April 07, 2020

Long live the citizen initiative

Sean Faircloth’s recent essay against the citizen initiative process in Maine would be comical if it were not coming from a young political operative on the make. Because it is, however, it bears response. Our state is in trouble if one of its would-be leaders knows so little of Maine’s history and Constitution, and worse, flaunts his ignorance in public.

Far from being a California fad, the citizen initiative and its cousin, the people’s veto, were enacted in Maine nearly a century ago. Against the opposition of the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, the governor, and other political “leaders,” and following years of struggle, in 1909 Maine’s citizens voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the citizen initiative and people’s veto in our Constitution. This was not a southern Maine vs northern Maine issue either: Every county voted in favor.

If Faircloth took a look at Maine history, and found out why, he would retract his thoughtless essay, “Naughty secret about referenda” (BDN, Dec. 24). Since he wrote that he hasn’t got the time to do anything besides support his family and amuse himself, here’s a quick snapshot of those times…

This was a time when Maine’s economy was in turmoil. The coastal economy was in tatters, as Massachusetts corporate interests seized control of the burgeoning eastern U.S. fresh fish market, from owning the fishing fleet and processors in Glouscester to controlling the trains in Boston that made it possible for this popular but perishable product to reach New York, Philadelphia and other booming U.S. cities in sellable condition. Maine’s non-corporate fleet was cut out of the picture; fishermen in Winter Harbor, Castine, Belfast, Boothbay Harbor and other fishing towns suddenly went from being part of the top fish-exporting state in the union to the backwaters of the national economy.

Try as they might, the residents of coastal Maine could not convince their Legislature to build the railroad line network that would have kept their industry competitive. The great ships that for 60 years had gained prosperity and renowned sailing from Maine to mine the riches of the Grand Banks were left to rot at the wharves, or sold down to Glouscester, while the Maine legislature listened to the seductive voices and money of the Boston merchants.

Meanwhile, Big Money from Boston and New York was feverishly lobbying 1890s Augusta to literally give them Maine’s vast public forestlands. The Legislature did so, ignoring the outcry from small woodlot owners who rightly feared price fixing for timber and pulpwood, and from loggers who foresaw they would be replaced by imported, lower paid Canadian labor hired by the new timber barons.

Today’s vast corporate holdings and artificially depressed wages in the Maine woods are the continuing legacy of this sellout by the Maine Legislature to big business a century ago. Farmers likewise suffered from their inability to be listened to in Augusta, where agribusiness likewise set the tune. Today’s Grange Halls are the quiet reminders of their struggle for economic justice.

At the last turn of the century, Mainers had had enough of being ignored by their their elected government. Of having to choose between candidates from parties that were equally in bed with big business. They were not alone. Anger was rising everywhere at the rise of merchant barons around the nation, which had first gained their immense wealth as defense contractors supplying the Union Army in the Civil War. They were creating a New Economic Order across the nation, and the voice of the private citizen had no place in this new order.

Amid the political decay, a few voices, of what would later be called the “Progressive Era,’ calmly pointed the way to restore the checks and balances that define a government by and for the people. Word spread at the docks, farmhouses and logging camps, in the taverns and inns of towns and cities: amend the state Constitution, give the people the chance for a final say if and when the need arises.

Political and economic interests fought hard against addition of “direct democracy.” The media of the day played it down. Industry lobbyists blocked it in the 1903 and 1905 legislative sessions. But the citizens were tenacious, and made it clear to the Legislature if they did not move the constitutional amendment forward, they would be retired from office.

Thus, in 1907, against the opposition of the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and other political “leaders,’ a resolve amending the Constitution was finally passed by the Legislature and set before the people. Maine’s citizens from one end of the state to the other then voted overwhelmingly in favor, winning in every county.

That Faircloth finally states that “Referenda belong in history’s ash can” puts him, appropriately, alongside Nikita Kruschev, whose crack about the West falling into the dust bin of history was just as blind and offensive. Faircloth’s naughty secret is that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

Faircloth’s only real point — that citizen-initiative campaigns are becoming as buyable as other political campaigns — argues for getting money out of politics, not for getting the people out of politics. Election financing could be overhauled, of course. This, however, takes courage. What Maine needs are politicians with the courage and patriotism to sacrifice their political lives if necessary to carry out those necessary campaign-finance reforms. Faircloth does not strike me as one of them.

Ron Huber lives in Rockland.

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