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2chambers
Posted at 01:48 PM ET, 06/11/2012

Angus King: ‘An unencumbered U.S. senator is a profound threat to the whole system’


Former Maine governor Angus King (I) announced his campaign to succeed Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in March. (Joel Page - AP)
One of the most critical Senate contests of the year is in Maine, where Angus King (I), the state’s former two-term independent governor, leads a crowded field of Democrats and Republicans eager to face him in a campaign to succeed the retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Democrats and Republicans hold Senate primaries Tuesday, but King remains laser-focused on his effort to win the seat and find a way to help fix the legislative body. If he wins, he tells The Washington Post that he doesn’t know which party he would support in the Senate, meaning his vote for majority leader in a closely-divided chamber could determine the balance of power.

2chambers spent the weekend in Maine for a story on the race and interviewed King at his Brunswick, Maine, campaign headquarters. Keeping true to his nonpartisan appeal, portraits of Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan hang at the entrance of his campaign office in a former pizza parlor. A transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length, appears below:

2chambers: Why do you want to be a U.S. Senator?

Angus King: I had no interest or desire in doing so until February 28 of this year [when Snowe announced her retirement]. When I left office after two terms as governor ...

... You famously packed up your car and went on a months-long trip around the country.

Packed up the car, we went on the trip, and in fact the subtitle of my book is “How I left politics, learned how to back up a bus and find America.” Well, the first part is now out.

I worked in the Senate in the 1970s. I worked for the Labor, Public Welfare Committee and we had Ted Kennedy and my old boss, Bill Hathaway, and Walter Mondale. On the other hand we had Bob Taft, Jacob Javitts and I saw with my own eyes that they could work out problems, sit down together, talk, argue, agree, laugh and essentially come to some conclusions on some major legislation. The massive pension reform went through when I was there. And a whole bunch of other things, Pell Grants were invented. Clayborn Pell was on the committee.

When Olympia said [in her statement that Senate partisanship drove her to retire], the two and two I put together was that Olympia, with all of her seniority and ability and everything relationships and everything else, couldn’t make it work. Therefore, I don’t know if anybody with a partisan label can make it work. We’ve got to try something different. One of my life principles is that if something isn’t working, doing something harder isn’t necessarily going to produce the same result.

So you’re willing to go to Washington and serve as a tentpole, the arbiter of major issues?

That’s a great way to put it. I’m not going just for symbolism. I want to do something. That was the question that I wrestled with most deeply in the week before deciding to run was whether I could do anything. Ultimately, I concluded that a partisan almost certainly can’t and maybe I can. Maybe I can help to be a little catalyst for a coalition of centrist senators. Maybe I can plant the seed of other people like me around the country running. Maybe my election will send a signal to the Senate leadership that they’d better mind the middle.

Wouldn’t it require having other legitimate, fully nonpartisan centrists serving with you in the Senate? When you get there, Joe Lieberman will have left. Bernie Sanders is there, but he’s a Democrat. And the only other real moderate Republican would be your colleague, Susan Collins.

Well, there are some others. I don’t want to hurt their reelection challenges by characterizing them as moderates. But there are some Republican senators that are more moderate on some issues.

But I gotta tell you, I’m more convinced than when I announced that I’m on the right track, because everywhere I go in Maine, talking to people on the street, it’s all they want to talk about. They want me to go down there and talk some sense into those people. Go down there and make it work. Go down there and throw a monkey wrench. Get them listening. I think there’s a political wave building that Congress is, that the establishment is oblivious to.

The filibuster, for example. I grew up knowing vaguely about it. That southern senators would go down to the floor and read the phone book or cook books or something. You know the figures better than I do, in a hundred years the filibuster was used 30 times and it the last five years it’s been used 100 times. It’s become an absolutely routine way of doing business and as I understand it is all you have to do is have Mitch McConnell call Harry Reid and say I’ll filibuster and there you go, it needs 60 votes.

That’s ridiculous. The Constitution doesn’t say that. The Framers knew fractions. There are places in the Constitution where it says three-fifths, three-quarters, two-thirds. It doesn’t say 60 percent, a supermajority to pass a bill in the United States Senate.

My view of the filibuster is either you’ve got to lower vote edge or make people really filibuster if they feel that seriously about a piece of legislation.

Is this state going to tolerate you talking about Senate procedure between now and November? Or aren’t you going to have to start to get a little more specific about what you would do?

Of course, absolutely. And we’re doing that. I’ve taken positions on issues. Coincidentally, based on some work I’ve done in the last few years, I’m fairly knowledgable on health care. Other issues, I’m spending 25 percent of my time on education, meeting with people, getting briefed. The Middle East, federal fishing policy, labor issues, veterans. I’m not planning to ignore the substantive issues at all.

But I have to tell you that the public — at least people I’ve met in coffee shops and on main streets and in stores and at the ballgames — process is what’s bothering them. It sounds sort of cold and boring to use the word process. They would say that’s the craziness in Washington.

