August 2010

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Tea, Anyone?

by Toni Seger

There’s always been talk about the two Maine’s which usually refers to income/education level and how it corresponds to geographical division and so forth. Now, Maine has a new divide brought to it by the Tea Party. Last May, Maine's Republican convention assembled with a relatively innocuous platform that said things like: "we believe that the proper role of government is to help provide for those who cannot help themselves"; and "we believe in ensuring that our children have access to the best educational opportunities"; and "every person's dignity, freedom, liberty, ability and responsibility must be honored."

In the end, however, they didn't pass that platform. Instead, they were literally high jacked by Tea Party delegates and, after an emotional floor fight, adopted a very different platform. The effects of this disturbing phenomenon were noticed nationally as The Washington Post and other outlets reported the event with some amazement for the platform's utter wackiness. The Post described it as a "manifesto of insanity". e.g. According to the Maine Republicans/Tea Party, climate change is a poisonous plot for which perpetrators should be prosecuted. They also propose a return to 'Austrian Economics' which translates into the Gold standard, a total impossibility, and they favor many other policies just as extreme.

In June, after a crowded primary, the Republican nominee is Paul LePage whose staff was very involved in taking over the convention and writing its platform. LePage is entirely self made, speaks bluntly and has worked hard all his life. American politics admires people like this. They seem to personify a time when restrictions on business were few and a personal fortune was there to be made with hard work and ingenuity; a period like the end of the 19th and early years of the 20th century when immigrants, including my grandparents, flooded into this country looking for a better life. Many of those people did very well, but it was the deleterious effect on our natural resources from this massive wave of humanity that led to the development of our park system as it became evident unregulated growth would result in utter resource destruction and a worse life for later generations. We can't return to a time when our wealth seemed limitless because time never moves backwards, but we need to learn that no one’s wealth is ever limitless. The abundant natural resources gifted to us in the past created an unfortunate mythology that American wealth is available to anyone who works hard enough and squandering resources requires no justification other than a marketplace, all of which LePage’s naivete appears to personify.

Here’s how this works. LePage says he wants Maine to "become a 'Food Basket' to the Northeast by investing in our agricultural infrastructure." Fine, except LePage also says, in his administration obtaining energy would "trump enviromentalist ideology". In the practical sense, this means the level of natural destruction will be unimportant when pursuing energy needs which directly contradicts turning Maine into a 'Food Basket'. No location’s food supply can last when the environment is secondary to competing commercial interests. How much do you want to eat seafood caught in the Gulf?

Even in light of the Gulf catastrophe, LePage favors drilling off Maine's coast. I don’t hear anything about conservation or alternatives, just drill baby drill. Is it really a stretch to realize if we destroy our food supply in the pursuit of energy, we will no longer be able to sustain our population? No one likes bureaucracy, except maybe bureaucrats, but government oversight doesn't appear by accident. The still recent global collapse of financial markets proved, once again, an unregulated financial world is a very dangerous roll of the dice. If we abandon environmental protection, how long will we have a planet? LePage wants to close the Departments of Education, Environmental Protection and even Energy despite the importance he places on energy production. Clearly, LePage wants a simpler world which many of us yearn for, but it's that nostalgic yearning for a romanticized earlier time that seems to define the Tea Party patriot. Personally, I'm old enough to remember when doctors made house calls and didn't need malpractice insurance, but we don't live in those times anymore and I doubt we’ll ever return to them.

LePage grew up in hardscrabble Maine and even spent a couple years homeless as a child, so he definitely pulled himself up by his bootstraps which is quite laudable. However, living outdoors should have put him in touch with the weather, so I’m surprised he hasn’t noticed how much it’s changed. I've lived in Maine since 1977 and it was evident over a decade ago that it’s not the same climate. Winter sports recreation is very important to this state and snowmaking which didn't exist when I moved here is not only essential, it's problematic because it doesn't always get cold enough to make it anymore. The official opening of ice fishing was traditionally New Years' Day when ice could be expected to be solid except, instead of a month of cold weather, December can be a month when it rains. A few years ago, when I had some green (freshly cut) wood delivered in late November to be aged in my field, the vendor apologized for how his wheels tore into my lawn. I asked him if he'd ever seen the ground this soft, this late and, as a native with decades in the trade, he never had. It's a beautiful summer day as I write this after weeks of harsh above average temperatures. Spring came exceptionally early and my perennial flowers which have been appearing earlier and earlier every year are now three weeks ahead of where they were when I first moved here. We’re experiencing very severe thunderstorms with damaging winds and hail more and more often and we’re even getting tornados… In short, the indicators of climate change are far too numerous for this essay and they are undeniable.

