Measuring influence is an inexact science, to say the least. It is by its very nature a highly subjective thing. But that shouldn’t stop us from having a little fun at the end of the year. As such, Pine Tree Politics is starting a new tradition, something that we will be doing annually: a year end ranking of the 25 most influential people in Maine politics.
Before we get to the list, a word on methodology. No one person should make a list like this, because no matter how hard they try their own bias will creep in and they will invariably miss people. More than that, our perception of influence is driven by our own experience. A staffer working in Augusta who sees the influence of lobbyists will have a different list than a campaign worker who sees the influence of money in politics.
As such, I set out to employ the wisdom of crowds to both build a list of influential people, and then later rank them. All in all, more than twenty people from all parts of the Maine political scene – politicians, media figures, activists, staffers, etc – helped me to rank influence. I made sure to balance equally the number of Democrats and Republicans who participated, so as to not ideologically pollute the results.
I asked everyone to rank the names according to their perceptions of how influential the people were. That is an abstract concept, but I felt it was important that we all bring our individual perceptions of influence into our rankings.
As for me, I judged everyone based on two things: hard influence and soft influence. Hard influence are things like statutory authority (such as the Governor’s ability to veto, or a person’s authority on the budget), and have a lot to do with the particular position a person holds. Soft influence are things like connections, friends, relationships, and the weight of a person’s voice.
I’d like to thank everyone who helped (most of which want to remain anonymous), but in particular Gerald Weinand from DirigoBlue who lent a big hand. You all provided invaluable insight and I appreciate it. The list is imperfect to be sure, but it was a lot of fun to make.
All in all, this was one of the most interesting projects I’ve undertaken. Below you’ll find the people listed by the final aggregate ranking they received, their title, the highest ranking they received from one of my helpful assistants, and a short description of why they are considered influential.
But enough talk. To the list!
From my home town of Hampden, Andre Cushing is a real estate agent, owns a home construction business, and is a member of the Maine House of Representatives.
Cushing has long been active in local politics in the greater Bangor area (particularly Herman and Hampden), as well as state level politics. Cushing served as the Penobscot County Republican State Committeeman from 1998-2004, and in 2004 was responsible for recruiting many potential legislators – including yours truly – to run. That experience provided the political base that he would be able to exploit to increase his influence later.
In 2008, Cushing ran for and won the open seat in Maine House District 39 (Hampden, Newburgh and Dixmont). He quickly moved up the ranks, and was again instrumental in strategy and recruitment for the Republicans on the House side in 2010. With the GOP takeover of the Maine legislature, he was rewarded by being elected Assistant Majority Leader, the House GOP Whip.
He is one of the primary figures involved with shepherding legislation through the House, which given the Republican control of the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, is a significant factor in his influence. His greatest strength, however, has to be in the relationships he has built and the connections he has. Those things transcend his role in the House, and give him greater influence than he would otherwise have.
In addition, his star is still in ascendance. He has recently announced that he will be running for the Maine Senate, a position he seems likely to attain. Look for his ranking to go up in the coming year.
Charlie Summers is probably defined by failure, more than success.
Some people are lucky enough to win at everything, but not Summers. He has, several times, been a candidate for Congress, each time defeated by comfortable margins. Most politicians who are dealt failure like that simply fade away into the darkness. Even if they want to stay relevant, their party and the voters have little interest in them sticking around.
Charlie Summers is not one to go away. Somehow, despite being dealt a number of disappointments, he has picked himself off the ground and come back more qualified, more ready, and more tested than he was before. He is that rare breed of human who truly learns from losing, and then quickly puts it behind him.
None of which is to say that Summers is only defined by losing. He has a very impressive resume, including stints at the Small Business Administration, the staff of Senator Olympia Snowe, and as a state Senator. And let’s not forget that he is an Iraq War veteran and is a Commander in the United States Navy Reserve.
As Maine’s Secretary of State, Summers was deeply involved in the recent fight over same-day voter registration where he desperately tried to walk a tightrope between supporting the repeal and appearing truthful and fair-minded in his official duties, something he managed to do successfully (most of the time).
But truthfully, Summers’ influence comes mostly from his personality and reputation, which make him one of the most visible figures in state government and a man that many of the most important people in the state listen carefully to.
It is a testament to the weakness of political reporting in Maine that there is only one member of the media on this list. It is a real shame, because the nature of the media makes them the purveyors of information we have on the rest of the people you will read about below. By all rights, media figures should dominate this list.
