April 06, 2020

In local politics, incumbents tough to beat

Steven Juskewitch, an independent candidate for district attorney in Hancock and Washington counties, knows he’s a long shot.

He’s not a defeatist, it’s just … well, he’s been in this position before and history isn’t exactly on his side.

Four years ago, Juskewitch lost in a Republican primary to incumbent Michael Povich, then challenged Povich as a write-in candidate in the general election and was beaten by a margin of several thousand votes.

Juskewitch is running again this year as an independent, meaning his name actually will be next to Povich’s on the ballot this time.

It may not make a difference, he admitted, but Juskewitch said he’s fighting the fight because, “it’s the right thing to do.”

“For many years, there has only been one name on the ballot; no opponent on the other side,” Juskewitch said from his office in downtown Ellsworth, where he has run a private law practice for the past five years. “People need to have another option.”

As Election Day draws closer, many Mainers will cast their votes in high-profile races for governor, U.S. senator and two U.S. representatives. In all four, incumbents are being challenged and in each race the incumbent is the presumptive front-runner.

At the local level of public service, there are many races where incumbency plays just as big a role.

“Incumbency oftentimes is even more important in local races,” said Richard Powell, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono. “Generally, the lower the profile of a race, the greater importance attached to incumbency.”

Another Hancock County public official, Sheriff William Clark, has held a lengthy reign of 26 years.

This year, Clark is being challenged for the second consecutive term by Terry Cole, a former police chief in Washington County and a jail administrator under Clark in Hancock County.

Cole, who ran in 2002 and was defeated by Clark, knows taking on a longtime sheriff is an uphill battle.

“I think his name recognition is the biggest” challenge, Cole said in an interview. “Everything he does while he’s the sheriff is news.”

Historically, incumbency has been a huge advantage in national and statewide races. Since 1998, a staggering 98 percent of incumbents have been re-elected in Congress.

The numbers for local races are harder to find but Powell said he wouldn’t be surprised if a similar percentage prevailed locally.

Name recognition is the biggest advantage for incumbents, Powell said, but another advantage is that often incumbents are not even challenged.

This year, there are eight races for district attorney across the state and in six of those races, the incumbent is running unopposed.

In 14 sheriff races, exactly half of the incumbents are running unopposed.

Until recently, Povich and Clark would have been in those categories.

Since holding the post of district attorney, Povich has been challenged in an election only once and that was in 2002.

Asked if he thought a lack of competition might contribute to complacency in his post, Povich said it’s not in his nature to be complacent. Besides, he added, his staff won’t let him.

“My staff thinks I’m a little crazy because I keep taking on cases, but if I didn’t try cases, I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job,” he said.

Similarly, Clark has been re-elected seven times since 1980 but has been opposed in a general election only three times. While his many years of service may give him an advantage over his opponent, Clark said, he’s not taking the election for granted.

“In 2002, I don’t think I took [Cole] seriously,” Clark said. “This campaigning is hard and it’s new territory for me.”

Incumbents typically have more money, more experience, and a greater knowledge of the district, but Powell said it will always come down to name recognition.

“As a challenger, you have to get your name out there in as many different means as you can. That’s really the only chance you have,” he said.

Povich is a legendary name in Ellsworth, dating to when the prosecutor’s father ran a private law practice. Clark said he doesn’t have that kind of recognition, but he knows his name has become well-known around Hancock County as well.

And Hancock County isn’t alone. The incumbency phenomenon is just as prevalent in other parts of the state.

More than half of the elected district attorneys throughout Maine have held their posts for 13 years or more. As far as sheriffs go, tenures are not quite as long, but many have been in office for two terms or more.

The long tenures bring up the idea of term limits and whether they should be considered for local posts such as district attorney and sheriff.

“There have been places where term limits have been placed on local officials, that movement has been concentrated in the last 10 years or so,” Powell said. “I think you see it more when people are fed up with government.”

Clark said while term limits might be a good idea in state and federal races, they don’t make sense for positions like his.

“It’s hard to argue against having fresh ideas,” he said. “But I’m making a profession out of this. I’m not doing this for a few terms and then moving on to something else.”

Povich agreed that term limits would be tricky at the local level.

“It’s basically saying to your electorate: ‘We don’t trust your judgment,'” he said.

Without term limits, though, upstart challengers like Juskewitch and Cole will always be fighting to survive.

“Longtime incumbency doesn’t reflect a healthy government,” Juskewitch said. “Instead of a loyalty to principles and idea, there is more loyalty to an individual.”

Correction: This article was also published on 10/27/2006 on page B2 in the Final edition.

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