2014-03-28 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Return of the king
By Al Diamon

Democrats in the Maine Legislature need either John Martin or Vladimir Putin.

Personally, I’d prefer the latter, but it’s a close call. Both are proven leaders – if by “proven leaders” you mean “arrogant dictators.” Both deal with opposition in a manner best described as being in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Neither is concerned about the touchy-feely process of reaching consensus.

Martin loses a couple of points because he doesn’t look nearly as studly as Putin when bare-chested.

Unfortunately, Putin isn’t a citizen of this state, making him ineligible to serve in the House or Senate, although there’s nothing stopping legislative leadership from laying out a million bucks or so to hire him as a consultant.

It is, however, much more likely that Martin, anointed many years ago by the late pundit Davis Rawson as the “Earl of Eagle Lake,” will soon be prowling the halls of the State House once again.

The former House speaker has filed papers to run for his old seat in Aroostook County on a platform filled with promises to end legislative gridlock (except when doing nothing better suits him), to thwart Republican Gov. Paul LePage (except when using LePage as his cat’s paw advances his own agenda) and to annex Crimea (giving Maine warm-water beaches).

Martin was first elected to the Maine House in 1964 and held onto his seat until 1996, when he was forced out by the newly enacted term-limits law. During his tenure, he served as speaker a record 10 consecutive terms, relinquishing the gavel only after his top aide was implicated in a ballot-tampering scandal.

He then moved to the state Senate for eight years, before returning to the House for another couple of terms. He lost his bid for re-election in 2012, but only after a series of newspaper articles by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting detailed his links to the Irving family of businesses – he and a partner bought back their bankrupt convenience store for less than half the amount owed to creditors, the largest of which was Irving Oil, while Martin was championing a bill to ease restrictions on mining that benefited another Irving company.

Martin was the only Democratic incumbent to lose that year.

But that’s all in the past, and voters in the heavily Democratic St. John Valley have had time to reflect on the negative consequences of being represented by an ineffectual freshman Republican, as opposed to certified political royalty experienced in delivering pork to a remote corner of Maine.

For instance, in 1989, Martin was instrumental in convincing a state committee to authorize the purchase of 4,000 acres of ordinary Aroostook forest land for $700,000. The property – of little value for scenic views, timber, hunting or fishing – did, however, provide access to land Martin owned on a nearby lake.

In 1991, his autocratic manner was a key element in causing a deadlock in negotiations over the budget and workers’ comp reform that resulted in a state shutdown. Ironically, he later blamed the crisis on GOP negotiators’ alleged use of authoritarian tactics.

Driving home from the Legislature, Martin once encountered blizzard conditions so severe they made the road to Eagle Lake nearly impassable. He promptly phoned the state Department of Transportation and demanded the snow-plowing contractor be fired. He was.

As calls for his resignation grew in 1993, he remained defiant. “I’m not the problem,” he said in a Bangor Daily News op-ed. “I didn’t lie in my campaigns, I didn’t submit phony budgets, I tried to prevent state government from shutting down.”

That year, Martin survived an attempt to remove him from the speakership by just six votes, but only because he promised to step down after the current session ended. Or in 1994. Or sometime. Different people recalled his pledge in different ways.

So why do Democrats need him back now?

Because he knows how to get things done, which is a skill both state Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves lack.

If Martin had been running the show, the Medicaid expansion bill would have passed both chambers by veto-proof margins, because if it didn’t, certain legislators would have found themselves without committee assignments, or unable to offer amendments to pending bills due to rulings that their proposals were out of order, or hauled into Martin’s private restroom and waterboarded (but only in a fun sort of way).

In effect, dissenters would no longer be able to function as legislators.

In 1993, then-state Rep. Herbert Adams of Portland told the Maine Sunday Telegram that Martin could be characterized as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Adams was quoting Winston Churchill, who used that phrase to describe the Soviet Union.

Forget Vladimir. Maine already has its own homegrown Putin.

That’s odd. A surplus Russian army tank just rolled into my front yard and pointed its gun at my office. If you know anything about this, please email my bunker at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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