But the truth is, even if Maine had a strong, vibrant reporting culture, Steve Mistler would still belong on this list.
Mistler is my favorite political reporter in Maine, but my affinity for him was shared universally among the others who participated in this list. He represents all the best qualities of what a good reporter should be: diligent, hard working, intelligent, inquisitive, skeptical, fair, thorough, curious, and creative.
He is the one reporter in the state that can be consistently relied on to actually cover a topical issue with depth. He takes the extra time to gather more relevant facts which go beyond simple note taking that most reporters engage in, which allow him to tell a full story that truly informs his reader.
There is perhaps no better compliment for a reporter than when he is criticized by everyone. I get no end of entertainment when I hear one partisan or another say of Mistler, “he is usually a great reporter, but this piece was unfair.” One week that phrase is uttered by a Republican who did something stupid, and the next week by a Democrat who did the same. It means even his critics acknowledge his talents, and really only have a problem with how he does his job when he writes about them.
Indeed, I would challenge anyone to wager a guess to Mistler’s politics, because it is unknowable from his work, something horribly lacking in modern journalism.
He stands out among the crowd in Maine as a damn good reporter. It is a shame there aren’t more of him.
In the early months of Paul LePage’s administration, one thing was consistently proving to be a challenge for the new governor: communication. He had suffered a long string of rhetorical missteps, and in April he lost Dan Demeritt, his message master.
LePage desperately needed a gritty and highly qualified professional communicator to establish some order and get his ship back on the right path. He took his time finding one – three months – but the man he settled on, Peter Rogers, gave him exactly what he needed.
Rogers has brought military discipline and efficiency (he is a 22 year U.S. Army Combat Arms Officer) to what has to be a very challenging position. This is no surprise, as Rogers has made his impact felt and built a stellar reputation at every assignment he has taken on. He has served as Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, as a State Office Representative for Senator Susan Collins, and Director of Public Affairs and primary spokesman for the Maine National Guard.
But his importance in Maine politics is a factor of the job he currently holds. As the man driving the message for the governor of Maine, Rogers has the power to define not only what is said by LePage, but how it is said.
More importantly, however, he has the responsibility (and heavy burden) of spinning for a particularly unscripted, blunt politician. When LePage gets into hot water, it is ultimately Rogers who has to do damage control.
Governor LePage has shown a great deal more discipline, no doubt due to exemplary preparation at the hands of Rogers, and when he has, the fire was quickly put out. That is a testament to a truly talented political communicator.
If you need me to explain to you who John Martin is, than I question why you are reading anything about Maine politics. But if you insist, Martin has served in the legislature since 1964, is the longest serving speaker of the Maine House of Representatives in the history of the body (1975 through 1994), and has been involved in a whimsical game of revolving chairs between the House and Senate since that pesky term limits law was enacted.
Right now, though, Martin is essentially nothing. In title, at least.
John Martin’s presence on this list is due entirely to his being John Martin. The man is the Godfather of Democratic politics in the state of Maine, and no amount of statutory power (or limits on power) that he does or does not have can really stop him from being powerful.
Ironically, it may be the institution of term limits that has made Martin more influential, rather than less, because it has annihilated any hint of institutional memory within the body, removing all of the other lawmakers who have been around the block for several decades. This means that he, more than anyone else, has knowledge and experience borne of the past, and the younger legislators (of both parties) look to him for direction.
But even if that weren’t true, Martin has a nearly five decade old political machine which has never been effectively challenged, allowing it to continue to extend its tentacles throughout Maine politics. He has an untold number of acolytes, allies, and contacts, and when he speaks, people listen.
So said one of the participants in this ranking survey:
“That guy is the Republican Severin Beliveau, he is involved with absolutely everything.”
(More on Beliveau later)
In 2004, Tardy was riding high. The Republicans in the Maine House, partly under his guidance as Assistant Minority Leader, came within a single vote of capturing the body for the first time in a generation. Pundits and prognosticators across the state hailed him as a rising star and potentially the man who could be the next GOP Speaker. Maybe even Governor some day.
That all came crashing down in 2006 and 2008 with two disastrous elections which decimated his party and with it his reputation as a star. His previously bright political future looked quite a bit dimmer, and his name was mentioned much less frequently in discussions of higher office.
Then, the 2010 comeback. Suddenly, Tardy once again looked like a mastermind.
Sadly for him, he could not enjoy the benefits of his hard work because of Maine’s term limit laws. He was forced into early retirement, and could not seek the gavel. But rather than going quietly into the night, Tardy decided to move into lobbying and translate his elected influence into persuasive influence.
Tardy teamed up with Jim Mitchell, a former Chairman of the Maine Democratic Party and a well-known Augusta lobbyist to start Mitchell and Tardy Government Affairs, a lobbying firm that represents a slew of powerful clients who have interests in the corridors of power in Maine.
He has already established a reputation as a major player on the lobbying scene, and has been more than open about his desire to one day return to government, probably at a higher level. Unlike several of the previous Republican minority leaders who preceded him, Tardy seems destined to stick around for a long time. He won’t be fading away.
Steve Bowen is consistently described by nearly every political observer I have talked to as the standout star of the LePage cabinet. Those of us who have followed Bowen’s career are hardly surprised. Possessing a sharp intellect and a work ethic to match, it was only a matter of time before the very young but very capable Bowen shot up the ranks.
He is very clearly one of the modern generation of education reformers, a group of leaders from both parties who view our system as stagnant, lethargic, ineffective, and in desperate need of change. His opinions were sharpened by his experience within the system, as a high school social studies teacher for a decade. There, he saw up close how things work, and how things do not work.
But Bowen also has a love of public service, which is why he sought election to the Maine House of Representatives in 2002. He didn’t just want to mire himself in a broken system, he wanted to affect change.
After leaving the legislature, Bowen joined the Maine Heritage Policy Center as the director for the Center for Education Excellence. There he delved deeply into education policy, and built a reputation as a heady reformist with a love of detail and facts. Though his work was for a conservative think tank, he still managed to build a reputation as a fair minded and trans-partisan analyst on education-related issues.
When Governor LePage was elected in November 2010, Bowen’s name was on the top of everyone’s list to fill the post of Commissioner for the Department of Education. In the time since his appointment, he has acquitted himself admirably in his job and has won rave reviews for the work he and his department have done.
In the upcoming year, LePage has signaled that reforming the education system will be one of the most significant goals for his administration. That thrusts Bowen into the spotlight, and his signature will be on some very significant changes to come.
Ask those involved in the very early stages of Paul LePage’s campaign for governor to describe the effort and you will get a simple reply. “Unmitigated disaster.”
The campaign was out of its league and seemed to not really know how to run a statewide election. They had a compelling candidate and a group of loyal volunteers, but no real sense of how to use them.
Enter Brent Littlefield.
Littlefield is the Karl Rove to Paul LePage’s George W. Bush. He joined the LePage team as a “strategic consultant” in January of 2010, but in reality it was Littlefield who was responsible for much of the day to day operation of the campaign. He was instrumental in developing the overall strategy for a primary win – a stripped down, stealth grassroots army – and executing that plan. Prior to Littlefield’s arrival on the LePage team, that victory was hard to imagine, but it is impossible to argue with the results he produced.
Though he is actually a Washington, D.C. based political consultant, Littlefield has deep roots in Maine politics. He worked on Governor McKernan’s re-election campaign in 1990, Olympia Snowe’s Senate campaign in 1994, and Rick Bennett’s congressional campaign in 1994. He worked for Congressman Jim Longley in 1995, and then went on to consult for the Maine Republican Senate caucus, helping the party win back control (albeit with a power sharing agreement) in the Maine Senate in 2000.
There are those who question Littlefield’s impact on those elections. Bring up his name among one of his Republican detractors (of which there are several) and you will likely hear some grumbling and a litany of complaints that Littlefield was hardly an integral cog in those elections, and takes credit for more than he is due. Bring up his name among one of his Republican supporters (of which there are several) and you’ll hear confident declarations of his impressive political instincts, hard work, and strategic vision. He is a polarizing figure, even among his own party.
Regardless, there is no denying that he is given a huge amount of credit from LePage’s own team, and there is no better measure of value than the opinion of those on the inside. Littlefield therefor is and will remain one of Governor LePage’s closest and most trusted advisers.
He currently serves as the Governor’s political adviser, and is involved with LePage’s shell organization, Maine People Before Politics as a strategic advisor, making his voice one of the most important ones in Maine politics.
Were this list to have been made six months ago, Maine Republican Party Chairman Chairman Charlie Webster would have undoubtedly placed higher. But after his high profile fight – and loss – on behalf of the repeal of same-day voter registration, the weight behind his name has waned some.
