The Curious Case Of Norm Olsen

In the past couple of days, the cause célèbre in Maine politics has been the resignation of the Commissioner of Department of Marine Resources, Norm Olsen, and his subsequent torching of the administration on his way out the door.

Once the fiery bridge burning occurred, rather predictably the left swooped into action like an opportunistic condor, seizing on the juiciest parts of Olsen’s account, and began sounding the echo chamber saying it was one more example of Governor Paul LePage’s “reckless handling of government.”

They can be forgiven for shamelessly jumping immediately to conclusions about the situation based on only one side of the situation’s account – after all, it fit into and reinforced their very colored view of the world, and they couldn’t wait to try to take advantage of it.  But, I avoided writing on this until now because, quite frankly, I’m not entirely comfortable pontificating about him being right, or being a hack, without at least observing the other side of things to give me a clearer picture of the situation.

In the time since Olsen’s statement, the LePage administration has engaged in some pushback.  LePage’s spokesman, for instance, denied that the Governor ever said the most damning thing in Olsen’s laundry list, that he was punishing the city of Portland because they were “against him”.  Said Adam Fisher:

“He doesn’t make policy based on who likes him or who doesn’t like him,’’ Fisher said. “He makes decisions based on what’s good policy.’’

In this case, we have entered into a very muddy bit of hearsay.  Perhaps the Governor said exactly what Olsen said he did.  Perhaps the Governor said “they’re against me”, but meant that bureaucrats at the city were being uncooperative about some area of policy, making it impossible to get things accomplished in Portland, hence having to build a new port.  Perhaps Governor LePage said nothing of the kind, and Olsen was just letting his own perception and bias create a phantom exchange in his mind.

We simply do not know, and anyone besides LePage and Olsen who claims to know one way or the other, is lying and just playing politics.

In addition, Dan Billings pointed out that this is not the first time Olsen has gone very public, and very critical about a former boss on his way out the door.  His missive upon leaving the State Department is an instructive look into the mind of Olsen.

Then, today I was treated to a fantastic and informative piece on Olsen, the fising industry in Maine, and the foolishness of Olsen and the Democrats’ subsequent actions from Dennis Bailey.  Bailey, through his time in government and consulting for related public affairs issues, has a fascinating inside picture of the entire affair.  This passage sums up the basic theme:

Olsen, a bureaucrat from the State Department who supposedly has some family history with the ground fishing industry, vowed in the very beginning to change all this. Barely a month on the job, before most of his constituents could pick him out of a line-up, Olsen went to the Rockland Fisherman’s Forum and announced his support for changing the dragger law. It was like dropping an F-bomb in church. For one reason or another, he was clearly doing the bidding of the ground fishing industry (a special interest?), and he barreled ahead, apparently unaware or uncaring that Maine’s most valuable and important industry is deathly opposed to diverting from sound management and sustainable practices that have kept them in business.

Bailey then rakes over the coals a parade of Democrats (including his former client, Rosa Scarcelli) for the opportunistic bandwagon hopping they engaged in, as they all pounced on Olsen’s provocative “special interest” accusations, without bothering to take a more balanced look at the situation, or find out who it was they were latching on to.

He even spends some time admonishing the lazy, intellectually dishonest, and entirely unhelpful practice of hurling the “special interest” bomb indiscriminately into any situation in order to score cheap political points.  This has been a pet peeve of mine for years, so you’ll forgive me gushing about what Bailey had to say:

OK, let’s be clear here. The “special interest group” we’re talking about is Maine’s lobstermen and women, around 7,000 licensed fishermen who collectively make up what is indisputably the state’s most valuable and important industry. (In contrast, there are barely a handful of ground fishermen in Maine.) Last time I looked these were “Maine people.” So my question to those who seem ready to erect a statue of Norm Olsen for standing up to this evil special interest group is a simple one: does this mean you favor changing Maine’s law to allow commercial fishing vessels to drag the ocean bottom for lobsters, a practice the lobster industry believes would drive down prices and threaten their very existence? It’s a simple yes or no question.

But I suppose at this point, the crux of the matter is that there is now another side to the story, and one which tells a very different version of things.  The people who opportunistically took advantage of one side of the story and didn’t even bother to hear the other side before they pronounced judgement should be ashamed of themselves.  Every story has another side.

If you hear of somebody else’s evil from a person cloaking themselves in the white robes of righteousness, it is a pretty good bet that you are hearing a very one-sided story from a person with a bone to pick or an axe to grind.  Maybe they are right, but you owe it to yourself to not leap to conclusions immediately, and to at least wait until you get the full story before you start pronouncing judgement.

Now is a much more appropriate time to discuss this situation, what it means for everyone involved, and then move on.  There will still be partisans on the left who are ready to anoint Olsen as a hero to democracy, and chisel a statue to him out of marble.  There will still be partisans on the right who are ready to dismiss him as an incompetent and disgruntled misanthrope who enjoys complaining about the people he works for on his way out the door.

But hopefully by now, the rest of us have a clearer picture with which to judge the situation.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.