Commentary

Spare me your tears, Mr. Eves

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Ask any average person what they hate most about their government, and you’ll get a variety of answers.  Typically they hate the dysfunction, the partisan backstabbing, the inability to get anything of any substance done, and a whole host of other issues.

But one charicteristic seems universally reviled by everyone: politicians using their office to enrich themselves, and get sweetheart jobs that they have no real qualifications for, just because of the power they hold and who they know.  I challenge you to find anyone, of any party, that doesn’t hate that.  I certainly do.

Yet, one of the most nakedly obvious and troubling examples of this all too common issue just occurred here in Maine, and no one in the media establishment seems to be all that interested in talking about it.

The Overtly Political Hiring That Started It All

On June 9th, House Speaker Mark Eves was hired as president of Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield. Good Will-Hinckley is a non-profit which maintains a number of programs on its campus, including The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, which is a secondary education charter school. The aim of the school is to work with students who have had difficulty in the traditional school system.

There are just a few problems with this. The first and perhaps most glaring problem is that after a supposed “nation wide search” that took nine months, Eves obtained a job that he is entirely unqualified for.

According to his own website, Eves is “a trained marriage and family therapist” and he has “helped coordinate health care outreach” for non-profits. For comparison’s sake, the interim president of Good Will-Hinckley, Richard Abramson, has 40 years of experience as a Maine teacher and public school superintendant. Anyone with any rational sense can see that Eves has no experience in education, no experience in running an organization like Good Will-Hinckley, and has no real standing to even be considered for the position.

About the closest he comes to a qualification for the job is his undergraduate degree in psychology from Louisville (where he is from), and his past work as a counselor for at-risk youth, which some have argued applies to being president of an organization that works with troubled children. But that’s slicing the hair pretty thin.  Eves would have been president, not a counselor.

Worse, though, is the fact that Eves has built his political career around strongly opposing the right of charter schools, such as Good Will-Hinckley, from even existing.  Throughout his time in the legislature, he has made opposing charters a hallmark of his legislative resume.  Eves has voted several times, including in 2009 and 2012, against important bills that would establish or grow charters in Maine, and was conspicuously absent from a vote in 2011 on the bill that would ultimately authorize charter schools in the state.  In addition, Eves ushered through and voted for a bill that the Lewiston Sun Journal editorial board called, “An Act to Kill all Future Charter Schools.”

Worse still is Eves activity as speaker, and hostility to charters like Good Will-Hinckley just this year.  Eves and his Democratic allies in the House, pushed through a diversion of $5.5 million out of a $67 million fund that is intended to pay for a number of initiatives, one of which is charter schools, and Good Will-Hinckley.  The $5.5 million went instead to what is known as General Purpose Aid for municipalities.  This became part, at Eves’ insistence, of the 9-4 majority budget that set off the budget war several weeks ago.

So as Mark Eves claims “blackmail” (I’ll get to that in a moment) that supposedly threatened the quality of education at the Good Will-Hinckley school due to a political vendetta, he had just recently attempted to raid a major source of funding that was earmarked to fund that same school, so that he could preserve general assistance for non-citizens.

All of which is to say, Eves is extremely hostile to organizations like Good Will-Hinckley, has actively fought against them, is using his legislative position to attempt to negatively influence funding delivered to schools like it, and he is entirely unqualified to be the organization’s president.  And yet, he was offered a job there.  Why?

Eves Has Friends In High Places

You certainly can’t depend on the Maine media to answer that question for you, or be at all critical of Eves.  But the answer is quite simple.  Political patronage.

Bill Brown, a member of the Good Will-Hinckley board, is currently serving as Special Assistant to the Speaker for Budget and Policy.  Erik Jorgensen, a Democrat from Portland, also serves on the board, and was appointed by Eves to the most powerful committee in the House, the Appropriations Committee, when he was just a freshman lawmaker.  Former Democratic Speaker Glenn Cummings previously served as president.  Is the picture becoming clearer now?

The school — or more accurately the board running the school — clearly wanted to repay political favors, provide a cushy landing place for a friend, and was likely excited by the doors to state funding that a well connected, two term former speaker could provide.  Their hire was an atrocious example of political cronyism, and this kind of absurd revolving door is something we universally dislike and find troubling in politicians.  But, not Mark Eves apparently.  When he is the beneficiary of his government position, we are all supposed to ignore it and just nod and smile.

Don’t be too surprised though.  This is the same Mark Eves who used his perch as speaker to advocate for policy changes that would have made millions of dollars for the organization he worked for.

