Angus King is a “mystery to those outside Maine,” the Hill reported recently. In the Pine Tree State, however, he’s the Ghost of Good Times Past: He served as governor from 1995 to 2003, a period in which the economy was booming and the state was flush with cash. During King’s tenure, in fact, the state budget swelled by $3 billion.
“We literally had surpluses and didn’t know what to do with the money,” King’s former communications director, Dennis Bailey, remembers.
Accordingly, King is the favorite to replace retiring senator Olympia Snowe this year. Public Policy Polling found that 62 percent of Mainers had a favorable opinion of him, while only 24 percent had a negative one. In a matchup with potential Democratic and Republican candidates, meanwhile, King came out on top.
Yet Maine Republicans aren’t despondent. Although they haven’t settled on a candidate, some see a chance for victory in November.
Born in Virginia, King moved to Maine after completing law school, and he made a name for himself hosting a public-affairs television show in the state for close to 20 years. In 1989, he founded Northeast Energy Management, a company that developed energy-conservation projects in southern and central Maine. In 1994, the ex-Democrat ran as an independent for the governorship.
He won largely thanks to his persuasive abilities and to the weakness of his opponents (the Democratic candidate was a former governor and the Republican was an untried Susan Collins making her first statewide bid).
“He is very articulate, very smooth,” says Vic Berardelli, who served as communications director for state-house Republicans during King’s gubernatorial tenure. “He basically governed from the bully pulpit; he left the staff to work with the legislature to iron out the details.” His approach worked: He won reelection in 1998 with 59 percent of the vote.
But he did get in trouble every now and then. His most controversial act was his attempt to mediate a dispute between environmentalists and the paper industry in 1996. That year, the Green party succeeded in putting on the ballot a proposal to ban clearcutting, a logging technique used by the paper industry, a mainstay of Maine’s economy. At first, the referendum would have been a straight yes-or-no vote: Either vote to ban clearcutting, or vote to keep it. Early polls indicated that voters were poised to reject the ban.
But King decided to seek a middle way. He proposed the “Compact for Maine’s Forests,” which didn’t ban clearcutting outright but put restrictions on it. The New York Times reported, “The compact would, among other things, reduce the maximum permitted size of a clear-cut in Maine from 250 to 75 acres and put an overall limit on the total any one landowner could cut in [a] year.” As a result, the referendum became a three-way vote: Vote to ban clearcutting, vote for the compact, or vote for the status quo.
Eventually, the paper industry backed King’s compact, and it won a plurality in the 1996 election. But because it failed to win a majority of votes, it had to undergo a runoff with the second-place finisher: the status quo. In 1997, then, voters rejected the compact in favor of doing nothing, 52 percent to 48 percent.
“In northern Maine [where the paper industry is based], practically any Republican speaks with disdain about Angus King,” Berardelli says.