Smoke on the water

Pot%20leaf_40Attitudes regarding marijuana have dramatically changed during the past two decades.

Those in favor of legalizing the drug are finding increasing support from an expanding constituency, including millenials who can now vote and health care providers who say the drug can benefit their patients.

Even retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens — not a likely Cheech & Chong fan — says it is time for marijuana to be legalized.

In an interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio, the former justice said: “I really think that that’s another instance of public opinion [that’s] changed. And recognize that the distinction between marijuana and alcoholic beverages is really not much of a distinction.”

Talk about a dramatic shift. In 1987,  after admitting that he once used marijuana, Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg was forced to back away from the nomination process.

And last year, voters in both Colorado and Washington defied federal law and legalized the use of marijuana as a controlled substance.

But the quest to legalize marijuana in all 50 states face an uphill battle, best evidenced by what has happened in the Maine Legislature.

In November The Legislative Council, a 10-member group of legislative leaders,  split on a proposal that would have sent a statewide referendum question to voters. Because the vote was tied, it failed and cannot be considered again until the next Legislature convenes in 2015.

It was the third time the Legislature has rejected proposals by State Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) to legalize marijuana. Russell could not be reached for comment.

But State Rep. Alan Casavant (D-Biddeford) said he is glad the proposal failed.

“I voted against it every time,” Casavant said.

Casavant, who spent more than 35 years teaching high school, said he experienced first hand the impact of marijuana on his students.

“Legalizing it would be nothing more than a continued erosion of our culture,” he said. “I have heard all the arguments for and against, and I can’t support it.”

Casavant also said the issue should not be debated on a state-by state basis. “For it to happen, we really need some guidance from the federal government. It’s a very complicated issue. Where do you draw the line on intoxication, for example?”

Casavant says he is sympathetic to those who need marijuana for medicinal reasons, but says the risks still outweigh the benefits, even when considering that marijuana could provide a bumper crop of new tax revenue.

“As the mayor of a city, as a legislator, I am very aware of how we need new sources of revenue that will not impact people who are already struggling to keep up, but despite those realities, I can’t support this. Not now.”

State Rep. Justin Chenette (D-Saco) said he is “evolving on the issue.” Chenette said he had initial apprehension about the issue when first approached for his support by Russell.

“Being a college student so recently, I have witnessed the rampant use of marijuana on campus,” Chenette said. “I am concerned about how young people will use it, but I also see the other side. I would be in favor of sending the question to referendum, but I have yet to formulate a strong opinion one way or the other. It’s something that warrants more study.”

Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford is hoping to be a member of the next legislature.

Fecteau, 21, says he generally supports the legalization of marijuana but does not want to see it included in the Maine Democratic Party’s platform because it could be wedge issue in a year when Maine Democrats need to be focused on bigger fish, including capturing the Blaine House.

“I think it should be treated the same as alcohol,” Fecteau said, adding that additional revenue from the state sale of marijuana could provide much-needed tax relief for seniors and revenue that could help fund critical programs.

With a little help from my friends

A few days ago, I posted a simple question on my Facebook page about the legalization of marijuana.

That informal survey drew more than 100 responses in 24 hours.

I was surprised by some of the responses. I was also fascinated to see that an almost even split of Republicans and Democrats were on each side of the issue.

Moreover, both men and women overwhelmingly support legalization (male approval led female approval by only a slight margin).

Women with children were equally split. Among male opponents, more than 75 percent are politically conservative, yet nearly 40 percent of male supporters are conservatives.

Here are a few charts to break it down for you:

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Social media and Maine’s gubernatorial campaign

camplogo3Despite all the hoopla about the power of social media tools in political campaigns, what metrics can we use to determine if those tools are effective?

While just about anyone can set up a Twitter account or create a Facebook page, social media tools are only as effective as those who are using them.  Although it is widely accepted that social media tools played a big part in President Obama’s 2008 campaign, that type of success is not guaranteed by simply using social media as part of a campaign strategy.

