Impeachment debacle shows Maine Democrat split: solutions vs. extremism

In recent days, Maine Democrats managed to embarrass not only themselves, but the institution of the Maine Legislature, with a ridiculous debate over impeaching Republican Gov. Paul LePage. At a time when the state has real problems that desperately need serious discussion and bipartisan solutions — like the drug crisis that has gripped our state — Democrats chose to spend a day of session debating a go-nowhere resolution launching a partisan salvo against LePage. The resolution would have launched yet another investigation of LePage’s actions on a whole laundry list of complaints, most notably the governor’s involvement in Good Will-Hinckley’s decision not to hire Speaker of the House Mark Eves.

Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, introduces an impeachment order against Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday in the Maine House. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, introduces an impeachment order against Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday in the Maine House. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

By launching this attempt, the sponsors of the resolution (including Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, and Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell) appear to be rejecting bipartisan investigations regarding this matter. This resolution would have created a special, more partisan investigative committee with members appointed by Eves — who has an inherent conflict of interest in this matter that led him to recuse himself from the floor debate last week. Essentially, the sponsors are investigation-shopping, trying to find an entity that will come to the conclusion they want, rather like unethical scientists manipulating data to their advantage.

Of course, many of the Democrats pushing for impeachment seem to be doing so just because they don’t like things LePage has said or done, rather than because he committed any crime. Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, for example, admitted in this paper that she decided to support impeachment only after LePage’s recent controversial comments at a town hall. Grant may have been offended by what LePage said, but the First Amendment protects his right to freedom of speech the same as hers, and the Legislature removing him from office for what he said would violate those rights.

The debate over the impeachment order did reveal a fascinating divide within the Maine Democratic Party, however. By a vote of 96-52, the Maine House opted to indefinitely postpone the impeachment order, with 26 Democrats joining all Republicans (and one independent) to vote to kill the measure. The split in the caucus was not necessarily what one would expect: It didn’t fall along urban-rural lines, nor was it merely a split between the old guard and the young upstarts. There was some of that, to be sure, but that wasn’t the only difference.

Rather than any traditional political split, the dynamic we may be seeing at play here may be between the more practical, solution-oriented Maine Democrats who wanted to get positive things done for the state and the more extreme wing of the party that can’t stand LePage, can’t believe they lost two elections to the man, and are determined to bring him down. The more practical Democrats might not like LePage very much either, but they recognize that he was twice elected governor and they’re going to have to find a way to work with him. That approach is to be commended, and should be seen more often in both parties at both the state and national levels.

Unfortunately, while reasonable House Democrats were able to band together with Republicans to stop a pointless impeachment investigation, they were outnumbered within their own caucus. For the long term for Democrats, that may mean the more extreme, ideological wing of their party is asserting dominance. That might be good for the GOP, but won’t make governing any easier in Augusta. In the shorter term, it will be interesting to see whether this dynamic comes together again during this legislative session to get things done, or whether it was a one-time event forged under extreme circumstances.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.