When cheap political points get in the way of good governance

There is a great scene in the movie A Few Good Men. Well, there are a few great scenes, but the one I’m thinking of has Noah Wyle, as Marine Corporal Jeffrey Barnes, sitting on the witness stand. Kevin Bacon questions him, asking whether a certain practice is defined in an issued manual. The tension builds. Corporal Barnes answers that isn’t an official term, it isn’t contained in an instruction.

Bacon’s character, Capt. Jack Ross, is incredulous. Marines follow orders, and how could that practice be a lawful order if it isn’t contained in some official document? Simple. It couldn’t.

Then Navy Lieutenant Dan Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, springs into action for the defense. Snatching the official book from Capt. Ross, Kaffee gives it back to the witness. He asks him to turn to the page where it details meals that Marines are to eat. Cpl. Barnes tells him there is no such instruction. Now Lt. Kaffee is incredulous. Hasn’t Barnes ever had a meal?

Yes, of course. Why? Because he would go with the crowd at chow time. Even though it wasn’t in the book.

That scene reminds me of the uproar this past week over comments by Maine House GOP Rep. Richard Pickett. A former Chief of Police, Pickett sits on the criminal justice committee in Augusta. They had a bill before them dealing with women’s access to menstruation products in jails and prisons.

Several interest groups testified in favor of the bill. Randy Liberty, former elected Sheriff, former State Prison Warden under Gov. LePage, and current Commissioner of Corrections appointed by Gov. Mills, testified neither for nor against it. Why? Because women in Maine prisons — and presumably jails — already have unlimited access to such products.

BANGOR, MAINE — The Penobscot County Jail and Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office in Bangor are shown Nov. 14.
Gabor Degre | BDN

Like the movie scene, Maine law does not explicitly say that women should have access to necessary products. Yet they are still getting them. Maine law does not explicitly say that those incarcerated must have access to a toilet. But, of course, they should. It needn’t require a law.

Since the bill didn’t seem to address an actual problem, Rep. Pickett voted against it. He said unequivocally that, if there was evidence women were denied access to these products, he would vote in favor of the bill. If that was all that happened, this would be a pretty boring column.

Rep. Pickett’s soliloquy explaining his vote also drew an analogy that prisons are not meant to be country clubs. That is a fairly self-evident statement. Unfortunately, these two issues were conflated by left wing groups, and hate ensued. They accused him of claiming access to menstruation products would make prison like a country club, with the subtext that he was voting to deny them.

It’s asinine. But it’s also salacious, so it became a national story.

These attempts to score cheap political points are harming the ability of lawmakers to undertake reasonable, responsible governance. If there were actual accusations that jails or prisons in Maine were denying women sanitary products, then the committee should exercise its oversight. Highlight a specific problem, gather facts, weigh solutions, and, if necessary, enact a law.

There are plenty of real issues with corrections. While Maine’s incarcerated population is lowest nationally per capita, we still lock people up more often than South Korea, Canada, and Ireland. The statewide corrections system is an amalgamated mess, impacting property taxes throughout the state via the county overlay.

But the attacks on Rep. Pickett from left-wing activists — spilling over into Teen Vogue and other national outlets — due to the twisting of his words in meaning will hamper the ability of legislators to publicly grapple with challenges for fear of political pillories due to an offhand statement.

Because, unlike A Few Good Men, there is no pithy script in the real world. Just men and women doing their best.

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.