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Don't get mad, get even. That's what State House Democrats allied with Governor John Baldacci have done in seizing control of the state's leading liberal-but-nonpartisan lobbying group — as retribution for its opposition to Baldacci's tax plans, or so a team of lobbyists who were unceremoniously booted into the street believes.
In last year's legislative session, the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund's public-interest lobbyists butted heads with the more-conservative Democratic leaders in Augusta, including Governor Baldacci and House Speaker John Richardson. The lobbyists were trying to get the politicos to support comprehensive tax reform. They failed.
But as this year’s legislative session gets under way, top State House Democrats are unlikely to have problems with the MCLF. The group’s new director, Joanne D’Arcangelo, is Speaker Richardson’s former chief aide. Her first act, even before starting work last month, was to fire the entire lobbyist staff.
The fund’s lobbyists have a history of successful reforms, like pushing for and then acting as the unofficial nonpartisan monitor of the Clean Election Act, which in 1996 established public funding of legislative and gubernatorial campaigns. They also successfully defended the Maine Rx low-cost prescription-drug program all the way to the United States Supreme Court, against a siege from the pharmaceutical companies.
Those who were fired, and their supporters, see the dismissals as a payback for their aggressiveness on the tax reform issue. They call it a purge, and they see D’Arcangelo’s hiring as orchestrated by people on the MCLF board and on the board of its sister organization, the Dirigo Alliance, who are lobbyists dependent on favors from Baldacci and Richardson.
In these developments, they also see the hand of an MCLF and Dirigo Alliance financer, the Massachusetts-based Proteus Fund. Recently, Proteus has dangled the promise of extra money in front of Maine’s liberal groups—perhaps millions of dollars over the next few years in an organization-strengthening operation it calls the "Blueprint Project." Some activists believe Proteus distrusted MCLF’s work because the Democratic Party did not control it. They note that D’Arcangelo is a paid consultant to Proteus.
MCLF’s longtime director, Arn Pearson, also has left the group. He lost his bid to keep the top job but had hoped to stay on in a policy role. But he wouldn’t work with D’Arcangelo, he says, because he sees her putting a Democratic spin on MCLF’s role. Under federal tax laws, the group officially must be nonpartisan—it cannot support a political party.
But a partisan spin now would seem hard to avoid. D’Arcangelo, a veteran lobbyist and Democratic Party warhorse, also has taken over the top job at the Dirigo Alliance in a consolidation of the two groups. Dirigo’s role is to support liberal candidates for state office—overwhelmingly, they have been Democrats. George Christie, Dirigo’s director for many years, quit last summer.
The three MCLF lobbyist-"organizers" who were dismissed outright—Kathleen McGee, Rob Brown, and Douglas Clopp—were part of a five-person staff under Pearson. The two not fired were the office manager and the public relations person. Clopp, said by friends to be afraid of being blackballed by liberal groups, was the only former employee who would not comment publicly on what happened to them.
The others relate how D’Arcangelo worked against MCLF’s tax reform efforts in the 2005 session. Her boss, Richardson, feared it would ruin the budget deal he put together for Baldacci, they say. This deal included state-program cuts and a hike in the tobacco tax. The Democrats, who had a narrow majority in both chambers, pushed it through in the session’s last hours.
D’Arcangelo denies being a Trojan horse for Richardson and Baldacci: "I am the one that took the initiative to apply for this job. I am the outcome, not the cause of this change." She adds: "Look at my history. It’s not compatible with a conservative Democratic philosophy."
In a 25-year career, only four and half years have been spent working for the Democrats, she says. She has been employed by such organizations as Planned Parenthood and the Maine Women’s Lobby.
Marjorie Phyfe, a member of the joint Dirigo Alliance-MCLF search committee that chose D’Arcangelo (she serves on both organizations’ boards), says the new director is "no Democratic Party hack."
The former MCLF employees see things through a different lens.
"It’s a coup," says Kathleen McGee, who headed up the group’s tax reform effort and is now looking for work from her Bowdoinham home. "We’re reeling."
She calls "heartbreaking" what she views as the Democratic establishment’s conquest of a nonpartisan group. A Democrat herself, she blames special-interest lobbyists willing to "cut their deals" with the governor at the expense of the greater good of comprehensive, progressive tax reform.
She describes a scene during the last session when, she says, D’Arcangelo attacked her for pushing tax reform.
"She said the speaker had the final say" on what gets passed, McGee recounts. "And she told me that no one respected me in the State House."
D’Arcangelo says she does not recall such a "conflict-ridden" scene.
But when informed of McGee’s description of this meeting, her fellow tax-reform organizer, Rob Brown, responds: "I can certainly attest to that being almost exactly as she described. She called immediately. She was so shaken up she was crying. Joanne D’Arcangelo got personal with her."
During the session, McGee may have personally alienated the governor and Democratic legislative leaders with her comments about Baldacci. "He’s not responding to the needs of the people of the state and the people know it," the Phoenix quoted her as saying. "He has no plan."
Brown, who has taken an organizing job with a grouping of Bangor-area labor unions, says MCLF wanted to hold politicians accountable for their actions regardless of party affiliation. But now, he says, with the group run by a partisan Democrat—"D’Arcangelo represents the party establishment"—he does not believe it will address tax reform "in any meaningful manner."
As the leader of a coalition of progressive organizations, MCLF worked for several years for a bottom-to-top rebuilding of Maine’s tottering tax system. In the session that ended in June, this work distilled into support for the legislative Taxation Committee’s plan to reduce income taxes while expanding the sales tax to service transactions. Many progressive activists see the expansion of the sales tax to services as the key to balancing the budget without continuing sizeable cuts to state programs. Repeated slashes to state services, however—including services to the poor, sick, mentally disabled, and the elderly—have been a big part of the Baldacci answer to the state’s enduring imbalance between revenues and expenditures, which is called the "structural gap" in State House jargon.
Baldacci took office promising not to raise "broad-based" taxes. Cautious about alienating business interests, he also has resisted any large shake-up of the state and municipal tax mix in order to fill the structural gap or to give major relief to people who pay property taxes. An assumption across much of the political spectrum is that Maine’s municipal property taxes are too high.
But if the governor and Legislature don’t provide tax reform, Rob Brown believes—and many other political observers agree—the public may turn to right-wing proposals such as the tax cap ballot question pushed by Republican activist Mary Adams. Even though Baldacci’s approaches to the state’s persistent fiscal crisis do not appear popular—he has had low poll numbers for almost a year—Democratic legislative leaders have not challenged him on tax issues.
Brown also sees partisan manipulation of the Clean Election Act as a possibility with D’Arcangelo acting both as the chief watchdog of the law, as MCLF director, and, as Dirigo Alliance director, as a prominent promoter of Democratic candidates. Her former close colleague, Democratic House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings of Portland, has filed a bill that would make it harder for independent candidates or small parties like the Green Independents to receive public campaign funds. D’Arcangelo’s critics wonder how she will react to it.
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Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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