A Republican senator who is also the assistant majority leader of the Senate Republicans, and a Democratic representative, who is also president of Maine Young Democrats, are coming together to pass a bill giving the public more power and increase accountability in government.
No, this is not a dream. It’s happening right now. I’m working across the aisle with Sen. Andre Cushing on a bill, LD 957, a resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Maine to provide for the popular election of the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer of state.
According to the National Association for Attorneys General, 43 states hold a popular election for their attorney general. Five states grant authority to their governor to appoint an attorney general, including our neighbor, New Hampshire. Tennessee’s attorney general is appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. We are the outlier in having the Legislature select this role. Maine is one of only three states that rely on lawmakers to pick the secretary of state. Voters in more than 30 states also elect their secretaries of state and treasurers. Once again we are the outlier, but this isn’t about copying what the rest of the country is doing successfully.
Right now constitutional officer candidates, and I use the word “candidates” loosely, hobnob with us legislators in secret to secure enough votes based on the balance of power to earn their position. Conversations to secure votes happen over the phone, in person by helping us talk to voters at their doors and in the halls of the Statehouse with 151 representatives and 35 senators. Oftentimes the individuals that come forward to “run” are those who have curried favor within the party establishment. Serving on a political party committee, running for another public office as tide me over, helping their party candidates win, etc. They are already political. They are already doing campaign activities, just without the direct input of the public. This would make it so that instead of your constitutional officers campaigning behind the scenes, they would have to do it publicly, out in the open for all of Maine, all voters, to see.
Moreover, who knows how to run for a constitutional officer position? Unless you are a former legislator, which happens most often, or a political insider, the process isn’t well known or even advertised. This prevents qualified individuals from putting their name into the ring and serving in state government. We shouldn’t be going to the same well of individuals to fill these positions when there is a whole ocean’s worth of talent in our state that could bring new and fresh approaches to effective governance.
This bill is sadly being spun as a Republican attempt to undermine the current attorney general due to the timing of this bill’s public hearing and the governor’s seemingly constant attempts at executive power grabs away from one of our constitutional officers. There is no doubt that this governor has an utter disdain for Attorney General Janet Mills, but this bill isn’t a new concept and it isn’t the first time it has been introduced. In fact, we debated this very bill just last session; a bill I co-sponsored then as well. As someone who put in the bill at the same time as the good senator of Penobscot did, I can tell you I put this proposal forward because I believe wholeheartedly in the idea itself. While there might be some who want to use this policy vehicle to score political points, that’s not what the senator and I are doing. The bill is being politically hijacked.
This is not personal. This is in no way a reflection of the good work of our current constitutional officers. I have the utmost respect for Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, Attorney General Janet Mills, and others, and admire them greatly. This is about the substance of giving power to the people. Behind the scenes, I’ve been getting a lot of pressure to abandon my stance on this issue, abandon my own bill, and my own voting record. I will not abandon something that grants you the ability to decide on a right, especially in this case, the right to vote for important government positions. I’ve been consistent in my support for the proposal and have been on the forefront of its advocacy. I will not waver in my resolve even though some in my party believe I’m not playing the game correctly.
We rail against attempts at limiting participation or the potential for voter disenfranchisement. Why should this be any different? This would give people the opportunity to weigh in, to make their voices heard. This will empower more people into participating in the political process and in doing so inform them of the positions that are so crucial to the daily functions of state government. This would make these positions accountable to Maine people through the power of the ballot box. While big-monied interests might try and seep their way into the campaigns of each of the officers, I would argue there are ways around this. Public financing of those positions is one approach. The transparency created in opening up the process is worth the potential risk of money influencing the races. Right now these officers can fundraise for their party and it’s all done behind the scenes. By requiring an election, at least those donations to their campaign coffers would be made public for us to analyze and take to task.
Even if you disagree with the idea this bill proposes, all this bill seeks to do is the let Maine people decide for themselves whether they would like the right to elect their constitutional officers. When given the choice for a direct say, I believe the response will be deafening.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term as state representative for Saco District 15. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Follow updates at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/ JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco