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Published: Sunday, 7/22/2012

Maine son promises shake-up

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
EXECUTIVE EDITOR, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

BRIDGTON, Me. -- The lumberjack felling monstrous trees for the masts of British ships. The woodsman walking amid the firs at the frigid back door of Canada. The lobsterman with his craggy face turned toward the icy wind. The potato farmer mining the hard earth for her October harvest.

All these are caricatures, the beloved traditional portraits of Mainers at work -- determined, brave, above all independent. And so in this rugged state, we should not be surprised to see that the central political figure of this political year is an independent.

He is Angus King, an alternative-energy entrepreneur and a former governor who is the favorite to win a Senate seat in November -- and to mount a frontal attack on the culture of the nation's capital.

Mr. King, 68, is a contemplative man, by temperament no revolutionary. But this summer, he is fired with rebellion and passion -- and, in a year when politicians are regarded with contempt, with possibility.

Mr. King's campaign aims at the heart of Maine's most revered mythology. Maine, which won its independence from Massachusetts two centuries ago, celebrates its weather-beaten sense of independence -- and its ability to solve problems without rancor and recrimination.

"People here are fed up with what's going on in Washington," says Mr. King. "The Senate is broken and trying to fix it with another partisan isn't going to do it. It turns out that this is exactly what the people here think."

Mr. King aims to replace a Maine icon, Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate much respected for her independence from her Republican colleagues. She stood down from a re-election fight, a poignant moment that seemed a sad symbol of the paralysis of politics in Washington.

The King campaign has sent both parties into upheaval and has raised questions of how he might be regarded, and how he might comport himself, in the Capitol. Will he drift into one of the party caucuses, so as to win influential committee assignments?

Or will he hover above the two parties, threatening them both by the quiet moral superiority a true independent would automatically possess in a poisoned partisan atmosphere? And if he holds the balance of power in a divided Senate, what ransom might he demand?

In the Senate, a truly independent-minded lawmaker can transform political theory into chaos theory with the merest effort. Which is why Mr. King is both threat and opportunity.

Mr. King's effort is bolstered by three faces of familiarity -- Maine's familiarity with independent politicians, its familiarity with political figures who spurn partisan conformity, and its familiarity with Mr. King.

Three Republican women in modern times have been fiercely independent in Washington -- Margaret Chase Smith (1949-1973), Ms. Snowe (beginning in 1995), and Susan Collins (beginning in 1997). Another Republican, Rep. William Cohen, voted in the House Judiciary Committee to impeach President Richard Nixon in 1974. That very year, James Longley was elected governor as an independent.

Mr. King, the only independent governor in modern times to be re-elected, is so familiar a figure in this state that the bumper stickers that seem to be everywhere in this lake town say simply: "Angus." Like Ann-Margret or Cher, no last name necessary.

"When I'm campaigning, nobody talks to me about health care or even the economy," Mr. King says. "It's 'the system' people talk about. Why can't they compromise? Why can't they act like adults? Why can't they represent the public interest instead of the parties? People just want the problems solved. Washington realizes how far out of touch it is."

Mr. King may talk in an idiom of upheaval, but he possesses a gentle touch -- a seldom-noted but much-cherished part of old Maine -- to match his revolutionary rhetoric. In the coming weeks, he must show that grace and prove that his policy positions -- favoring gay marriage, abortion rights, and banning drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- don't make him a Democrat in independent clothing.

But it's not so much where he stands on issues that seems to matter this summer. It's the fact he doesn't stand with either party.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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