Feeling gravity’s pull

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Justin Chenette/ Photo by Matthew Hayes

At first glance, the two men who represent the city of Saco in the Maine Legislature seem worlds apart.

One is 22 years old and openly gay; the other is 62 and married with children.

While Justin Chenette is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives, Barry Hobbins is serving his seventh term in the House and previously served five terms in the State Senate.

Over the years, Hobbins has become a steady fixture of pragmatic policy making. He is a successful attorney who knows how and when to pull strings to get things done. He has spent a lifetime building relationships, earning trust and observing the flow of subtle political currents that often shift without warning.

Hobbins is careful, patient and strategic: the hallmarks of a legislator who can deliver when it matters. Like Chenette, Hobbins was only 20 years old when he won a five-way primary race for the Democratic nomination to replace 84-year-old Camille Bedard as Saco’s representative in the House.

“Mr. Bedard gave me some great advice when I was starting out,” Hobbins recalled. “He told me: sit back and learn. He told me to pick my battles.”

Chenette took a different path, however, landing himself in hot water with the state party only hours after he announced that would be running in early 2012.

“I didn’t check in with anybody first,” Chenette said. “They didn’t know who I was or what I was all about. I sort of got scolded.”

Unlike Hobbins’ slow and steady start into Maine’s political machine, Chenette made national headlines earlier this year, when he was sworn into office as the nation’s youngest, openly gay lawmaker.

The issue of gay marriage was again on the ballot for Maine voters, but Chenette says he was not running to make a point about his sexuality. “I didn’t want that distinction,” he said. “I was running because I was frustrated about a lot of issues, so I had to thread the needle carefully.”

Chenette says some people judged him much more harshly about his sexuality rather than his political inexperience and youth. His campaign signs were vandalized with gay slurs. Undaunted, Chenette pressed on, working hard to earn voter respect.

“Some people told me I should get the police involved and do an investigation,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that. “I didn’t want to give people like that any power. They spray-painted my signs with all sorts of ugly things, but most people took the time to get to know me, to understand why I wanted to represent them in Augusta.

Chenette won his June 2012 primary with 78 percent of the vote and went on to defeat Republican Roland Wyman with 60 percent of the vote in November.

Who let the dogs out?

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Barry Hobbins

Unlike Hobbins, Chenette did not wait to begin picking battles.

He pounced on Democratic and Republican legislative leaders during his first speech on the floor of the Maine House, only days after being sworn into office.

Chenette latched onto problems he saw in Maine’s political machine, specifically the way lawmakers were using Clean Election funds to form PACs that are used to determine who becomes a legislative leader.

“I said that Democratic and Republican leadership was doing little more than participating in legalized bribery,” he said. “I said it was completely wrong to channel this money for special interests.”

If Chenette wanted attention, he got it.

“It didn’t go over very well even in my own party,” he laughed. “I got called into the Speaker’s office and got my ass chewed. That process became a pattern. I was not playing by any set of unspoken rules.”

Chenette said his first term has been “challenging,” yet he refuses to back down or change his firebrand style.

“We’re not sent to Augusta to sit on our hands, and behave like well-trained dogs,” he said. “The people sent us there to do their work, but on Day One, I was disgusted by the fact that we spent so much time talking about how to get re-elected . . . on Day One.”

Not surprisingly, Hobbins admitted that his colleague makes some people uncomfortable.

“Justin certainly has a different style,” Hobbins said. “He is outspoken and very idealistic. He seems in a rush to make his mark.”

But Hobbins also says Maine’s term limits law has changed the dynamic of how the Legislature works.

“When I first got there, you didn’t feel a clock ticking against you,” Hobbins recalled. “Today, it’s different, younger people feel a sense of urgency, as if there isn’t much time to accomplish their goals.”

Hobbins describes Chenette as conscientious, but certainly not pragmatic.

“There is no denying that there is a generational gap,” Hobbins said. “Justin feels strongly about issues and causes, but that does not mean that others do not feel just as strongly, even if they have a different approach.”

Hobbins said he is just as “progressive” in his political philosophy as Chenette.

“I know what it’s like to be young and full of passion,” Hobbins said. “I became the state party chair when I was 28, and I ran for Congress when I was 32.”

Hobbins said the Legislature is no longer dominated by a bunch of stuffy, old white men. “The president of the senate (Justin Alfond) is 36, and the Speaker of the House (Mark Eves) is also 36. Age is not so much of an issue as a difference of approach.”

Hobbins said a shift of legislative demographics is representative of generational shifts in other parts of society.

“Look, I don’t post pictures of myself every day on Facebook or use Twitter, but a lot of people do, and those can be good tools to keep your constituents updated,” he said. “I think it’s a significant compliment to the citizens of Saco that they choose people who have vastly different styles to represent them.”

Republican Joyce Maker represents the city of Calais in the Maine House. She is old enough to be Chenette’s mother, and concedes that she has taken him under her wing.

DSCN2402“I love Justin,” Maker said. “He is a wonderful young man, and he works very hard, but I do think he has some growing up to do.”

Maker describes herself as a moderate. She says she has been able to find a lot of common ground with Chenette, a Democrat who describes himself as further left of center.

“He comes across as strong and opinionated sometimes, but he is also a really good listener,” Maker said. “I think in time, he will catch on and learn the benefits of being a bit more pragmatic.”

Maker says she sees the value of Maine’s Clean Election Law, but agrees with Chenette about the inherent problems of leadership PACs.

“Justin would like to do away with Clean Elections,” she said. “I see some value to the program because it allows more people the opportunity to participate. But despite our differences, we have been able to work through that issue, and I think he is genuinely interested in hearing other points of view.”

Chenette says he is more than happy to work with his colleagues on the other side of the political aisle.

“I love having lunch with Republicans,” he laughed. “It’s always a good opportunity to learn about the people beyond their particular labels. You can find a common connection, and that helps make the process work better.”

Is Chenette becoming more pragmatic?

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “But I know that I will always stay true to values and core beliefs. Barry’s style has a place. We just have different approaches. I think we make a good tag team for Saco.”

Next installment: Justin Chenette: A rising political star?

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