to the Town Hall one afternoon and told the clerk that I wanted to resign as a registered Democrat, making me a registered but unenrolled voter. On June 13, I will register as a Republican and vote in the Republican primary for Mills.

Those who remain on the lists as registered Democrats have until May 26 to do what I did. It's easy, and it is the right thing to do if you want to put state government in Maine back on the right track.

My parents would have understood. After all, it may be the only Maine election that matters this year.

Eliot R. Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth, is a lawyer and is chairman of the Board of Visitors of the Muskie School of Public Services at the University of Southern Maine.