The situation is that we have a very serious set of issues. I would rank them as the economy, the debt, health care, energy and then there’s a whole series of further ones. All of which, by the way, are time-sensitive.

Indeed. For example: Let’s say President Mitt Romney takes the oath of office Jan. 20 and Congress has punted tax cuts to allow him to be involved in the debate. Would you renew the Bush-era tax cuts or do you let them expire?

It would be a selective process. I don’t think you let all of them expire. You want to keep some of them maintained. My answer to that question depends on how the economy is doing at that time. I don’t always agree with Robert Reich, but he had a piece about a week ago that said let the trigger be the economy, not an arbitrary date. Instead of the tax cuts expiring Feb. 1, have the high-income tax cuts expire when unemployment falls below 5 percent, or when GDP grows by more than 3.4 percent, or something.

That’s what we did in Maine: Before I came into office, my predecessor raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 6. But instead of putting in a trigger that the sales tax expires on Jan. 1, 1996, which was after I was in office, they said the tax increase expires when state revenue growth is greater than 8 percent. That happened, the economy was strong, tax went down and it didn’t create a budget crisis.

I don’t think we ought to be increasing any taxes. And to say that the millionaire’s tax is a target and I think ought to be increased, but not when we’re still so fragile. Six months ago if you’d ask me, I’d say yes, repeal the higher income tax breaks. But I don’t think I can say that now, not in light of what’s going on in the economy.

So generally you’d tie these decisions to economic indicators instead of the calendar?

Correct. And I think that’s an important policy statement. But it also has the benefit of getting away from this cliff issue which allows one side or the other to extort things. I just think it’s better policy, frankly.

But if we’ve got all these problems – the economy, debt, jobs – if the tool that the Constitution gives us to solve these problems is itself broken, you never get to the problems. That’s my premise, and that’s why I don’t think it’s ducking or irrelevant to talk about process. If you have a series of leaks in your pipes in your house and your wrench is broken, you never get to the leaks until you fix the wrench.

So talking about this unfunctionality of Congress is not an academic exercise. I think it’s fundamental to trying to then get to a place where we can deal with these problems.

But your opponents say you’re playing head games with the voters of Maine. They say that if you’re going to focus on this strategy for the next six months and tie everything back to the process and not take definitive positions.

Well whoever said I was going to do that? I’ve never indicated that I’m not. I’m answering questions. Occasionally people will ask me a question about farm policy and I’ll say, you know, I’m not an expert, I don’t know enough about it to give you a reasonable answer. But I’m not ducking. I genuinely think that’s the issue in this campaign, frankly, and I would expect my opponents to dismiss that because they’re in it.

We could send somebody down there that’s a combination of Pericles, Socrates and Thomas Jefferson, but if they had an R or a D behind their name, they’d be taking their orders from Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid. That’s just the reality. And they can’t avoid that.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this your first political campaign in the 21st Century.

That’s right, I ran for reelection [as governor] in 1998.

So what’s changed since then about being a candidate and running a campai gn?

Two-and-a-half principle things: The first is social media. I have a Twitter account, I have a fantastic Facebook page. The Facebook page for this campaign is proving to be an enormously powerful and important part of this campaign. I can present myself to the public in a much more well-rounded way than typically a guy in a coat and tie standing behind a podium or through press releases. We can put up stuff, pictures with me and my kids at a ballgame or at a picnic and I write my own little things and people can respond. You present a more human side of a person, I think.

What I’ve realized is that it’s like going door-to-door but you don’t have to walk between the houses. I spend about an hour a night, people send messages. There’s a direct interaction with people that I think is very powerful.

You spend an hour a night on Facebook?

Yup. It’s sometimes an hour and sometimes two. But I consider it a great chance to see what people are talking about. And it gives me a chance to interact.

The other change, which I’m sort of bracing for, is the money. Particularly the changes enacted by Citizens United [The U.S. Supreme Court case that permitted the expansion of Super PACs]. I’m probably facing anywhere from $3 million to $5 million of negative ads. That doesn’t sound like much from national standards, but in Maine that’s huge. Maine is a state of 1.3 million people. And we’re probably not going to know who’s behind it. It’s going to be all negative, it’s totally unrestrained in the sense that they can say anything. ‘Did you know Angus King kicks dogs?’ Well, I love dogs.

I’ve come to realize that an unencumbered U.S. senator is a profound threat to the whole system. In other words, it’s somebody that they can’t put in a box and say, oh, well, we know how this guy is going to vote. That has raised the stakes, frankly. I ran for governor before, and people cared about it, but it didn’t have lots of people on K Street rushing to Google.

This past week, my colleague Paul Kane wrote a story about the balance of power in the Senate and he pointed out to me that he had written that the GOP chances of taking back the Senate are at risk because Olympia Snowe is retiring and Angus King is likely to win and he’s likely to caucus with Senate Democrats. Nobody, Kane said, called, e-mailed, stopped in the halls to dispute that assertion. Why does Washington think you’re going to caucus with Harry Reid?

