Angus King stirs the pot in Maine
He may not be a career politician, but Angus King, the Maine independent who is the odds-on favorite to replace retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, is no slouch at political imagery.
The former governor compares the choice Maine voters face to one polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and two expedition members confronted near the end of their epic journey for help after their ship was crushed by Antarctic ice. As they tried to cross South Georgia island, the three found themselves high up on a snowy peak, without sleeping bags, as frigid night approached.
“He knew that they were going to die if they stayed at the top,” King says. And so, he recounts, Shackleton told his two companions to reach their arms around each other, and they slid, like tobogganers, down the steep slope. Although “there could have been rocks, crevices, anything,” King says, those risks paled before the peril of staying put.
As he sees it, his independent candidacy is the political equivalent of that risky slide to (relative) safety.
“If we send down a Democrat or Republican — and it could be Pericles, Socrates, and Thomas Jefferson in one person — if they have that label on, there is zero chance that anything is going to change,” King declares. “What I’m providing is a possibility — 5 percent, 10 percent, 25 percent — that I can act as some kind of catalyst that will begin a process of change.”
But how? Sometimes by working informally inside the system, other times by speaking out publicly, says King, who adds that if possible, he won’t be part of either party’s caucus. Take our long-term fiscal problems. Privately, Democrats know we need significant budget cuts, he says, while many Republicans privately recognize that we also need new revenues.
“If you’ve got a situation where everyone knows what has to happen, maybe one or two people who are willing to say, ‘C’mon, guys, let’s do this,’ might be able to break the logjam,” he says. “I might be able to play a role by being the guy who can say, ‘Hey everybody, let’s do what we know we gotta do for the country.’”
Skeptics find it hard to believe King hasn’t made up his mind about which party he would support to lead the Senate. King, after all, backs gay marriage, supports Obamacare, and says he will vote for President Obama for re-election.
Still, the former governor insists he is genuinely undecided.
“I’m not being coy,” he says. “It will depend on what the circumstances are and what would make me most effective on behalf of Maine, and what I think is best for the country.”
For example, because he believes abuse of the filibuster has helped make the Senate a dysfunctional place, one thing he might ask for in exchange for his support is a rule change to rein its use.
Mainers seem amenable to the idea of having a latter day Mr. Smith go to Washington. Top-tier Democrats and Republicans took a pass on the race, leaving King facing Democrat Cynthia Dill and Republican Charlie Summers, neither of whom is considered a particular threat.
Still, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Summers and targeted King with attack ads aimed at his gubernatorial record. These spots, however, were so cartoonish that they’re tantamount to political malpractice. (The Maine Chamber of Commerce, the Portland Regional Chamber, and several others quickly distanced themselves from the ads.) Mainers themselves remember King fondly, as a moderate, commonsensical, pro-business governor with the foresight to fight for funding to provide every seventh- and eighth-grader with (take-home) access to a laptop to help prepare them for the digital age.
Now, it would take real mettle and determination for an independent to emerge as a meaningful player, and not a quirky afterthought, in today’s partisan, polarized Washington. King acknowledges his quest is an expedition into largely uncharted territory, before noting that he faced the same questions when he first ran for governor as an independent.
“People said you’re not going to be able to get anything done,” he recalls. “Most people in Maine would say I was a pretty effective governor.” Effective enough to win re-election handily.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that success in Augusta would mean success in Washington. And yet, at a time when too many senators seem like Lilliputians, King, 68, would be a large personality, a confident, smart, personable figure unconstrained by higher ambitions, impatient with cant, and, like a true Mainer, unafraid to speak his mind.
All that would instantly make him one of the most interesting — and promising — figures in the U.S. Senate.
Scot Lehigh is a columnist for The Boston Globe.