December 12, 2019

Rep. Handy calls politics full-time job

LEWISTON — According to the legislative calendar, Rep. Jim Handy, D-Lewiston, had the day off. No regular session, no committee meetings.

All he had to do was meet with the mayor, tour a day-care facility, call two state agencies, place a request with a utility company, talk to two constituents, file a proposed legislative bill, write a few letters, talk to a reporter …

“This was supposed to be a light day,” Handy said between bites of lunch — a lunch he had to be reminded to eat, “but these things just start piling up.”

Handy is a full-time legislator in Maine’s part-time Legislature. Like his colleagues, he spends a portion of each year at the State House, in sessions that inevitably build to a frenzy of 15-hour days.

Like his colleagues, Handy also serves on several public and private boards that seek the clout and advice of a legislator. Like his colleagues, Handy spends time every day talking with constituents, trying to solve their problems.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Handy makes no bones about it: His only profession is the Legislature.

“I live, eat and breathe being a legislator. As I would take any job seriously, I take the Legislature seriously,” Handy said. “We are really a full-time Legislature as it is. When June comes around on the odd-numbered years, I don’t stop being a legislator.”

Maine’s Legislature often is called a part-time legislature or a citizen legislature, evoking an era when gentleman-farmers traveled to Augusta after the crops were in and spent a few months handling the state’s business.

Few farmers serve any more, however, and the number of legislators with true full-time jobs outside the State House is dwindling. Outside consultants, Augusta insiders and even Jim Handy agree — the typical legislator is beginning to look more like Jim Handy.

Still, raising a family on one income has been a stretch. To supplement his $9,000 annual legislator’s salary, Handy works part time at the L.L. Bean Telemarketing Center in Lewiston, taking telephone orders for moccasins and sweaters and tents.

Handy fears that other working-class legislators who face the same demands without the same family support will have to leave the Legislature. “Then the only people who are going to serve are the people who have an income they can count on,” he says. “If we come to the point where we have a Legislature made up completely of people who are `self-employed,’ we don’t have a representative Legislature. It’s only one class of people.”

He thinks that instead of limiting the kind of people who can serve, or limiting the amount of work the Legislature does, the myth of a part-time Legislature ought to be the thing that gives: “I don’t think $15,000 a year is too much to ask for.”

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