Politics & Policy

Angus King Strolls to the Senate

Angus King
He’s not that independent.

Augusta, Maine — Well, at least he’ll have an opponent.

The two major parties nominated their candidates last night for Maine’s open U.S. Senate seat. For the GOP, it will be Charlie Summers, who, as a longtime aide to the retiring Olympia Snowe, is both well-connected and well-liked inside the party. An old-school plugger, he might make a race of it come November. For the Democrats, it will be Cynthia Dill, an underfunded state senator from the shrill Left. Her chances are currently calibrated at somewhere between Not Much and No Way. In polls to be released over the next few days, both Summers and Dill will doubtless trail independent Angus King by hefty, double-digit margins.

King is popular to a degree almost unknown in the flip-cam era, in which private indiscretions are recorded and drudged before the sweat dries. A recent poll measured King’s “favorables” at a remarkable 62–24, which puts him in a regional league with David Ortiz of the Red Sox and Tom Brady of the Patriots, not to mention Elizabeth Warren of the Indians. King is widely regarded as the prohibitive favorite for election to the seat being vacated by the nominally Republican Snowe, whose patience for partisan politics seemed to expire just as her constituents’ appetite for ideological clarity sharpened. King will run as an independent, beyond party entanglement and petty concern, so to say, parlaying his image as a frugal Yankee businessman. And you might as well commit that last phrase to memory. The Media Caucus, in solemn conclave assembled, seems to have passed a resolution mandating its inclusion in all stories about King.

#ad#While you wouldn’t know it to meet him now, King was born and raised in Virginia and graduated from the University of Virginia’s law school in Charlottesville. There is no trace of that King in this King. These days, he is dressed exclusively by the House of Bean: On public occasions, the former governor can almost always be found redundantly fleeced and sensibly mud-booted. You half-expect to see an L. L. Bean patch emblazoned on his barn jacket, in the manner of a professional golfer professing allegiance to an insurance company. When King salts his speeches with aphorisms from Aroostook County, it must be admitted even by the skeptics that King’s conversion from southern lawyer to Yankee businessman has been comprehensively realized.

About the frugal part, there’s more dispute. In 1994, running as an independent in a three-way race, King was elected governor. He served for two terms and, happily for all concerned, his tenure happened to coincide not only with a national boom but with a rare burst of Maine prosperity. During the King years, business was good, tax revenues flowed, and budget surpluses grew — to almost $400 million at one point. Best of all, the economy produced more than 75,000 new jobs, which, in a poor state with a population of only 1.3 million, amounted to a historic gusher. And yes, as he proudly asserts, Angus King governed in a nonpartisan style. He funded special-interest projects from the Left, from the middle, from the Right, and, when the buzz began to wear off, from supplicants not all that eager to identify themselves.

King’s penchant for the grandiose was for the most part well-contained. His signature program to equip seventh and eighth graders with laptop computers, he proclaimed, would “transform education.” Needless to say, it didn’t, but the hype was a rare crack in King’s new Yankee reserve. The facts, however, spoke loudly enough for themselves. During his eight years in Augusta, King ran up state spending by 90 percent and burned through the rainy-day fund. While not even the hard Left could come up with a plausible reason to do so during the boom years, yes, it remains true that King did not raise the (already confiscatory) marginal tax rates.

#page#In early 2003, Angus King walked out of the statehouse, waved to the crowd and resumed his career in the quasi-private sector. His successor, Democrat John Baldacci, joined in the hearty applause before settling into his new office. There he found in a desk drawer a bill for the King years. The incoming governor was facing what soon revealed itself, after deconstruction of convoluted accounting schemes, as a billion-dollar hole in the state budget. Baldacci spent the next eight years digging out: For him, there would be no transforming programs, only morning-after clean-up chores. With each rejection of a new funding request, inevitably, Baldacci lost a few fair-weather political friends. It was thus no small irony that when Snowe announced her plans to step down, the “popular” King quickly brushed aside the “unpopular” Baldacci in the line of succession.

As for his professional career, Angus King is a businessman in the Al Gore sense of the word. As a promising newcomer to the Maine political scene, King was promoted endlessly by the state’s public-broadcasting network, which gave him his own talk show for more than a decade. (That’s a larger deal than it sounds: The public network has repeater stations across the state, while much of the state’s audience for commercial broadcasting is served by Boston stations that cover Maine as a distant and only occasionally relevant province.)

Established as an affable celebrity by the state network, King then made a financial score, possibly two. The first was a consulting firm, grandly named Northeast Energy Management, that advised clients on how to trim their electric bills. It wasn’t rocket science; King once claimed credit for persuading Bowdoin College to turn off its exhaust fans when unneeded. Launched in 1989, Northeast Energy was purchased in early 1994 by Central Maine Power (CMP), the state’s dominant provider of electric power. King has said that he personally took $8 million out of the deal. To some observers, it was a curious transaction: Why would a giant power company buy a small consultancy that showed CMP customers how to use less of its product? Theories abound, some of them catnip to the conspiracy-minded. What was not in question was the political reality: A heavily regulated utility handed a large check to an ambitious politician just nine months before he was elected governor. King himself has acknowledged that it was the CMP payout that enabled him to skip an unwinnable Democratic primary and self-fund his independent campaign.

#ad#King’s second score, possibly, was at another start-up named Independence Wind. I say “possibly,” because King sold his shares to a private investor just weeks ago and the terms have not been disclosed. The objective of Independence Wind was to saw off the tops of Maine mountains to accommodate serried ranks of wind turbines; the premise was that the output of the turbines would provide energy resources alternative to the old-line, non-renewable fuels. The key to the Independence Wind deal, as it is to most green-energy deals from solar panels to Solyndra, was a federal loan guarantee. What the guarantee means in practice is that if the venture succeeds, the private owner wins; if the venture fails, the taxpayer loses. Call this business model “public equity” or crony capitalism or whatever you wish, it is a dance with moral hazard. The guarantee brings with it both the privatization of profit and the socialization of risk. As a business model, it is — to use the fashionable word — unsustainable.

And a note about that adjective “independent,” insofar as it is routinely applied to Angus King. Does it — should it — suggest that King is equipoised somewhere midway between conservative Republican and liberal Democrat? Well, take a moment to thumb through his political résumé. King grew up in a home he has described as “Roosevelt Democrat”; his earliest political activism was in the civil-rights movement; he then served as an assistant on labor matters to a Democratic U.S. senator; he came to Maine as an attorney for a left-leaning public-interest law firm; he supports the full pro-choice, same-sex-marriage, subsidized-contraception social agenda; his political career has been financed lavishly by the Media-Enviro-Industrial Complex; in his only tour in public office he was a promiscuous spender of taxpayer money; he has dismissed the Ryan plan for fiscal sobriety as “a disaster”; and he has endorsed Obama and, more specifically, Obama’s overhaul of the nation’s health-care system. This is not the itinerary of a restless mind searching for elusive truth. This is the pilgrimage of an ideologue walking the stations of the liberal cross. And it prompts this question: From what, exactly, is Angus King “independent”? Clearly, he’s not independent from the governing dogmas of the Democratic party.

— Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to National Review.

Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.

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