In the aftermath of the 2010 Republican sweep, Webster was one of the people credited with masterminding the GOP takeover. A bombastic bomb thrower, Webster and his “Working people vote Republican” message set a rhetorical theme that candidates all over the state hammered home, allowing the party to take advantage of the national conservative wave. There were those who questioned just how much credit Webster should get – was he riding the wave or directing it? – but it is undeniable that Webster is the most dynamic and visible political party chair in memory.
That is somewhat unusual. At the state level, party chairs are usually invisible to the public at large (like Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant), and more concerned with fundraising and recruitment than driving the agenda for the party. But it was Webster’s transformation of the job into an activist position that led to him having as much say over what his party did in the legislature as the lawmakers themselves.
This new model for a party chair means that Webster is given a disproportionate amount of credit or blame depending on the success or failure of his party.
But regardless of outcome, he has defined the terms of the conversation in Maine, and for that ability to shape the debate, there can be no denying his importance.
Maine Republicans are working with their first real majority in the Maine Senate since 1996, and Jon Courtney is their Majority Leader, second in authority only to Senate President Kevin Raye.
While Raye is most concerned with the business of running the Senate and dealing with the Democratic minority, Courtney is leading the Republicans in their push for conservative legislation. There is no doubt that the two work closely to get things accomplished, but it is Courtney that is most concerned with the priorities of the party, and managing its members. That puts him in the middle of every political fight and every compromise in Augusta.
Courtney is termed out of the Senate, and has been weighing a potential challenge to Chellie Pingree in the first district. He himself has said that he would be a “long shot” if he did end up running, but his potential candidacy makes him more relevant, not less, and his maneuvering in the upcoming legislative session should be very interesting to watch.
Lance Dutson’s star has probably risen faster than any other individual on this list. A few years ago he was a blogger, then a campaign worker for Senator Collins’ 2008 re-election, then a Hill staffer. Today he is the head of the single most powerful and important think tank in the state of Maine.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center is the microphone for the conservative movement. Often mistaken – including by yours truly – as an affiliate of the national conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, Maine Heritage is in fact very much a unique creation: a state level, conservative leaning policy shop. It has been instrumental in crafting policy for the new Republican majority, and has been deeply involved in everything from the selection of bureaucrats to crafting of legislation.
Dutson came to his position after a very successful stint as Communications Director for the Maine Republican Party in the 2010 cycle, where he brought stability and discipline to the party’s messaging. One of the biggest reasons he was hired to head Maine Heritage was due to that strength as a communicator, which they hope he will be able to leverage to raise the Center’s profile.
His first major push has been the launch of a new conservative news site, which he hopes will come to counterbalance the traditional media outlets in the state. While the jury is still out on the effort, it has great potential if it is done right.
As the leader of the organization responsible for much of the conservative agenda in Augusta, Dutson’s impact on public policy in Maine is undeniable.
It is hard to find a Republican who has their fingers in every aspect of their party more than Dan Billings.
The GOP super-lawyer has literally done it all. He has been a Legislative Aide in the Maine House Republican Office. He served as legal counsel to the Maine Republican Party. He served as legal counsel to the LePage Transition team. He currently serves as the Governor’s Chief Counsel. He used to provide the voice of reason on the conservative As Maine Goes message board. He even spends his free time defending the people responsible for The Cutler Files. The man is truly everywhere.
More importantly, though, he is involved in just about everything the administration does. He is a senior adviser to the governor, lending official advice on politics and policy. He is the point man for journalistic inquiries for administration records. If the question is asked, “can we do this”, Billings is undoubtedly the person who will be answering yes or no.
This makes him an indispensable part of Maine government. Having so much weight attached to your opinions, having the trust of men higher on the list than him, having so many contacts over his years of service in government, and being involved in so much of what the government does means that, if anything, Billings’ influence is understated here.
In 2002, Eliot Cutler gave an interview for the Muskie Oral History project. In it he described a deep-seated desire to be governor of Maine, an ambition he has harbored since he was twelve. Roughly eight years later, he was a few thousand votes shy of getting his wish.
Almost immediately after his loss, Cutler started plotting his political future. He began by attaching his name to the “No Labels” movement, a well meaning if somewhat sanctimonious group of people who profess to be anti-partisans. But it was his formation of the OneMaine PAC that truly signaled his unwillingness to head out to pasture and retire.
OneMaine is Cutler’s way of attempting to stay in the political conversation, and at its core is a branding technique intended to further build his reputation as a pragmatic centrist more interested in common sense, independent minded solutions than party politics. In 2010, he was simply unable to overcome the suspicion that he was an opportunistic Democrat running as an independent for convenience rather than conviction, and it is obviously his hope that a few years of cross party endorsements and cherry picked issues from both sides of the aisle will help combat that impression.