When it comes to Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial race, which of the campaigns is best using social media? More importantly, how do we set aside our individual biases and evaluate the campaigns based solely upon their social media metrics?

At the Brookings Institute’s Center for Technology Innovation, Darrell West offers a mixed review regarding social media and campaign engagement and the awkward transition to actual governance.

Social media are the ultimate in disruptive technology. They change information delivery, business organization, online content, news coverage, and the manner in which individuals process new developments. As shown during the 2008 campaign, these digital tools represented a textbook example of voter mobilization and electoral impact. They were, in the words of Engage Partner Mindy Finn, the “central nervous system” of campaign organizations.

Using social networking outreach tools such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter, a number of Democratic and Republican candidates raised money, identified supporters, built electoral coalitions, and brought people in closer touch with the electoral process.

You may recall a somewhat silly and lighthearted piece about Maine’s gubernatorial campaigns that I posted a couple of months ago. Then, I jokingly said we should dispense with the standard election process and use social media metrics to determine the winner. I examined each of the campaign’s current metrics.

Twitter FollowersToday, I have decided to track those metrics on a regular basis and to blog frequently about those campaigns and their use of social media.

Over the last 60 days, each of the Maine gubernatorial campaigns has been active on various social media platforms. But before we begin, it’s important to note that Democrat Mike Michaud is the latest entrant to this race. Both Governor LePage and Eliot Cutler carried over their respective social media support from the 2010 campaign.

Nonetheless, Michaud has seen the greatest increase in social media traffic, earning a 21 percent increase in the number of Twitter followers @Michaud2014, moving from 1,219 Twitter followers on January 20 to 1,475 followers as of March 20, 2014.

Although Governor LePage (@lepage2014) has the greatest number of Twitter followers (1,698) his metrics have increased only 8 percent during the same time period.

Eliot Cutler (@EliotCutler) saw a 10 percent increase in Twitter followers, from 1, 153 to 1,269 followers during the same period.

Facebook LikesOn Facebook, Cutler still dominates in the total number of Likes for his campaign page (19,824) but saw only a 4 percent increase over the last 60 days, while both Michaud and LePage experienced increases of 10 percent.

LePage’s Facebook page had 18,438 fans on March 20, compared to 16,791 fans on January 20, 2014.

Michaud’s Facebook page had 11,600 fans on March 20, compared to 10,529 fans on January 20, 2014.

When viewed overall, it would appear that Team Cutler has the steepest hill to climb, so far.

Note: Though it’s generally common knowledge, it must be noted that Twitter followers and Facebook fans do not translate directly to the number of supporters for a political candidate. As an example, I follow all three campaigns on Twitter, but will only be voting for one candidate.

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?

Constant Craving

20130715_055332Much has been said about Maine’s quality of place, a subject that hit me like a brick this weekend as I once again travel the roads of rural Maine.

But what is the value of a quality place without a quality life?

GrowSmart Maine describes quality of place as:

“. . . our majestic mountains, unbroken forests, open fields, wild rivers, pristine lakes, widely-celebrated coast, picturesque downtowns, lively arts and culture, authentic historic buildings, and exceptional recreational opportunities. It is our principal advantage in today’s global economic competition. Quality of place will help us keep and attract skilled workers and entrepreneurs to fill Maine’s declining workforce population.”

Sounds good, right?

Sure, right up until you drive along Rte. 4 past Livermore Falls and into the town of Jay on your way to someplace pretty.

The policy wonks, pundits and environmental do-gooders slap themselves on the back with self-congratulation over drinks at the Senator Inn in Augusta after passing some piece of legislation designed to protect Maine’s “quality of place,” but I wonder if they have ever strolled along Water Street, less than a mile away or driven past the dilapidated tenement triple-deckers that line Rte. 8 on the way toward the Civic Center.

Try telling someone in that neighborhood about quality of place.

Better yet, visit the Wal-Mart in Calais, Skowhegan, Newport or Sanford. Tell the single-mom buying generic-labeled cereal about “quality of place.”

