Feeling gravity’s pull

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?

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?


What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

President Barack Obama is on a roll. After nearly four years of “evolving” on the issue of gay marriage, he finally caught up to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

As expected, there has been much media hoopla about Mr. Obama’s sudden profile of “courage” regarding this very controversial social issue.

But is all the praise deserved?

Not quite,  . . . at least according to some observers who say that Obama is still dancing around the issue.

For starters, The Atlantic reminds us of what Cheney said in 2009 on the issue of gay marriage:

“Well, I think that freedom means freedom for everyone,” Cheney said. “. . . I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish. The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute that governs this, I don’t support . . .  It has always been a state issue, and I think that’s the way it ought to be handled today, that is on a state-by-state basis.”

So why exactly did Mr. Obama wait three years to say the very same things that Dick Cheney said in a July 2009 interview?

Is he worried about his upcoming election? Did he have an epiphany? Was it the result of a recent referendum in North Carolina?

Not exactly.

Obama got put into a box by his No. 2.

A few days ago, Vice President Joe Biden had a stunning moment of clarity that apparently caused lots of hand wringing in the Oval Office.

Biden made it abundantly clear that he supports gay marriage. For nearly 48 hours, the media was talking more about Biden than Obama.

That will just not do.

So, the prez called his buddies at ABC and cautiously waded into the pool, offering some rather tepid remarks about an issue that should be at the forefront of his party’s platform.

The folks over at Gawker were not so impressed, describing the president’s remarks as “Barack Obama’s Bullsit Gay Marriage Announcement.”

” . . .[Obama] now believes that gay couples should be able to marry. He doesn’t believe they have a right to do so. This is like saying that black children and white children ought to attend the same schools, but if the people of Alabama reject that notion—what are you gonna do?”

Gawker correctly reminds us why the president’s words were so lame and pathetic:

” . . . before Roe v. Wade, abortion was a state-by-state issue, too. So was slavery. There are 44 states in which gay men and women are currently barred from marrying one another. Obama’s position is that, while he would have voted the other way, those 44 states are perfectly within their rights to arbitrarily restrict the access of certain individuals to marriage rights based solely on their sexual orientation.”

If our president had real courage or anything remotely resembling integrity, here is what he should have said:

“Gay people have the right to get married just the same as atheists, heterosexuals or any other consenting adult. Marriage is a deeply personal issue, and our government should acknowledge and respect the decisions of all marriages without deference to religion, gender, sexual orientation or race.

“I will make it a central point of my second term to ensure that every gay person has the same rights as every other American. I will take this message to each and every one of our 50 states and sell it door-to-door if I have to. It is just the right thing to do, and anyone who values liberty and personal freedom ought to be standing proudly with me on this issue. Period.”

Well, we can hope for change, right?

Yeah, don’t hold your breath looking for real leadership from either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney on this issue.

Oh yeah, one more thing: Which president signed the Defense of Marriage Act and deployed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

Yup, Mr. Clinton knew how to get re-elected.

The Trouble with Cinderella

I didn’t find out about Artie Shaw’s death until four days after it happened. Artie died on Dec. 31, and I learned the news when last week’s issue of Newsweek arrived at my house.

Given all that is happening in the world, the death of a long ago band leader may seem insignificant and somewhat irrelevant, especially for those of us who were born long after Mr. Shaw put his clarinet up on a shelf and walked away from the fame and fortune that society heaped upon him during the 1930s and ‘40s.

But since this is my column and because I shared a special connection with Mr. Shaw, I decided this week to use his life story as a metaphor for the debates that are shaping our public policy today.

Like me, Artie played the clarinet. Unlike me, he was damn good at it. But he was also a prolific writer and became – despite his best efforts to be a recluse — a champion of America’s civil rights movement.

Born in 1910, Arthur Arshawsky eventually changed his last name in order to evade the anti-Semitism that hid just beneath the surface of his Connecticut hometown. He was born to working-class parents, but his musical talents made him bigger than life. Despite all his successes, however, he flatly refused to become part of the glamour-set that was emerging in Hollywood.

In his auto-biography, The Trouble with Cinderella, Shaw recalls a party he attended in which J. Paul Getty was also a guest. Getty, I suppose, could be compared to today’s Donald Trump because of his penchant for media attention and massive wealth.

During the party, Shaw approached Getty and asked the celebrity multi-millionaire a simple question. Have you ever wanted anything that you couldn’t get? Getty thought about it for a moment, and then smugly replied, “No, I suppose there hasn’t been anything I couldn’t get.”

Shaw shook his head and said, “I find that very sad.”

Perplexed, Getty asked the famous bandleader why the idea of untold wealth made him sad. “Because you have never experienced what everyone else has,” Shaw replied before turning and walking away.

It’s just one of many examples of how Artie Shaw bucked society’s trends. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment came when he courageously defied the accepted racial practices of the entertainment industry by refusing to sequester his African-American band members during performances in the south.

He was also the first white musician of any significance to allow an unknown jazz singer to accompany him on stage. Billie Holiday was at that time an unknown, but Artie allowed her to sing with his band in New York City.

Eventually, Shaw — who was married to such celebrities as Ava Gardner and Lana Turner — found himself before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee that was intended to root out Communists and other so-called “Un-Americans”

Disgusted with his homeland, Shaw ditched the United States and moved to Spain, where he spent several years studying fishing. He eventually returned to America but avoided the public limelight for the remainder of his life.

So what does all this have to do with today? Well, coincidentally, I am now reading What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America by Thomas Frank. It is a fascinating book that details how Republicans won over the so-called red states that until very recently favored Democrats.

In a nutshell, Frank theorizes that many Midwestern voters switched their political affiliations primarily because of their religious beliefs, despite the conservatives’ consistent push for deregulation and privatization, which have hurt the red states more so than other parts of the country.

I say all this because otherwise sensible and decent people get all bent out of shape when discussing homosexuality and the concept of same-sex marriages. Pundits tell us it was one of the driving forces behind Bush’s most recent success.

As a happily married heterosexual, I cannot — for the life of me — figure out how the concept of two people loving one another in any way threatens the sanctity of my marriage. Why does it matter? Doesn’t the institution of marriage face bigger threats from Brad Pitt, Britney Spears and the plethora of reality TV shows that dominate our landscape?

Despite all his shortcomings, including repeated bouts of major depression, Artie Shaw had the guts and wisdom to speak out against what he saw as fundamentally wrong with society long before it was politically correct to do so.

God knows I hate the politically correct mantra, but I have a much deeper disdain for any form of discrimination that threatens the God-given dignity bestowed upon all human beings. Period.