There are grumblings among some Portland Democrats who are upset that Ethan Strimling attracted Republican support in his successful bid for mayor. Such support apparently calls into question his liberal bona fides. They have used some unflattering terms for the mayor-elect and his supporters who dare to share a different political persuasion.
I have a question: Is this really what we have become? A Republican cannot support a Democrat without motives or character being called into question?
We have to be better than that. Our largest city does not crack the top 300 nationally in population. At 1.3 million people, we are in the bottom 10 for population by state. There are so few of us, we cannot assume the worst about others merely because we do not share their philosophy. And we should recognize there are reasons to support a candidate other than party.
That is especially true in local or county elections, where everyone wants officials to do their jobs and do them well. If I lived in Kennebec County, I would have been proud to support Randy Liberty for sheriff even though he’s a Democrat. Maybe we disagree on tax policy, but he is a great law enforcement officer. No different than Democrats supporting Stephanie Anderson in Cumberland County. They might not share her foreign policy views, but she serves with distinction as district attorney.
Additionally, given the size of our state, relationships matter. Why else would Republicans last year support a former Democratic leader for state treasurer? By all accounts, Terry Hayes has done a fine job in that position. She is honest and forthright, essential qualities in her position of trust. It didn’t really matter that GOP legislators disagreed with her on Medicaid expansion. They had a relationship with Hayes — they knew her character, and it matched the job she was asked to do.
The simple fact is, many public posts are not partisan; we just need good people to go to work. Many of Gov. Paul LePage’s appointments — for judicial posts, especially — have been rightly lauded. Not because they have been right-wing nominees, but because they are talented men and women. People often forget a Democratic district attorney was one of his first appointments to the bench.
There are countless other examples throughout Maine. The common thread? Men and women who want to do their job well. That was the genesis of Republican support for Strimling’s mayoral campaign. Mayors need to worry about property taxes and trash collection. Their opinions on Syrian military intervention or student loans are, at best, incidental.
And that is why attempts by partisans to project a left-right dynamic onto the Portland mayoral race are so disappointing. Strimling can simultaneously be an unabashed liberal and have the support of Republicans. It isn’t only GOP voters who want a well-run city. But the accusations of partisans illuminate a larger problem: the degradation of charity in the political arena.
People rush to project questionable motives onto those on the other side of a political equation. There is no recognition that most of us want the same things; a prosperous state, great education, and a safety net for the truly needy. We can have significant, intense disagreements on how to best achieve those objectives. But our first assumption must be the other person wants to do the right thing — without that trust, our system cannot work.
Some may be surprised that, while I was working for LePage, the Senate Democratic leader sponsored my admission to the bar. Barry Hobbins is an elder of his party and a friend. I might disagree with him on a certain policy, but would never think to question his motives. And if he ran for mayor of Saco, I’d back him to the hilt. Bill Nemitz, foil to the governor and unabashed liberal in some other newspaper, was my Little League coach. I often disagree with his columns, but never wonder about his intentions.
As a small state, I can have those relationships with people who disagree with me, as can most of us. And we need to foster those types of relationships, since they will rebuild trust within our public institutions. To start relationships right, let’s assume, unless shown otherwise, that those who disagree with us are well-intended. And let’s not accuse people voting across party lines of deplorable things, especially in races in which party doesn’t matter.
At the end of the day, this is Maine. The political poison that has spread across the rest of the country has had a difficult time taking root here — we’re better than that, because we have to be. Let’s just hope we can keep it that way.