Drive past the gutted factories and the ghost towns that were once homes to thriving industries like shoe shops, paper mills and textile manufacturing. Pull over and tell the people who are barely living there about quality of place.

Drive north, east or west from Portland. Get off the main roads and count the number of blue tarps that serve as substitute roofs on ramshackle homes. Pause and tell those people about “quality of place.”

There are no easy answers, but I never see the pundits or the lobbyists shopping for pre-paid cell phones, making an installment payment at Rent-A-Center or drying their clothes at the Laund-O-Matic on a sweltering July afternoon.

These people —the not-so-pretty and the not-so-fortunate ones —- are largely forgotten, discounted and mostly ignored. They routinely buy lottery tickets. Many of them smoke, and they keep their heads above the surface like prison inmates. One fucking day at a time.

It’s easy to judge them. To think we know better about how they should live or how Maine should be managed, but few of us know — really know— that if this is quality of place . . . That if this is as good as it gets…..

What is the value of having an abundance of natural resources if you cannot feed your children? What is the value of open space if you don’t have a car to get there?

How do we achieve the balance between protecting the things we cherish in our backyard without forgetting or discounting the people who live there?

I do not know the answers. Do you?

Street fighting man

Sen. Angus King
Sen. Angus King

While many of us were obsessing this week about whether Big Brother is monitoring that silly cat video we posted on Facebook or whether the IRS will now audit Tim Tebow, Maine’s newest senator quietly announced that he was consolidating two of his southern Maine field offices.

Although the news of Senator Angus King closing his Biddeford and Portland offices didn’t exactly set the world on fire, it does bear mentioning and warrants a positive shout-out for at least two reasons.

1.) Consolidating the Biddeford and Portland office at a centralized Scarborough field office is aimed at efficiency and will save taxpayer money.

2.) More importantly, this symbolic gesture recognizes the most important part of what constituent service should entail: the constituent.

Allow me to explain the more important, latter point. King wants his staff in the field; mobile, flexible and ready to meet with constituents on their terms.

Instead of being pinned down at a desk, King wants Bonnie Pothier (King’s York County rep.) and Travis Kennedy (King’s Cumberland County rep.) to spend more time moving around their respective fields, more involved in the entire area than just one particular office location.

So, while the office closing represent a slight loss for the cities of Biddeford and Portland, the bigger gains will be for people who were already somewhat geographically removed from those locations; i.e. residents or business owners who live or work in places like Standish, Kittery, Sanford and Brunswick.

Sure, this is mostly a symbolic gesture, but it is consistent with what King promised us during last year’s campaign: to find ways to better connect Maine people with Washington D.C., such as his weekly  Capitol Coffee sessions, held each Wednesday morning in his D.C. Senate office. If you happen to be in DC, you can swing by and have a blueberry muffin with your senator. 

Symbolic, Folksy, Quirky? Check to all three, but it does again reinforce the idea that your senator is available and wants to hear from you.

And today, King begins his Your Government, Your Neighborhood roadshow, in which his staff will fan out across the state to hold listening tours with any interested constituents. Although this method of constituent outreach is almost as old as the US Senate; King is leveraging his social media assets to amp up constituent participation.

And finally, King, the governor who launched Maine’s seventh-grade laptop program, is using technology to hopefully connect with every classroom in Maine by using Skype, as detailed in this story from the Bangor Daily News.

As Americans continue expressing a lack of confidence in the federal government, it’s real easy for most of us to remain stuck in a cynical posture about those loathsome folks bickering in Washington.  But at least King is pushing for a greater connection with his constituents, and saving us a few bucks in the process.

I have never been an Angus King cheerleader, and I think it’s far too early in his senate career to determine whether he can actually pull off some of the lofty ideas he talked about during the campaign, but so far…. I like what I see….

The idea of free coffee on Wednesday mornings? Well, let me know when we can start sampling Maine micro-brews in the Dirksen Senate building on Thursday nights, and I’ll be the first in line every week.

Related: My interview with Angus King in November 2002

 

 

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.