Among the field of four opponents challenging Gov. John E. Baldacci’s re-election bid, none is more passionately critical of the Democratic incumbent than Barbara Merrill.
In television ads, media interviews and candidate forums, Merrill repeatedly hammers the Baldacci administration, driving home ideological barbs against the best candidate Maine Democrats have to offer. If she succeeds in ways her opponents do not, it is because she knows the habits of her target all too well.
Two years ago, the Appleton lawyer and former lobbyist was elected as a Democratic state representative from midcoast interior’s District 44. Then, when Democratic legislative leaders tried to ram through a majority budget plan that included a loan of nearly a half-billion dollars, she balked. When rumors of secret deals between the governor’s office and International Paper forced Baldacci’s commissioner of environmental protection to resign last winter, Merrill split from the whole program.
She dropped out of the party and became an independent in a House so closely divided politically that her departure prompted immediate negotiations between the former Democratic majority and minority Republicans over power sharing.
Merrill wears her maverick badge proudly and has refocused a lot of her dissatisfaction with state government into a bold gubernatorial bid. She promises she will never “sell out” to corporate interests by ignoring or weakening laws designed to keep Maine’s air and water clean as she claims was the case in the International Paper debacle.
She would pick the best from both parties – along with qualified independents – to serve in an administration dedicated to nonpartisan strategies to improve the state. She would not shy away from innovative ideas to advance her goal of greater connectivity to Canada by permitting legalized gambling on a Maine-to-Montreal train in an effort to increase trade between the two regions.
During a late summer swing through the Skowhegan area, Merrill walked up to numerous Mainers to solicit their opinions on state government while also sharing her own views. If they didn’t agree, Merrill would stubbornly persevere in an effort to nudge a voter her way.
It’s a place where she didn’t think she would be in 2002.
“Four years ago I was helping John Baldacci get elected and was an active volunteer for the campaign,” she said. “The last thing I ever thought I’d be doing even two years ago is what I’m doing today. My loyalty to the people of the state of Maine simply trumped my loyalty to the Democratic Party.”
One of the key areas in which Merrill believes the governor has failed Mainers is the business sector and in the way he seems to try to do too much with too little simply to satisfy as many constituents as possible.
“I would prioritize as governor,” Merrill said. “We’re a small state, and we’re a fairly poor state. We’re taxed as much as we’re going to be, and the time has come for strategic decisions. I’ve never been fond of the governor’s Pine Tree Economic Zones which seem to be government deciding which businesses are going to prosper and which are not. The role of government is to create an environment in which all businesses can flourish.”
To underscore her opinions on state business policies, Merrill has her own business plan that would:
. Level the playing field and “end the current practice of state government doing special favors for a few large businesses” while instituting a reformed incentive program that would be “fair for all businesses.”
. Increase assistance to small- and medium-size businesses that represent more than 95 percent of all businesses in Maine. She would end state programs that “primarily benefit a few large companies with very generous tax breaks, for which all of the other businesses end up paying.”
. Create a Governor’s Business Cabinet that would include a representative from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and every local chamber of commerce and board of trade in Maine. The Business Cabinet would help develop an evolving business plan and advise on legislation and regulation.
. Increase research and development investments by revamping the bond programs that have funded R&D but have “fallen victim to partisan squabbles.” Merrill would pass a comprehensive state budget before specific funding bills would even be taken up, “making it possible to link the budget and borrowing items in one plan for the first time.”
Merrill says Baldacci’s business and economic initiatives are fraught with the same flaws that plague the state’s social service programs that she said are no longer sustainable in their current forms.
“In this state we have a policy of giving everybody a dollar and going wide instead of going deep,” she said. “It’s turned into a fundamental problem. We’re not serving well the people we need to serve the most, and we’re not making the needed investments because we’re spread so thin.”
Emphasizing that one in four Mainers is in the MaineCare system, Merrill deplored the growth in the welfare program that she said served one in five residents only three years ago.
“I think we have to take a good, hard look at whether we can continue to provide MaineCare coverage to working-age adults,” she said. “We have a whole lot of people in this state who can’t make ends meet. I understand why the Democrats are doing it – they want to reach their arms out and have the state be the safety net for everyone. But the problem is we can’t solve the health care crisis by ourselves in this state.”
To further make her point, Merrill cites a controversial end-of-session vote this spring requiring the state to pick up 45 percent of the health insurance costs for retired municipal police and firefighters until they are old enough to qualify for Medicare benefits. The votes fell along party lines and Merrill joined House Republicans who watched in dismay as the bill passed in a 72-71 vote.
“And this is exactly what I’m talking about,” Merrill said. “We’re not meeting our current needs. It’s really difficult to find a dentist who will take someone on Medicaid because the Medicaid rate is so low. Yet knowing this, the governor signs a bill that will probably cost us in the neighborhood of $70 million over the next 10 years. We haven’t delivered on our promise to fully fund retired teachers’ health insurance and this governor wants us to pay for the firefighters who already had health insurance benefits in their communities. We can’t keep doing this kind of thing.”
Maine House of
Education: University of Maine, UMaine School of Law
Personal: Married, two children