The Media Circus Begins

But, that isn’t what we’ve been hearing out of the media.

First, when Eves landed the job, we did not get a long form journalism piece examining how the revolving door of governance in Augusta produces sweetheart gigs for well connected, powerful pols, and leads to millions of inappropriately spent taxpayer dollars.

No, we got a soft journalism article announcing the hiring as though it were a press release, interrupted only with discussion of a letter sent to Good Will-Hinkley by Governor LePage, registering his objection to the hire.  Apparently, cronyism isn’t worthy of coverage and investigation, but a representative of the people having an issue with it and saying so certainly is.

And that is where the media manipulation began.

It began with a report by Chris Cousins of the Bangor Daily News, which claimed that Good Will-Hinckley was terrified of the loss of state funding, because they hired Speaker Mark Eves.  Said Cousins:

Sources close to the Good Will-Hinckley board, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of political reprisals, told the BDN the possible funding cut stems from the school’s plan to hire Democratic Speaker of the House Mark Eves of North Berwick as its president.

I will remind you of the membership of the Good Will-Hinckley board of directors, which count among them a staff member for Eves and a legislator who Eves gave a powerful position to.

In a follow up story on the subject, Cousins again cited what is almost certainly the same anonymous source:

“Sources close to the school’s board told the BDN the possible funding cut stemmed from the school’s decision to hire Eves as president.”

Curious.  Would anyone want to wager a guess whether or not the source for this planted information in the media — information that is not backed up by any hard evidence to this point, I might add — might just be one of Eves’ close associates?  Does anyone think that wasn’t the source for the story?

It is perfect, and a textbook case of using the media for Machiavellian politics.

Mark Eves is angry at the governor for attempting to interfere in his political cronyism, and wants to retaliate, but is hesitant to do so himself.  If he did, he would look as petty and political as he is.  Instead, Brown or Jorgensen (or both) begin talking to reporters, using words like “blackmail”, and suggesting a political figure already disliked and distrusted by the media (LePage) attempted to use his authority to mess with the livelihood of a poor, innocent public servant who is just trying to feed his family.

The Meaning Of Discretion

One thing is clear.  In response to Eves appointment to Good Will-Hinckley, Governor LePage did threaten to withhold money from the school.  From the Cousins piece:

The $1.06 million in question is contained in a pool of educational funding in the General Fund called “Miscellaneous Costs,” over which the administration of Gov. Paul LePage has discretion through the Department of Education.

The key word here is discretion, and it seems that everyone needs a lesson in what that word means.  Merriam-Webster defines it as, “the right to choose what should be done in a particular situation.”  In other words, the use of the money is up to the the person who can exercise that discretion, which in this case is the governor.

Perhaps you may feel like LePage should not have used his discretionary funding ability to hold back money from the school.  A reasonable case for such could be made, I suppose, and I can say that were I the sitting governor, I probably would not have taken that particular action.

But, on the other hand, imagine you were a major donor to your alma mater, and that university hired an unqualified candidate based on his political connections with friends on the board of directors.  Would you continue to be a major donor to such a university?  I can tell you I certainly would not.

Given that wildly inappropriate behavior, a culture of sweetheart deals and political payoffs, and political cronyism, it is hardly surprising or at all nefarious that the governor would withhold funds.

But the Democrats and their allies in the media sensed an easy, emotional case to be made, and are going for the throat.

The Loss Of Collective Sanity

First, the leftist echo chamber proceeded to rabidly foam at the mouth with opportunity.  Eves’ allies fed words like “blackmail” to the press, realizing that headlines matter more than details, and the lack of any kind of real information was meaningless.  Eves himself, one of the more media savvy politicians in Maine, sprung into action and started using similar buzzwords, like “political vendetta”, which he knew would be irresistible.

Then he played the poor, targeted, helpless family man who just wanted a job, and the governor was coming after him out of pure spite.  Funny how Eves kept using that same word, “blackmail” — it is almost as though it is a talking point constructed by a clever communications staffer, disseminated to a group of Democrats in order to construct a story.  But I shouldn’t be that cynical, right?

Then you had some Democratic lawmakers begin a push for impeachment.  Nevermind that this entire story is based on rumor, second hand accounts, and anonymous sourcing of partisan employees and allies of Mark Eves.  No, what is important is that Democrats very much despise LePage, and this is their chance to feel self-rightous and go headhunting.

