Interview With Barbara Merrill
May 23rd, 2006 Category: Maine, Maine Governor Race, Maine Politics
Independent candidate for governor and State Representative Barbara Merrill stopped by Maine Web Report this weekend to chat with us about her plans for Maine, and to answer a few questions. Merrill left the Democratic Party last year, a move that positioned her as a controversial figure in Maine politics, and gave great credence to her reputation as a principal-oriented public figure. Ms. Merrill published a book last year titled Setting the Maine Course: We Can Get There from Here, in which she lays out some bold plans to advance the causes of fiscal conservatism, education reform, and environmental stewardship. She and her husband Phil are both attorneys, and live just over the ridge in Appleton with their two children.
MWR: Thanks for stopping by our corner of the blogosphere, Representative Merrill. Is this your first blog interview?
BM:It is my first blog interview! I am very appreciative for the opportunity, thank you.
MWR: As I understand it, your campaign has collected the requisite amount of signatures to get on the ballot for governor, and you are still in the process of raising the 2500 $5 donations necessary to qualify for the Clean Election Fund. Can you fill us in further on the status of your campaign?
BM: You are correct. We have collected over 5000 petition signatures, twice the number party candidates are required to collect to be on the ballot. Now we are in our last week trying to qualify for clean election funds. We are still a couple of hundred short but feeling very optimistic. This will be the first time an independent candidate will qualify and it is a real challenge to do early in a campaign without a "built in" party organization. But what is exciting is that Maine will be the first state where a candidate that is both independent of political party and of special interest financing will be able to be elected governor. To some this might seem like insider baseball, but not having these obligations will make it much easier to make the hard decisions to get state spending under control and that is something that should be important to every voter.
MWR: My first experience with you was a sit-down discussion in my kitchen prior to your election to the Maine House. Your book states that you had around 3,000 similar discussions with potential constituents during that campaign. Transparency and access to public officials is, in my opinion, one of the most important pillars of our society, but sadly lacking in Augusta right now. Will your experience during that door-to-door campaigning affect the way a Merrill Administration would deal with the people of Maine?
BM: I cannot exaggerate how important that process was to me. I set out to run for the legislature because I was deeply concerned with the partisanship and the refusal of politicians in Augusta to take responsibility for the budget. Then I went door to door and all my initial concerns were confirmed. I learned that Maine people are watching, they understand and that they are worried about their state. I don't know if I would have had the strength to stand up to the pressure and vote against the budget and a lot of these other bad ideas if I hadn't been sure that I was reflecting the views of the people back home.
It's why I argue we need a more humble state government, one that doesn't try to inject itself in every aspect of our lives. Its why I think listening is the 2nd most important thing an elected official must do. It comes right after thinking and well before talking. In fact I was really flattered the other day when a supporter said to me, "If you're looking for a good talker for Governor there are several choices. If you're looking for a good listener then you've got to support Barbara Merrill."
MWR: Elections seem to always bring out ambitious plans for the future, but seldom are the mechanics of the state government addressed. I've worked for companies that had no shortage of great ideas, but since the management of the organization was so inept, those ideas fell flat over and over again. Do you think the current bureaucracy in Augusta is conducive to the effective implementation of new ideas, and, if not, what type of changes would you propose to make it an effective means to advance the various initiatives you are campaigning on?
BM: Boy - these blog interviews get right into it pretty fast. I outlined a lot of my thinking on this in my book, Setting the Maine Course- We Can Get There From Here, that you referenced at the outset. All bureaucracies tend to be change resistant. Government bureaucracies have been isolated somewhat from their political masters and that makes them even more resistant to change. Sometimes that is actually a benefit to the public. For example many a secret backroom deal that has been worked out by the politicians to the detriment of the public has been exposed by members of the bureaucracy.
However we need change in Maine and that will require several different approaches. First I want to include state employees in a lot of the change right from the beginning. For example my plan to cut regulations by half envisions bureaucrats sitting with the representatives of regulated industries and legislators in working groups that will be called upon to justify the need for every regulation. Another strategy is to selectively call on private contractors to take on specific tasks which require flexibility and innovation. In the end though it is going to require the involvement of a lot of members of the public.
If I may be permitted to quote from my own book, We'll need that kind of muleheadedness inside government, but to make it stick, it will require the same from involved citizens on the outside. This is the perverse nature of the Gordian Knot which has disabled Maine government. It cannot be untied from the outside. It cannot be untied from the inside. It can only be cut by a sword with a sharp edge honed with the insiders skills and swung by the mighty arm of an involved public. To cut the knot that is holding Maine back, it will not be enough that we elect tenacious leaders, we will also need aroused citizens who are equally pertinaciousness. Or as we say in Maine, equally cussed.
