Maine’s Four “Other” Representatives

This is an interesting read from MaineToday.com about the state’s one Green and three independent state representatives, the challenges they face, etc.

Rep. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth has run—and won—twice as an independent.

Now he’s been joined by two others who have dropped their party affiliations, giving independents three votes in a House where Democrats hold a one-vote advantage.

“At times, when the Legislature is more divided, you’re more relevant,” Woodbury said. “That’s served me well this time, because the Legislature is so close.”

But Woodbury doesn’t confuse relevance with power.

“I don’t think I’m in a position of great power,” he said. “Like all legislators, I’m working my best through the ability I have to make a difference.”

Although it changed for a brief period of time last week, the balance of power in the House stands at 74 Democrats, 73 Republicans, three independents and one Green Independent.

Woodbury and other lawmakers say getting things done at the Statehouse comes down to relationship-building, not party bullying or grandstanding. And term limits and the Clean Elections Act have changed the atmosphere from one of iron-fisted party leaders to one in which compromise is more likely to rule the day.

Woodbury said he sometimes wonders what the House would be like if there were 10 independents.

“I’ve thought that might be a good thing, because no one party coalition could drive the entire agenda,” he said.

Maine is a rarity nationally for the diversity of political views represented in the House. Statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures show that Maine is one of only six states with representatives from parties other than Republican or Democrat.

(That doesn’t include Nebraska, which has a nonpartisan Legislature.)

Vermont, with six Progressives and one independent, has the most, followed by Maine with three independents and one Green Independent.

Green Independent John Eder of Portland, the only Green in the state Legislature, is now in his fourth year as a representative. In some ways, he feels like a voyeur who gets to watch what’s going on without being obligated to vote a certain way.

“What I see is it’s not about policy, it’s more about power,” Eder said. “I came up with the naive position that it was about good policies and ideas being taken on their merits. I was quickly disabused of that idea.”

Eder, with no built-in party to support him, said he’s learned not to burn bridges with anyone and that he’s got to build consensus if he wants to get bills passed.

With party power in flux at the beginning of the legislative session, Eder said he was approached by party leaders who wanted him to drop his Green affiliation in exchange for the chance to chair a legislative committee. He refused, saying he now feels more certain than ever that not joining a major party is the right thing for him.

“In Maine, what we’re seeing reflects the mood of the nation,” he said. “Partisanship didn’t serve them and it’s more about raw power. Both parties are off their platforms.”

Each year since 1997, there’s been at least one independent in the House, according to records kept by the state Law and Legislative Reference Library.

In addition to independents, which today make up the largest voting bloc with 393,151 voters, Mainers have supported a smattering of other parties throughout state history.

In 1913, there were seven Progressives, and in 1880, Greenbacks hit an all-time high with 50 representatives. In that year, Republicans dominated with 90 seats, followed by the Greenbacks and a mere 11 Democrats.

One negative aspect of being an independent is the absence of a base of support for ideas and a natural network of peers. There’s no staff to research an issue, and no meeting place to find out about which bills may be coming up for a vote.

“I do think as an independent, you have to work a little bit harder,” Woodbury said. “There is a natural crutch when you are in a party, and look to the party leader, and assume that’s where you’re likely to be.”

House Minority Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford, said independents face a tough road out on their own.

“My sense is they probably are going to have a little less influence than they had before,” he said. “Those who left the Democratic caucus had a greater opportunity to influence the caucus within, than from without.”

Despite the drawbacks, three Democrats dropped their party affiliation since the end of the last session. One of them, Rep. Joanne Twomey of Biddeford, rejoined the Democrats this week when it became clear Republicans would be allowed to share power because the House had been thrown into a tie.

Rep. Tom Saviello of Wilton became an independent in July and Rep. Barbara Merrill of Appleton dropped her party status just days before the beginning of the new legislative session.

That put the House into a 73-73 tie, until Twomey reenrolled as a Democrat.

Twomey said she originally left the party to send them a message that they were no longer in touch with core Democratic values. But she knew the voters in her district would not want Republicans to have a portion of the power, so in a tearful speech to the House, she said she would reenroll in the party.

“It’s the bigger picture,” she said later in week. “I have been a Democrat my whole life.”

Saviello said that even with Woodbury and Merrill, he doesn’t see a major role for independents in 2006.

“I don’t think we’re going to make that big a difference,” Saviello said.

Like Woodbury, Saviello said he has to work harder to make decisions on how he’s going to vote because he no longer has a party to tell him what to do. In the end, he wants to be able to explain why he voted the way he did to the people who elected him.

One advantage independents have over those in registered parties is that they can attend the meetings of either party, or both.

“Both caucuses have opened their doors to me,” Saviello said. “I’m trying to gather data to make the right decisions.”

Another argument against leaving a party between legislative sessions is that voters aren’t getting what they voted for. Merrill said that hasn’t been a problem, at least not so far.

“When I unenrolled from the Democratic Party, I thought, you know, this is my declaration of conscience,” she said. “I was concerned about reaction from constituents in my district. The reaction, so far, has been 100 percent positive.”

Merrill said it didn’t come as a surprise to people in her district, because she often expresses contrary views on her Web site and in columns she submits to the local paper.

House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, said he will always keep the door open to independents and has worked well with Saviello even after he left the party. Gone are the days when party leaders could order people to vote a certain way, he said.

Term limits mean leaders will only be in power for two, or maybe four, years. And candidates who use the state’s public financing to pay for their campaigns don’t have to rely on a party machine to support them.

“The strength of the party system changed,” he said. “Without Clean Elections and no term limits, party leadership had a firm hand and control.”

And now?

Cummings said representatives with good negotiating skills and a willingness to compromise will get things done.

“Some people are so determined that their way is the right way, that they’re just totally frustrated by the party process when they don’t get what they want,” he said.

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