“Politicians lie.” That is the conventional wisdom, right?
It is a bit cynical. After all, most people who find their way into public service have some sort of background in the community. Maybe they volunteer with schools. Maybe they have served in some other local or state office. In almost all cases, they are good people trying to what they believe are good things.
However, at some point, they cross from being a “leader” to becoming a “politician.” It is often in the face of a contested election; painting your opponent with a sour, dour broad brush can be effective in campaigning.
Yet voters know that to be the case. Everyone knows negative campaigning should be taken with a grain — or a pile — of salt.
Since everyone knows the rules of the game, the attacks against candidates often don’t hold weight. We can look back to 2014, when Democrats assailed Gov. Paul LePage. Certainly his brash style rubbed them wrong. They nominated then-Rep. Michael Michaud, who was seen as the counteraction — a less-offensive, blue dog Democrat. But, of course, it didn’t work; LePage went onto another four years in the Blaine House.
He won because, for all the attacks against him, he was seen by many as genuine. During his 2010 campaign, he promised to pay Maine’s hospitals back the hundreds of millions of outstanding MaineCare debt. He accomplished this goal. He promised welfare reform, and managed to enact some.
In short, despite the attacks his opponents sought to levy, voters didn’t believe he lied to them. So they gave him four more years.
The opposite occurred in Tuesday’s election in Portland. In 2015, then-candidate Ethan Strimling faced off against Mayor Michael Brennan. Brennan had some policy successes, but there was a marked difference between how he campaigned in 2011 and how he subsequently governed.
Brennan’s tenure as mayor was marred by countless fights with the city council over his “my way or the highway” style. He was compared to then-Gov. LePage, but the latter always had a pugnacious streak. Brennan had extolled the virtues of “collaboration” and “partnership” in order to win the highest office of our largest city.
This gave Strimling an opening. He tried to take the mantle of “listener in chief.” His supporters, like Rep. Anne Haskell, thought he could be a peacemaker between Portland and LePage; Brennan had only been a fighter, and an unsuccessful one at that. It led Strimling to earn the endorsement of the Portland Chamber of Commerce and, ultimately, the mayoralty.
Then he was inaugurated. And, like Brennan before him, Strimling soon saw himself at odds with countless individuals and constituencies in the city. Far from a “listener in chief,” he was no longer on speaking terms with the city’s professional manager. He was chastised in public by fellow elected officials.
So Strimling pivoted. Rather than a “peacemaker” or “unifier,” he rebranded himself as a far-left champion of “progressives.” He rode this persona into this Tuesday’s election … and a distant third-place finish.
Voters aren’t easily misled, nor are their memories all that short. LePage was elected in 2010 as a fighter and he governed as a fighter. So, in 2014, when Democrats tried to attack him as an irresponsible fighter, they failed. Voters got exactly what they chose in 2010.
But Strimling beat Brennan because he promised a great new future for Portland, one that was inclusive and collaborative instead of strife- and conflict-driven. He failed to deliver. Voters didn’t get what they chose in 2015, so they held Strimling responsible and put him out of a job. They overwhelmingly supported the two candidates who promised collaboration and unity, the exact same things Strimling promised in 2015. Hopefully, Mayor-elect Kate Synder will deliver.
Because “politicians lie” is conventional wisdom, but voters are loathe to accept it. And that’s a good thing.