Most political observers believe Cutler is simply biding his time, waiting for the 2014 election and another opportunity to run for governor. It began with his “thank you” tours around the state, and has been building every since. There has been some recent polling which suggests that were the election to be held today, Cutler would defeat LePage in a rematch, and that has only added fuel to the speculation.
But until that time, the nearly once and future king serves as the leading voice for third-way politics in the state, and his efforts to remain politically relevant will continue to buoy his influence across Maine.
If you don’t follow Maine politics regularly, it is likely that you haven’t heard the name Severin Beliveau, but you have undoubtedly felt the impact of his influence.
His name has the audible feel of silk, if silk made a sound, but if you want to know Beliveau’s reputation, I refer you to this description from a Republican elected official:
“Most people don’t know his name, but I have privately witnessed Beliveau own the Democratic Party behind the scenes.”
Or perhaps a nickname of his: the Darth Vader of lobbyists. He is a Founding Partner of the Preti Flaherty law firm – a titan in the Maine legal scene – and is responsible for its Legislative and Regulatory practice in Augusta, Maine and Washington, D.C. In short, he is deeply involved through lobbying and litigation, in the formation and maintenance of Maine law.
Beliveau was instrumental in the derailing of a number of casino bills in the legislature, working on behalf of his client, Oxford County Casino, and had a hand in the defeat of the two casinos in November. He is a major player on any number of key issues, and continues to exert a massive influence over the Democratic Party.
But why is one lobbyist so influential? This is no ordinary lobbyist.
Severin Beliveau was one of the original Democratic boy wonders. Upon graduating Georgetown Law he began his political career, being elected to the Maine House of Representatives at the tender age of 28, and later the Maine Senate. He would serve as Chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, and unsuccessfully ran for Governor in 1986. All that time he built up a wealth of connections and experience, which he continues to rely on to this day. Today he is content pulling the strings from the shadows, as he has for years.
Maine’s lobbyist king would be significantly higher on this list if his party had not been summarily ejected from power last year.
Full disclosure: I consulted for the Jason Levesque for Congress campaign in his race against Mike Michaud in 2010.
Mike Michaud may just be the most liked politician in the state of Maine. To be honest, it is hard to find things not to like about him, he reminds you of your favorite uncle, the one who always used to give you candy when you went over to visit. He is a nice man, he clearly has good intentions, he works hard, and he is unflinchingly “Maine”.
But make no mistake, as a sitting congressman in the single largest congressional district east of the Mississippi river, Michaud should be higher on this list than he is. This was the consensus of both the Republicans and Democrats who were surveyed for this list (in fact, the Democrats ranked him lower than the Republicans did).
Michaud has very limited visibility in Washington. He is not the sponsor of important legislation that has made its way through Congress, or a visible advocate for a high profile issue. He is not a liberal firebrand, nor is he a moderate dealmaker. He counts himself among the Blue Dog caucus, but does very little to use his centrist self-identification to influence change of any kind.
In short, as a politician he acts much as he likely did as a blue collar worker – showing up to work, doing his job while acquitting himself well, and going home. No one can complain about the work he does, but he doesn’t stand out among his 434 other colleagues.
Michaud has the capability to be so much more, and of all his contemporaries on this list probably wastes more potential influence than any other. Over a decade in Washington he has built a powerful list of groups in Maine who support him with vigor and genuine affection. That network would go to war with him if he wanted to step out on a limb and really throw his weight around on Capitol Hill, but to this point he has neglected to do so.
Still, there is no denying that Michaud does excellent work with constituent service, has been aggressive in advocating for veterans, and diminished as it may be, has significant clout as a congressman. Even though he could be much more influential than he is, he remains a very powerful figure in the state.
Bruce Poliquin is a happy warrior, and has transformed the position of state Treasurer from a relatively bland, uninspiring office, into an activist hotbed of activity.
When he was running for governor in 2010, Poliquin cut a stiff figure, somewhat wooden and uneasy with the business of retail politics. Yet, after losing the primary, he got to work and was the most visible, enthusiastic, and capable surrogate for Paul LePage on the campaign trail. That genuinely hard work, coupled with a real rapport that developed with LePage, landed him his current position.
