What are you laughing at? Maine’s joke of a referendum process

The internet was certainly angry last week. After a rather ridiculous statement, Mainers of all stripes banded together in common cause to denounce a statement that could not be allowed stand. I’m glad we all agreed the writings of Drew Magary of GQ magazine weren’t funny.

What did you think I was talking about?

Many have accused Gov. LePage of causing the rest of the country to think of Maine as a backwards, backwoods backwater. Yet Mr. Magary’s “satire” would likely have been written at some point even without the lede about the governor. People laughed at the idea of Maine long before Paul LePage was on the scene.

An image from the "Maine Justice" skit on Saturday Night Live in November 2012.

“Maine Justice” on Saturday Night Live in November 2012.

With mild-mannered John Baldacci in the Blaine House, Massachusetts radio stations made fun of us. They continue to do so, with WROR’s “Men from Maine” skits playing on all the tropes those flatlanders find funny. A few years back, Saturday Night Live had a few skits attempting to find humor in our state, although no one quite understood why all the characters were from Louisiana. Was it commentary on the Acadian diaspora? Or simply a dumb joke?

Some of those comedy routines are funny, for the most part. They are also stereotypes that, like others, convey some truth but are oft overbroad. And, as is often the case in stereotyped groups, we are more welcoming of comedy provided by Mainers about Mainers instead of veiled insults disguised as jokes offered by those from away.

The South Park-esq O’Chang Comics — run by a former Democratic representative — and Bob Marley are both popular here. The substance of their schtick isn’t much different from the “Men from Maine” routines, but at least they are “ours.” Folks from Biddeford probably wouldn’t take kindly to someone from Boston saying their “sex dolls” are Hefty trash bags, but when Bob Marley makes the joke, they laugh. As do those of us who might have drunk in the woods in high school.

So what does this have to do with Maine politics? Folks from away are often the driving force behind our “citizen’s referendum” process. And, to quote Rep. Louie Luchini, “Maine people don’t like that when it happens.” That should apply equally to jokes and referenda.

It is a dirty little not-so-secret fact the “Clean Elections” referendum was almost entirely funded by out-of-state interests. So was the ballot question about bear hunting. Reading their campaign finance reports, “DC” and “NY” appear throughout on the donor side. And now, the “from away” gun control and York county casino questions are following in their footsteps.

Whether you support these out-of-state efforts likely depends on whether you support the substance of the policies. But the continual efforts to qualify referenda — there could be six or more on the 2016 ballot — reflect something changing in our state, a change potentially driven by something other than Maine people.

Maine’s political system, for lack of a better analogy, is a cheap date. National interest groups know this and use it as part of their strategy. For a relatively small investment, they can push a piece of legislation to meet some objective of theirs. If they can get it passed in a few different states, they begin to lobby Congress, declaring a “national consensus” is forming and urging a one-size-fits-all federal solution.

This isn’t the case with all referenda. A large part of the marijuana ballot question’s support is home-grown. The finance report of the Maine GOP’s tax and welfare reform signature effort shows quite clearly the donors are all from Maine. Some voters might disagree with the latter, but it is an organic, Maine-made initiative.

It is time for real referendum reform to ensure Maine does not become a mere plaything for rich folks from away. Improving the laws around signature gatherers would be a good start. Requiring signatures from multiple counties or congressional districts might help reduce some of the parochial nature of the efforts, where special benefits are granted to certain areas. And reasonable progress in Augusta — such as a coherent, consistent statewide gambling policy — would end the game before it ever begins.

If we get that done, we can go back to listening to the bad jokes of flatlanders. Me? I’ll take Bob Marley, Tim Sample, and Gary Crocker all day.

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.