Will the real will of the people please stand up?

“The will of the people!” That is one of the rallying cries shouted over the past few weeks, whether in Portland City Hall or under the capitol dome in Augusta. Somewhat sardonically, it was also the name of a socialist revolutionary terrorist organization in 19th century Russia, counting Vladimir Lenin’s older brother amongst its members.  But I digress.

Today, the declaration that one has “the will of the people!” on their side seems to be the modern version of “Deus Vult!” If you have what you deem the source of power supporting you, be it God or “the people,” then those against you must be wrong. But, setting aside the appeal to authority fallacy, it’s not quite so easy to put “the will of the people!” in a box.

For example, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling has been on a losing streak vis-a-vis the city council. In a 6-3 vote, the $70,000-plus position of “assistant to the mayor” was eliminated. This led Strimling to cast the only dissenting vote against the city budget, losing 8-1.  

Charges have followed that the Portland City Council has thwarted “the will of the people!” with their actions. This is based on an interpretation of the city charter where government is three-headed — an “administrative” city manager, strong “policy” mayor, and a council. It also happens to ignore the advice of the city attorney, an outside legal opinion which cost taxpayers $20,000, and the views of the other eight council members.  

It isn’t hard to have doubts about this new exegesis, putting forward the belief that “the will of the people!” was for an executive “strong mayor.” After all, the charter amendments created the position of “mayor” as a section under the “city council” article by explicitly evolving an at-large council seat. Article I of the charter clearly states the administration of the city is vested in a nine-member body, while the full-time city manager is responsible to the council as a whole.

Paul Gray fills out his ballot in Oxbow Plantation on Election Day. Micky Bedell | BDN

This dovetails with Portland’s decades of experience under the council-manager form of government, with some dynamic administrators, such as Bob Ganley, helping make it the city it is today. And if a governing body overseeing a full-time, professional manager is somehow anathema to democracy, then we need to change the University of Maine System.  And FAME.  And Lewiston, Auburn, Waterville, Bangor — dozens of towns and cities across Maine.  

So maybe Portland’s “mayor” is meant to be less Rudy Giuliani and more Tip O’Neill; the “speaker of the council,” governing through influence with other elected officials and acting with a majority. Because when you’re divining “the will of the people!,” each of the other eight councilmen and women can claim the support of popular opinion; they were elected, too. If voters disagree with their choices? Well, the next election is always coming.

The same holds true in Augusta. Last week, 56 Maine Democrats threatened a state shutdown. Their demand? Honor “the will of the people!” and keep the tax hike contained in last November’s Question 2, leaving Maine with one of the highest income tax rates in the country.  

But it isn’t quite that simple. Question 2 won statewide by less than 10,000 votes. It won in Portland by more than 11,000 votes. Orono supported it, while Windham didn’t. If you do a little bit of digging, you will find that many Democrats were elected by districts which voted against a 10.15 percent top income tax rate.     

Which “will of the people!” should those elected officials follow? The statewide result? Or the wishes of their constituents?  

If the former, how does that apply to federal politics? George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, beating John Kerry by a larger margin in the popular vote than “yes” on Question 2; his election was “the will of the people!” Should Democrats — Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton — have simply acquiesced to whatever President Bush wanted?  

Of course not. Voters in Illinois, Vermont, and New York charged those officials with representing the views of their districts and states. Their elections represented a distinct, independent expression of “the will of the people!” And their voters expected them to be more than mere unthinking instruments of public will.  

So it goes with 186 elected officials in Augusta. The voters made choices on the various referendum questions, but they also chose individuals to dive deeply into issues and make the best decisions as they see fit. Thus, you will find some state officials who vote in opposition to their district’s opinion — either for or against — when the time comes to pass a budget or shutdown state offices.  

Because “the will of the people!” isn’t some monolithic force. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes it’s contradictory. And sometimes, elected officials simply need to shoulder the responsibility with which they have been entrusted.

They’ll find out if they followed “the will of the people!” at the next election.  

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.