If the flavor of Poliquin’s political campaign was drab and boring, his tenure as Treasurer has been colorful and dynamic. He no longer looks uncomfortable, but rather happy and relaxed actually doing the business of governing. He has demonstrated a savvy nose for getting his name in the paper, and connecting his name with major initiatives of the administration. He has picked high profile fights – such as the ongoing feud with the Maine State Housing Authority – which have raised his profile and allowed him to set the state’s political agenda on his own. Were this the Bruce Poliquin Maine voters saw on the trail a year and a half ago, the election may have gone quite differently.
Poliquin has also maintained a rather close knit political operation, veterans of his gubernatorial campaign, all of whom demonstrate rather remarkable loyalty and devotion to their old boss. They are always working behind the scenes to promote Poliquin and his work, and are no doubt waiting for whatever his next move may be.
But for now, he is trying to do the difficult work of putting Maine’s “fiscal house in order.” As a clear standout among the LePage cabal, and one of the governor’s closest allies, he will be a staple of this list for years.
Experienced leaders and institutional memory are two things that any healthy democracy needs. As such, we typically rely on a handful of “old hands” who have been there, and done that to help guide us through some of the stormiest waters. Sawin Millett has been there, and he has done that.
Millet is an expert on the inner workings of state government, particularly the budget process and administration. Millet served six terms in the legislature, and was the ranking Republican on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
He has also served in the Cabinet for four Republican, Independent and Democratic Governors, including Commissioner of the Department of Administrative & Financial Services – the position he now holds – under Governor McKernan.
His position gives him enormous authority over state government. He oversees 9 bureaus and more than 1000 employees serving all branches of Maine government. But it is his responsibility for managing the budget and financial management, particularly in the current political environment, which makes Millet all the more relevant.
But it is Millet’s lifetime of experience, knowledge of the ebbs and flows of state government, and connections built over a considerable career that give him his true influence. He can speak with an authority that few figures in Maine politics can, and his voice travels a long distance.
Full disclosure: I consulted for the Scontras for Congress campaign against Chellie Pingree in 2010.
Chellie Pingree is a Maine original.
Maine politics has a reputation for geniality. The rough and tumble poison that infects the nation has mostly stayed away from the Pine Tree State, with her most prominent politicians groping endlessly for the moderate third-way. The personality of Maine’s most successful politicians has always been one of fairness, positivity and deference. Pingree doesn’t play that way, and that is exactly why she is where she is today.
She subscribes to a different theory of politics. An unapologetically liberal politician, she is to the left of even her Democratic leaning congressional district, and doesn’t try to hide it. Rather, she is proud of it, and has attracted quite a loyal following of liberals who have no stomach for Blue Dogs or New Democrats. But more than that, she isn’t afraid of pulling out the long knives and acting very much the conventional politician.
A few weeks before the 2010 election, Pingree was going to lose to Dean Scontras. Public polling showed that, internal polling at the DCCC showed that. He was gaining traction quickly and if she didn’t do something to stop it, she would be retiring early. That’s when Pingree unleashed the dogs and went decidedly negative, tarring Scontras as a bad choice for voters.
Conventional wisdom holds that voters – especially Maine voters – strongly dislike negative advertisements, and don’t react well to it. Conventional wisdom is wrong. Her campaign to tear down Scontras’ favorability in the last few weeks of the campaign succeeded, and her job was saved.
By practicing a ruthless, bare knuckles style of politics she has put the fear of God into future GOP challengers, making it likely that she will have a congressional seat for life. By being unashamed of being a liberal, she has crafted a reputation as a progressive hero for her political base.
As a sitting congresswoman, she has the ability to impact Maine in significant ways. She is also married to Donald Sussman, who just so happens to rank higher than she does on this list. This, coupled with her unique style and the political brand she has built has given her a great deal of clout which she is not shy about using.
Everyone likes Emily Cain, even Republicans.
In 2009 and 2010 she was widely considered to be the next Speaker of the House, a plan which was only derailed by the somewhat unexpected GOP takeover of the body. Instead of Speaker, Cain became the House Minority Leader, a post which commands much less authority.
Yet, she finds herself in the middle of everything. For the most part, the new GOP majority has tried (with a few notable exceptions) to govern by enlisting Democrats in the process, and that makes Cain the point person for the left on everything considered in the House. When the two parties compromise, it is Cain who puts the Democratic stamp of approval on a bill, and when the Republicans play hard ball, she is the lead voice pushing back in the media.
It is no surprise that she has eclipsed her Democratic colleagues in the Senate as party spokesperson. She is young, unfailingly nice, has a grip on her party, and knows how to play the game of politics very well.