The Tea Party seeks to make the rights of states greater than the federal government, a policy that defeated this country at its inception which as professed admirers of our Founders, one would think they would be aware of. After the Articles of Confederation caused the collapse of our infant democracy, our Founders reversed themselves and adopted a constitution with a strong central government which makes opposition to strong central government in the name of the Founder’s ‘original intent’, an oxymoron. Of course, when I was an adolescent States' Rights was just code for racism and the continuance of southern segregation. Indeed, LePage also wants to repeal the Maine Human Rights Act which protects Whistleblowers from retaliation and provides workplace protection from discrimination on the basis of suspect classifications such as race, gender, age, etc.

Maine’s Republican/Tea Party platform also includes a rejection of all UN Treaties that "surrender US sovereignty". I’m not even sure what that means, but the platform specifies the rejection of a UN Treaty on the Rights of the Child which I find a little stunning. Aren’t these the people who are always touting family values or is that just more code for eliminating choice in pregnancy and partnership?

If all this weren’t enough, Tea Party delegates to the Maine Republican convention vandalized a social studies classroom where they held their caucus. Delegates rifled through the teacher’s desk, tore a labor movement poster from the door and replaced it with a bumper sticker that said: “Working People Vote Republican”. Unapolegetic for their appalling behavior, tea party delegates left childish notes for middle school students: “A Republican was here” and “What gives you the right to propagandize impressionable kids.” Further enraged by what they perceived to be communist teachings, tea party delegates later contacted the school’s principal to complain about “anti-American” things they saw in the classroom including a closed box containing copies of the U.S. Constitution published by the American Civil Liberties Union.

It’s hard to recognize the Maine Republican party in all this. Maine’s two Republican Senators are strongly pro-choice and have the distinction of breaking with the national party when their party of ‘No’ gets too extreme like voting in favor of extending unemployment or reinstituting regulation to financial markets. Nevertheless, as I write this essay in late July, LePage’s personal biography has made him the front runner and with a strong third party candidate on the left pulling substantial support away from the Democratic candidate, he’s feeling pretty good. Is it possible such a obviously reactionary candidate could be successful in a progressive state like Maine? Unfortunately, it is. In the presidential election of 2000 which hung on the state of Florida, Ralph Nader’s 89,000 votes alone were enough to create a dead even race in a state that otherwise favored the policies of Al Gore.

Mainers are very independent minded and, as a state, we like third party candidates. In the case of the upcoming gubanatorial election, there are three independent candidates. In the 2nd Congressional District, where I live, the largest block of voters is unenrolled and unpredictable all of which means independent splinter candidates can, unintentionally, enable the election of a far right, fringe candidate like Paul LePage.

Consider independent candidate Eliot Cutler, a man with a superb environmental record and many other things to recommend him who eschewed the party primary for an independent run. While I’ve been aware of and an admirer of Eliot Cutler’s environmental work for years, I am thoroughly horrified by his awful timing. It reminds me of a time when I admired Ralph Nader who trampled the record of a great early career in a pointless, narcissistic pursuit of the presidency that produced a catastrophe, in 2000, we may never recover from.

Currently in third place, Cutler is happy to pull votes from the Democrat, Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Mitchell who has been a leader in progressive state government for many years, has a demonstrated record of bridging the gap between parties when no one else could and is running as a clean election candidate which means she has a lot less money than Paul LePage and a lot more integrity than anyone who has ever pursued this office. Libby Mitchell would be Maine’s first female Governor, but that’s not why I support her. After all, Sarah Palin was Alaska’s first female Governor...

Libby Mitchell is a real leader with a real record. She has the unique distinction of having been both Speaker of the Maine House and President of the Maine Senate and, in both capacities, demonstrated she could get Republican votes when no one else could which, in today’s world, is very rare. Her most recent success was the passage of a series of job bond packages, approved by voters in June, that will produce much needed infrastructure improvements while creating thousands of good jobs including many that could be characterized as green. Despite the fact that no Republicans voted initially for these measures, Mitchell kept the last legislature in session while her primary opponents were campaigning and managed to sway enough Republican votes to assure passage. There are already people holding jobs who wouldn’t be because of what she did. For all that, I am even more motivated by her candidacy because she opted to be a Clean Election candidate. Clearly this is a much harder path to take, but if Mitchell can get elected Maine’s Governor using public funding, it could turn a national spotlight onto desperately needed campaign finance reform. In short, Mitchell is my candidate because she gets the big picture and is prepared to go to the mat for it.

We have a few months before the election and things could change a good deal, but it’s very ‘in’ with our fickle electorate to trash Democrats now. And, there’s a repetitive refrain I hear every election season that “there’s no difference between the major party candidates”. I remember that was a very popular refrain in 2000 though I don’t know anyone anymore who would contend George W. Bush and Al Gore are identical twins. What I have to wonder is, did we learn anything from that experience or are we simply condemned to repeat it? I guess we’ll find out.

Co-owner of a media/communications firm, ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of The Telefax Box, the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives available at . She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting. Her film, The Force of Poetry is also available.