I announced early in the campaign that I was going to vote for Obama. Why? Because a reporter asked me. That’s why I announced it, it wasn’t like it was an announcement, I just answered the question. So they score that.

But you voted for George W. Bush in 2000.

I did, but that was 12 years ago, they’ve forgotten that.

And you voted for Kerry in 2004.

I did. Back in the 1970s, when I worked for Bill Hathaway in the Senate, I was a Democrat. When I came back up here to Maine in 1975, I started what amounted to a 17, 18-year career in public broadcasting. I was the Jim Lehrer of Maine, and I remain enrolled as a Democrat, but because I was a journalist I basically quit active political involvement on the party side. [Editor’s note: King campaign aides said later that the former governor has told them that he dropped his enrollment in the Democratic Party in either 1992 or 1993.]

When I was governor, it was a pretty even record. There were times when I sided with the Democrats, the Republicans were mad as hell. And there were times when I sided with the Republicans and the Democrats were mad as hell.

So why do they think that? That’s what they want to think. One reporter said, well, have you made up your mind and you’re just keeping it secret? And the answer is no.

It’s going to depend a lot on what the circumstances are and what caucusing means. If one party says – because my desire is to be as independent as I can be as long as I can be, subject to being effective. I don’t want to stand in the middle of the aisle and say I’m an independent and not have a committee assignment. That’s sort of self-defeating and it wouldn’t be fair to Maine. If it’s necessary to join a caucus and get a committee assignment, I’ll do it.

However, then the question is, what does join a caucus mean? Does it mean casting one vote to organize the Senate and then you’re on your own? Or does it mean you have to truly join the caucus and go to the meetings and participate fully or you lose your committee assignment? How the parties handle that with me is going to have a significant impact on my decision.

So in a sense, on Tuesdays when senators of the same party lunch together, you may have to lunch alone?

Yeah. As my mother once said, you can meet a better class of people that way.

What if a voter comes up to you and says, well, you haven’t made up your mind, but I need to know who you’re going to caucus with, it’s not fair to me the voter and to the state that you haven’t made up your mind. What if they say that?

Then I tell them vote for somebody else.

I’ve talked to about a thousand people. I’ve only had one person ask me that question. One person out of a thousand. It’s the number one question in Washington and it’s the number eight question in Maine.

This is inside stuff to the people. They want somebody to go down there and try to make it work.

But arguably you’re running an inside campaign by focusing on the mechanics of the Senate.

No, the system working is not an inside issue. It’s a public issue. I think the politicians are missing this issue. I think there’s a wave building on this disgust with the functioning of Congress.

Not to belabor the point, but have you talked since Feb. 28 to Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid?

Look me in the eyes: No.

Do you know these guys?

No.

You’ve never talked to either of them?

No. Or [Sen. Charles E.] Schumer [(D-N.Y.), who helps recruit Democratic Senate candidates.]

They’ve called?

No. I heard that somebody said I’m sure they’ll call you. I said tell them not to. The reason is because I wanted to do exactly what I did with you and say that I haven’t talked to them. Or I haven’t talked to any of their staff.

As you know, the Republicans did a little YouTube ad and within four days of my announcement.

Why do Republicans think you’ll caucus with Democrats?

I don’t know. They’ve never asked. They’ve just made that assumption. My response was, why would they be doing this to a guy who might be an important vote for them?

Do the parties run the risk in running negative nasty ads against you? Would it behoove them to play nice? And will that be a deciding factor in the end?

It’s hard to answer that question without sounding that I’m being threatened.

But in a sense, your political existence is threatening.

But I don’t want to say, ‘Be nice to me or I won’t vote for you.’ I don’t think it’s — certainly it would be a consideration.

Politics isn’t beanbag. I expect to be opposed. I expect to be opposed by various factions – a Democratic opponent and a Republican opponent. I think the nature of the opposition would have some influence. If it’s honest and on different policies, that’s fine. But if it’s nasty, personal, that will have an influence.

Who would you model your senatorship on?

Ed Muskie. And Margaret Chase Smith. I think she might be the best example. She was independent. But she was a Republican. Her decision to stand up against McCarthy was one of the best examples of political courage in this country.

Another would be Bill Cohen. He was a great senator from Maine, very effective, very smart. And Bill Hathaway taught me that the best way to make these decisions is to try to do the right thing and not to worry about the political ramifications. That’s the way I tried to handle myself as governor. I don’t to look outside of Maine to find great examples.

If you get to Washington, which senators would you want to meet with right away?

I think the first person I would talk to is one of my good friends from when I was governor and that’s Tom Carper of Delaware. I just like him. He always struck me as a very down to earth, sensible kind of guy.

Lamar Alexander would be a guy. He and I weren’t governors at the same time. But I met him when he was secretary of education. Mark Warner and I overlapped [as governors]. I knew him. He would be somebody I would want to talk to.

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This post has been updated since it was first published.

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