Indeed it is likely a testament to her leadership that legislative politics has failed to take an acrimonious turn in the past year. Nothing so dictates the tone of debate as the behavior of the minority. A leader more interested in scoring cheap points and throwing bombs at the opposition might get more attention or more love from her base than Cain does, but would likely get a lot less done.
And with her likely move to the Maine Senate in 2012, look for her to move up this list in the coming years.
Speaker Nutting is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. He commands more “hard power” in the state than any figure outside Paul LePage and Kevin Raye, yet he is significantly less visible and less well known than his contemporaries. He seems very content being the quiet man, laying the brick and mortar in the shadows and getting things done without getting much recognition. And make no mistake, he has built quite a house so far.
Nutting has a difficult task. He is leading the first Republican House of Representatives since 1974, and his caucus is made up of an eclectic group of politically diverse leaders. He has a strong force of old GOP Yankee moderates mixed together with old guard conservatives and libertarian Tea Party radicals. That he can keep them relatively unified and under control is nothing short of a miracle. Under the guidance of a less talented man, the new GOP majority would have already fractured and self-destructed.
Every successful political movement needs a workhorse who is willing to forego the spotlight in favor of leaving a legacy of accomplishment behind. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of Maine politics, knowing when to play hardball and seek party line votes (health insurance reform) and when to enlist bipartisanship for important consensus legislation (the budget).
Less interested in posturing, political games, and gotcha politics, it is the steady leadership of Speaker Nutting which has managed to prove that Republicans really can govern effectively in Augusta.
When asking the political savvy to rank Sussman, I fully expected that the Republicans would see him as a powerful boogeyman, artificially placing him higher than he deserved. Similarly, I believed that Democrats would dismiss his influence as minor and insignificant, placing him lower than he deserved.
What actually happened was fascinating to watch. While many Republicans did indeed rank Sussman high, it was in fact the Democrats that placed him higher, on average. And while some of the Democrats put him extremely low on the list, so too did many of the Republicans. There was, perhaps, no one figure on this list that produced such a wide variety of opinion that cut across ideology.
In the end, Sussman’s influence was universally acknowledged by everyone. He is, in no uncertain terms, the prime financial backer of the Maine Democratic Party and several progressive causes in the state. If Sussman wishes to express his opinion, he can write a $500,000 check just as easily as I could lend you five dollars.
That freedom has allowed him to ensure a strong leftist performance on a number of issues and elections that they might not otherwise be able to manage. On top of that, his marriage to Congresswoman Pingree gives him access to a significant amount of “official” power, even if he doesn’t wield it himself.
Still, Sussman is probably the one person on this list whose influence is most difficult to estimate. Because of the funding structure of the broad coalition of progressive groups in Maine, Sussman has the ability to only give us a glimpse of his influence. This could indicate that he has a lot more influence through his funding of various political groups across Maine than the public will ever know.
The political right has no figure even remotely like Sussman, and the absence of a legitimate financial rival in Maine makes Sussman’s impact all the more potent.
When Kevin Raye won the leadership election to take command of the Republicans in the Maine Senate, the job didn’t look like it was worth much. His caucus was the smallest it had been in a political generation, Democrats had routed the GOP both nationally and in Maine, and the prospects for the future looked grim.
But Raye got to work not only managing his party in the Senate, but engineering a comeback. With a combination of excellent recruiting, smart political maneuvering, and yes, even riding the national wave, Raye presided over a historic gain in the Maine Senate in 2010, giving the Republicans their largest seat margin in the body in more than thirty years.
Since that time, Raye has managed to both spearhead the new conservative legislative agenda and moderate the rougher edges of Governor LePage’s suite of priorities. This dual identity – conservative leader and level-headed moderate – has made him the single most important legislative figure in the state.
But it is his political future which gives extra gravity to Raye’s influence. As Raye is termed out, it is widely expected that he will be challenging incumbent Mike Michaud in 2012. That speculation has added extra intrigue to some of the legislative moves undertaken by Republicans, particularly the GOP’s attempt to redistrict this year.
Raye’s status as the GOP’s best hope for unseating Michaud means he will have extra pull in the upcoming legislative session. Given the authority already present in the office of the Senate President, and Raye’s impressive political accumen, there can be little denying his place on this list.
Full disclosure: I previously served as Director of New Media Communications for Senator Collins in her Washington D.C. office.