MWR: Technology is rapidly changing the way people communicate, and we've seen the impact of new forms of media on the last several national elections. One of the most powerful messages of this new era of technology is that the big guy is no longer ensured a louder voice over the little guy, and the benefit is that more people can judge the content of a message for its worth, rather than the packaging that expensive media puts it in. Maine's lack of population and relatively modest economic status puts it in the category of the little guy', and the bellow from the Baldacci Administration seems to be woe is us'. In your book, you take exception to the defeatist attitude this administration has shown in regards to education. Along these same lines, are there ways that a Merrill Administration would embrace new media to propagate a more positive Maine identity to the rest of the world?
BM: I agree with the premise of the question. In the next decade I believe it will be clear to everyone that the new media has supplanted TV. I also agree that this offers huge opportunities to a small state like Maine which is dependent for the most part on small businesses. Honestly, I do not have the road map of how we will use this new opportunity, but I can tell you how I will go about developing one. I will bring together the most aggressive entrepreneurs in the state from all endeavors from farming to software development, and I will put them together with the best new media folks we can find and charge this team to challenge every current hypothesis about how we market this state.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. If we are agile we can move this state way ahead, if we approach it as we currently do we'll be left further behind. I would be really interested if bloggers could join in on this to share their views.
MWR: State government seems severely lacking in its ability to say we were wrong'. In human interaction, the ability to admit error is sometimes one of the most endearing of traits, and often goes a long way to instill trust. I think the political climate right now in Maine is distrustful of this administration, and they have due reason. How would a Merrill Administration change that, and is there room in a state government for more productive and active citizen participation?
BM: In my book I put it this way. We can fulfill Maine's potential if we have a vision and pursue it with candor, humility, involvement and tenacity. Not an easy course, but what choice do we have? We can not be passive, content to merely complain as our state wallows in troubled waters. The people are distrustful of government because the current government doesn't trust them and it shows. Meanwhile a government that cannot keep track of its own money is constantly trying to increase its grasp. I cannot promise that we will accomplish all the changes we need, but I am sure we will not accomplish anything of importance unless we encourage and enable hundreds of our citizens to roll up their sleeves and help give Maine the government it deserves.
MWR: Particularly on the coast, tourism is a major issue in Maine. We have spent nearly $10 million over the last three years promoting tourism, and have seen no growth at all during that period. While state officials have blamed it on everything from 9/11 to gas prices to substandard offerings by Maine businesses, it seems apparent that Maine needs a significant paradigm shift when it comes to marketing tourism. How would a Merrill Administration address this issue?
BM: The importance of tourism to this state is hard to over state. It's secondary benefits of attracting people to move to this state is a major key to our future. Some of the answer to your question is tied up in the new media question above, but I agree with you that we need to step back and ask two questions. How can we make our current tourism attractions produce more income per tourist? How can we attract tourists to underutilized locations or season? We need to look way beyond the usual suspects to fully answer those questions.
MWR: Alright, time for the issues drill' Can you give us the 30 second overview of your positions on the following issues?
Education- BM:Every person who brings a child in this world must be prepared to assume the responsibility of being a full partner in the education of that child. Our government must understand how important the parent's role is and help parents where they need it, and adopt policies to keep schools close to the parent's watchful eye, in their community.
Economic Development -BM: I want Maine to be the free enterprise state where the state does not try to pick the winners and the losers, but is dedicated to a friendly and supportive environment for all. That is why I favor getting rid of Pine Tree Zones and working toward ending corporate taxes for all Maine employers. For decades we have been chasing the IBMs while paying no attention to the next Bill Gates.
Environment - BM:The environment, education and local communities are the three strongest attractions to the people we need in Maine to develop tomorrow's jobs. When government is urged to allow pollution of our air or water in order to keep jobs, the choice is often between our past and our future employment opportunities.
Casinos- BM: I have not been a supporter, but I did vote to allow the folks in Washington County to have the opportunity of a statewide vote for the proposed racino. It seems to me that it will attract Canadians and others to Washington County. That county needs an opportunity to become as successful a tourist destination as the rest of the Maine Coast.
Dirigo Health- BM:In the long run I think what Massachusetts is doing is closer to where we need to end up as opposed to Dirigo. That state has just passed legislation, forged between Republicans and Democrats, that brings down the cost of health insurance premiums, and requires everyone to have insurance or prove their ability to pay for health costs. We need to watch it carefully to see if it delivers its promise, but it has become clear to me that we need to lower the cost of health insurance for all, and that requires being willing to try new approaches.
Term Limits- BM:I think we need to provide for longer terms, not as a reward to the people currently in office, but so we can have some more experience in leadership roles. I think lack of experience also makes it easier for the party leaders to sway members to never act independently. Angus King has written that originally he supported term limits, but after burning through 4 Speakers of the House he changed his views. Term limits are fairly popular with voters, but I hope to help people understand that it serves no one to have an inexperienced Legislature be in charge of billions of dollars.
MWR:Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us, Representative Merrill .
In keeping with her door-to-door campaign philosophy, Representative Merrill has agreed to stay tuned to the comments section to answer follow-up questions from Maine Web Report readers. For more information on her campaign, and to learn how to get involved, please visit her website at BarbaraMerrill.com .