Time may be ripe again for a Maine independent



PORTLAND, Maine -- Democrat Joe Brennan is running for governor again, and his prime asset is his resume. At 59, he can look back on 30 years as a state legislator, Cumberland County district attorney, two terms as state attorney general, two as governor, then two in the House of Representatives.

But that same resume is Joe Brennan's greatest liability. He is the quintessential career politician in a time and a state where that experience may be difficult to market.

Nor is the political context encouraging for any conventional politician. This is a state whose electorate has a reputation for quirky behavior ever since it elected an independent, James Longley, governor in 1974. Two years ago, Ross Perot captured just over 30 percent of the vote, more than in any other state, and finished second ahead of then President George Bush.

Then, there is the presence of an independent candidate, Angus King, who has the potential to become the prime challenger to Brennan in the contest to succeed Republican John T. McKernan, who is ineligible for another term. King, a former Democrat, is the owner of a business involved in energy-conservation technology. But he also spent 15 years -- until he began this campaign a year ago -- as the host of a Maine public television interview program.

King's greatest strength may be simply that he is running as an independent at a time when voters, already disenchanted with politics as usual, have been watching a series of monumental rows between McKernan and Democrats in the legislature, controversies serious enough to shut down the state government at times.

"As soon as you start to talk about partisanship, you can see the heads nod," he says. In a state where the unemployment rate remains at 9 percent, King argues, the overriding issue "is the failure of the political system to work in any coherent way to help get the economy going."

Brennan sees the same attitude in the electorate. "There's not a lot of credit for Augusta now, for the capital," he says. "Maine has problems and a lot of people don't think the government works very well." But, unsurprisingly, Brennan sees this discontent as an argument for his experience. Effectiveness, he says, "doesn't go out of style" just because the political winds are blowing in a different direction.

At the moment, Brennan is focused on winning a June primary against four other Democrats, a contest in which he holds an enormous advantage in recognition and support from party regulars. At the same time, Republicans will choose a nominee from among eight candidates, any one of three or four of whom has the potential to win and become a serious player in a three-way contest in November.

But the juxtaposition of King against Brennan is so tidy that veterans of the political wars here think it may be difficult for any Republican to break through and capture the attention of the electorate -- particularly in a year in which Maine is also electing a senator to replace George Mitchell. Both House seats are open because Republican Olympia Snowe of the 2nd District and Democrat Tom Andrews of the 1st are running for the Senate. At last count, there were 18 people competing in the House primaries.

Tubby Harrison, a poll-taker working for King, says the independent sends a message not unlike that from Ross Perot two years ago. "He's not a rabble-rouser and there are no homilies, but he says, 'I come with no strings,' " Harrison says.

King believes the message in the Perot vote was that people believe politicians are devoting "too much energy" to playing partisan games, too little to long-term solutions.

Brennan has given tacit recognition to the change in the political climate. Although he is a conventional liberal on most issues, he supports the balanced budget amendment and line-item veto. And he has pledged to serve only a single term if elected so that, he says, "I can make the tough decisions without having to worry about the next election."

Instead, the question raised by Angus King is whether voters here are so dismayed by politics as usual they are willing to try something entirely different. In Maine, it wouldn't be the first time.

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