There was significant disagreement among the ranking committee about which of Maine’s two Senators – Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – was more influential. We’ll touch on the arguments for Senator Snowe in a moment, but Senator Collins has a strong case to be made for not only being more influential than Snowe, but being the most influential figure in the state.
Her influence in Maine is due to her outsized influence in Washington, D.C. Whereas Senator Snowe has drifted to the right and has intentionally sacrificed much of her ability to negotiate and influence large scale legislation, Senator Collins has maintained her reputation as the key voice that ends up deciding legislation. This means currying her favor is a key consideration for everyone from the president to low level bureaucrats.
That leverage allows Collins to advocate for her state in a way that an average party ideologue – on either side of the aisle – would never be able to do. More federal dollars can be steered home. Constituent service can be more effective. Laws specifically benefiting Maine can be passed. These things would not be able to happen without the clout she has cultivated in Washington.
Because of her efforts, Maine has enjoyed more attention, money and preferential treatment than its geography or population would deserve in a vacuum. Collins has long emerged from the shadow of Maine’s Senior Senator, and shed the perception that she was a less important carbon copy.
Today, she is a force in her own right, and that shows little sign of changing any time soon.
Snowe’s star in Maine has waned somewhat over the past couple of years, but not by much.
Most of the disagreement about the relative positions of Snowe and Collins relate to the ideological jockeying she has been doing recently, due to her 2012 re-election campaign. With the rise of the Tea Party and the ascendance of the right wing of the Republican Party in Maine, Snowe has been forced to slide to the right for her own political survival.
That shift has left a lot of influence on the table in Washington, as she sacrifices her ability to play deal maker on key legislation for additional credibility on her right flank. As such, you no longer hear her name in the center of key legislative battles on Capitol Hill, and as her vote is less sought after, her ability to extract concessions in return for her vote is lessened.
But focusing only on that would ignore the real source of the influence Senator Snowe wields – her own significant political talent.
Snowe is currently dominating her primary opponents, and shows no signs of weakening. That in and of itself is a testament to a truly brilliant tactical mind, as only a year ago several national pollsters declared that her only chance at remaining in the Senate was to defect from the Republican Party. So sure were they that a primary challenge would be successful, that they spoke in virtual absolutes about her impending primary loss.
But Snowe’s strength is that of a chess master. She thinks several moves ahead, and leans on the relationships she has built over a very long and distinguished political career. She doesn’t believe in the impossible, and has done remarkable work reaching out and directly engaging with her critics on the right. She recognized early on that she didn’t necessarily need to win them over to her side, but to simply douse the raging inferno that was threatening to torch her career.
By opening a dialogue with her critics and doing so genuinely, she has in fact strengthened her political base. When she emerges from her primary and general election victories (which she will), she will be stronger for the experience. That will be good for her and good for Maine, and a true testament to her influence.
Being Governor of Maine is a big advantage, but it doesn’t guarantee the top spot. Were I to have made this list at any point during the Baldacci Administration, for instance, I don’t believe the former Governor would have captured the top spot. In reality, the personality of the man or woman in charge matters a lot.
LePage is a rarity among Maine’s Chief Executives. He is an activist governor, and he believes he is leading a revolution in state government. As such, his outsized personality dominates the political sphere, he is aggressive, he sets the agenda in ways collaborative governors like Baldacci and King never could, and he has made very clear that he is in charge. His somewhat abrasive style may ruffle some feathers, but LePage’s position as the most influential figure in Maine politics was nearly unanimous.
Maine’s governor is a fairly powerful office, which is not always true in other states. He has broad powers and responsibilities at his disposal, and LePage has shown a willingness to take advantage of those tools fairly regularly. For example, the governor has shown a willingness to make use of legislative recalls to change bills that have already been passed (but have not been signed) to a much greater degree than his predecessor.
Increasing LePage’s influence is the legislature he finds himself working with. With the Republican Party firmly in control of both chambers of the Maine legislature, LePage has a great deal more freedom to set the legislative agenda and get what he wants accomplished. Were he facing off with Democrats, that influence would no doubt be a great deal less.
But above all it is LePage’s bulldog style and iron will that create his reservoir of power. Other governor’s have been much less willing to take risks and wield their authority to make fundamental change, but not LePage. He is intent on squeezing every last drop of influence out of the Blaine House, he has the allies to get it accomplished, and has proven able to get things done in his first year.
For all of those reasons, Governor LePage is the clear choice for the most influential figure in Maine politics.
On the bubble: Mary Mayhew, Angus King, Ann Robinson, Justin Alfond, Roxanne Quimby