PORTLAND – Ensconced near a front window at Three Dollar Dewey’s ale house, John Michael ponders a question as he watches a constant stream of humanity pass by along the Commercial Street sidewalk.
He wonders aloud what these people know about his independent bid for governor. Do they know he has very little money? Do they know who his opponents are? Do they know there’s an election?
The 52-year-old Auburn resident has just left a gubernatorial debate at Maine Public Radio’s broadcast facility, where he has had a very good time. He got in a few jabs at Republican candidate Peter Cianchette and Jonathan Carter, the Green Independent Party nominee. But, as usual, he saved most of his caustic rhetoric for John Baldacci, standard-bearer for the Democrats, a party Michael once embraced and now reviles.
Usually during these debates, Michael throws about every nasty thing he can think of at Baldacci’s party, calling his financial supporters “a bunch of crooks” and characterizing the party’s efforts to create state-funded programs for special-interest groups as analogous to “heroin on the playground,” addicting people to welfare handouts.
At the end of each debate, both men engage in a hollow ritualistic gesture. Michael grasps the hand of a man he says he doesn’t respect and Baldacci reciprocates, trying to show that he doesn’t let things get personal. The superficialities of politics are not lost on Michael, a front-burner conservative whose temperature never drops below “simmer.”
The Auburn bachelor works as an initiative petition drive organizer and has served seven terms in the House off and on over the years dating back to 1979. The representative’s confrontational style, colorful use of words and relentless pursuit of political goals combine to make him something of a one-man wrecking crew in the Legislature. He’s been known to get into screaming matches with political rivals, including an X-rated, verbal assault on two female Democratic senators in 2001. That incident resulted in the legislative Ethics Committee’s decision to punish Michael with official censure. The largely symbolic reprimand by his peers was the only time such discipline has ever been imposed.
Unrepentant after what legislative leaders had hoped would be a humiliation, Michael went on a southern Maine radio talk show this summer and used the racially charged “n-word” when trying to draw an analogy between the way black Americans were treated before the Civil Rights Act and how majority Democrats in the Legislature perceived him in the aftermath of the censure vote.
Divisions between Michael and Maine Democrats run deep. Michael was among the first to turn on former House Speaker John L. Martin of Eagle Lake after the prominent Aroostook County Democrat’s key staffer pleaded guilty to ballot fraud in 1993. That same year, he dropped out of the party and challenged Martin for the speakership. In 1994, he staged an unsuccessful independent run for the 2nd Congressional District. He successfully led a congressional term limits referendum that was approved by the voters but later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some independents try to color Michael’s politics as libertarian, a label he resists, largely because he’s a tremendous labor supporter and proponent of increasing the minimum wage. The Marquette University graduate also sets himself apart from his three gubernatorial rivals with his pro-life stance and opposition to any proposed gay rights laws.
He hasn’t raised any significant amount of campaign contributions. There are no “Michael for governor signs” sprouting up along the side of Maine roads. He has no organization, no Web site, and at one point during a recent forum, he acknowledged that he “probably won’t” win.
“I think it’s going to be hard to win at this point,” he said. “But who knows? Theoretically, if the media did its job, you wouldn’t have people spending $1 million for media. But there’s stuff happening in this campaign and people are talking about John Michael. I’m getting more feedback now than when I ran for Congress in ’94, and I got 9 percent then. So we’ll see how it turns out.”
As governor, Michael promises he would “shake up” the State House in a way that hasn’t been seen since Gov. James B. Longley was elected in 1974. He would approach the state’s current budget problems by returning to 1997 funding levels, or about $1.5 billion less than the current two-year spending package.
“I’d fight for [local educational funding], the elderly and the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program,” he said. “Other people can fight for their special programs if they think they’re so important. We could make, what they call in the stock market, an adjustment. Then business goes on as usual. We’ve got to have an audit.”
Then Michael would spend the rest of his time shutting off the flow of state money to what he describes as Democratic special-interest programs. Recently added perks, such as the extension of health care benefits for the partners of gay state employees, would be the first to go. That entire initiative and the special rights agenda that accompanies it, he maintains, is a complete sham perpetrated on a single group of people by the Democratic Party.
“I’ve got gay friends and they’re just another group that’s been convinced by the Democrats that they can’t possibly exist without external pressure from the government,” Michael said. “They’re saying, ‘You’re gay, there’s something wrong with you – you’re going to need this government program.’ That’s just bunk. I’m hoping that the day is going to come when gays are going to stand up and say: ‘We’ve thought this thing through and we don’t support a gay rights law.’ Let freedom ring. That’s what I say, but I don’t know if it will happen.”