Then came the opinion columns from Democratic partisans, each one more bombastic and absurdly over the top.  Amy Fried did her best to caricature this entire episode as a modern day version of Richard Nixon, going after his enemies list. Adam Lee took the difficult task of writing the “poor Mark” column, portraying him as just some regular Joe who is being economically ruined because of the evil LePage monster.  David Farmer penned a ridiculous column, suggesting fines and jail time for the governor.

And then came the newspaper editorials, which have been just waiting for a moment like this, and decided that they didn’t need to actually wait and learn more and investigate to find out facts before judging the situation.  No, they knew all they needed to know based on characterizations from anonymous sources and the one-sided, completely partisan account of Mark Eves.  So spring into action they did.

The Bangor Daily News used the word “dangerous” twice in the opening paragraph, before outright claiming that LePage’s actions were “an abuse of power to settle a personal score that violates state statute, common law and the principles of human decency.”  My, a tad dramatic, wouldn’t you say?  Hey, wait a minute, just where did the notion that this action was to “settle a political score?” Every single public statement made by LePage since this started cited the lack of qualifications of Eves as well as the fundamental opposition Eves had to the very type of institution he would lead.

Oh, right.  Eves told the newspapers it was political retribution and blackmail.  So it must have been.  Couldn’t have had anything to do with inappropriate political hirings, lack of qualifications, or a culture of revolving door political favors.  Yes, it must have been that mean, angry Paul LePage looking to “settle a score.”  Why waste time with facts when you can just assume and make it up, right?

The Press Herald was even more overt in their characterization of the situation as “punishing a political opponent”, again with absolutely no evidence to support such a claim.  The liberal paper didn’t stop there, though.  No, according to the Press Herald, the Legislature must now “begin an investigation” into the governor’s actions.  Again, based on innuendo, anonymous sourcing, and biased, one sided assumptions.  Heaven forbid they call for an investigation into how Eves got the job in the first place, his well connected friends and political favors being paid off, or anything of that nature.  No, you can always count on a paper to take the low hanging fruit.

But beyond a simple investigation, the Press Herald and its family of papers suggest that LePage has crossed the line by objecting to political cronyism and making discretionary use of discretionary funds based on that objection, and must be impeached.  “…If no new facts emerge that put his conduct in a positive light, he should be impeached and tried in the state Senate.”

All because a staff member and/or ally of Mark Eves successfully and anonymously planted a story in the media.

What It All Means

This problem highlights a broader problem in Maine politics today.  Namely, the ease with which clever political operatives can manipulate discussion and coverage to score political points, and the protective shadow they are allowed to occupy as they do it.

Governor LePage has made himself an easy villain over the years, and so an uncritical and uncurious press instinctually believes the spin of his critics, prints it as fact, and then generates editorial opinion to support it, creating a new, but ultimately distorted truth.

Nothing more clearly illustrated that for me than this year’s budget process.  While the press obsessed over how much, or how little, the governor talked to this legislative leader or that one, millions of dollars of horsetrading were happening around them, hours upon hours of secret meetings were hammering out cowardly and horrendous “deals” that were shoved down the throats of lawmakers of both parties, and the machinery of government was operating behind the scenes without anyone really knowing what was happening.

Instead, we were treated to speculations about how much of a lame duck the governor was or was not.  Instead we got stale reporting about deals that were long dead while new deals had already been agreed to.  Instead we see printed every single complaint about the governor by members of both parties, while the truly outrageous, undemocratic and ultimately poisonous actions were taking place in the Legislative branch.

But back to this situation for a moment.  Do I feel particularly inspired to defend the governor and his actions in this case?  Not really.  I wouldn’t have done what he did, and I believe however warranted his aggression and anger with Eves for personally benefitting from holding a position of political power, he and Maine would have been better served to simply attack him rhetorically for his rank hypocrisy and engaging in patronage.  Whether or not LePage should have done what he did — which I will remind you is still more or less unknown, given the dearth of actual reporting on this situation — is almost irrelevant here.

What is relevant is that we clearly have a corrupt, broken political culture, a media unprepared and unwilling to confront it, and a nest of lawmakers of all parties who are more interested in grandstanding and personal aggrandizement than they are making good law and positively reforming the state of Maine.  Most depressingly of all, we seem entirely incapable of fixing that simple truth.

 

 

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Prior to his tenure at MHPC, Matt spent eight years working in national politics in Washington, D.C., most recently as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association. A Hampden native, Matt is a nationally recognized political strategist and communicator.

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