DAVID BRANCACCIO: All politicians are not alike. If you look hard enough you can find one who doesn't wind up his term with the usual bid for higher office or with a spin through the revolving door into the land of lobbying.
In January, Angus King finished his eight years as governor of the state of Maine. Politically King is neither fish nor fowl, one of those party-defying independents whom Mainers send to their state house once in a while.
King took his iconoclasm with him as he left office…
purchasing this 40 foot Newmar Dutch Star with galley kitchen, bunks, satellite TV and shower.
King and his wife Mary Herman, who is an educator, decided to homeschool thier children Molly and Ben -- if that's what you call taking classes along a 15,000 mile loop around the country. The sights and sounds of America provided the curriculum. The family logged the progress of their five and a half month, 34-state journey online.
King had agreed to call into my old public radio show, MARKETPLACE, every couple of weeks.
It was more than just a long family vacation. It was a chance for King to connect with the rest of the country and to assemble his thoughts after a decade of flat-out politics and governing.
ANGUS KING FROM THE ROAD:
I was along the Northern California coast and it just was so reminiscent of Maine where you had forcetory and fishing, they both were in decline and there wasn't much to replace them.
And it was just heart-breaking an I just wonder where that leads us.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: The R.V. made it back to Maine safely with just three little scratches to show for the epic journey. His family wasn't much worse for wear, either.
Angus King is now teaching a class on leadership at Bowdoin College and has just joined a Maine law firm. But I was curious how he put it all together following his voyage, about any added wisdom he acquired from the trip, and how Angus King, independent, views what's happening in politics today.
Good to see you back in one piece, Governor.
David, glad to be here.
You know, there's a West African proverb that says, "One must come out of one's house to begin learning." You really got out of the house and got on the road.
And we were way out on the road.
Did it tie in at all-- to politics? I mean in a sense, it-- looks a bit like a primary campaign. Not that you're running for anything. But this is-- you're meeting folks, different parts of the country, trying to figure out what concerns-- not just your family, but people around you.
Well, it didn't-- I mean there's no direct tie-in, because I'm-- through with-- elective office. I said that when I ran for governor of Maine-- nine years ago, that I was gonna-- be governor and then go home. And that's-- what I've done.
But I'm inveterately curious. I can't stop asking questions and trying to find out what's going on, and what's-- what the issues are, and how things are working. And-- I'll tell 'ya one thing that helped-- was that I came to realize that Maine isn't the only place that has, for example, fiscal problems of their state budget.
We had places out West that there really in many ways, in worse shape. And that's a good thing to realize that-- you're not the only-- you're not the only guy looking up for a-- from the bottom.
But it's a bad thing, in general. I mean the states really are under a lot of pressure right now.
They're in the worst shape they've been in since The Great Depression. They've suffered a kind of triple whammy. And I don't think people really realize how serious it was.
And it happened very fast. Combination of declining resources, declining revenues, because most states have an income tax and a sales tax. That's their source of revenues. When the stock market went down, people stopped selling their businesses, revenues just dropped dead.
I mean I'll never forget riding from Bangor to Augusta, getting a phone call saying they just told us that we're gonna be $90 million short this year, you know, totally unexpectedly in the end of April of 2000.
Now in the context of Maine that is a lot of money.
That's a lot of money. That's a big hunk of our budget. So revenues went down. Then the federal government in the tax cuts that have been passed in the last three or four years, had the effect of cutting revenues further. Because most states' income tax systems are based on the federal income tax.
So if you cut federal income taxes, it cuts the state income tax. So there's another I think I remember that the first-- the first round of tax cuts cost the states something like $14 billion collectively.
And then finally, September 11th came, and a lot of new-- burdens were put on the states and the localities-- with not a heck of a lot of additional money to deal with it. I, you know, the old saying is, "Our military establishment is the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. Now it's the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, and the Waterville PD.
The Waterville, Maine PD, my home town.
Absolutely. I just chose that in random. But the point is a lot of responsibilities are-- having to be taken in the communities. And frankly, the federal government hasn't stepped up.
There's been a lot of talk about homeland security. But the reality is a lot of the day to day homeland security takes place with the police department, the emergency response people. I mean we had to do all these Anthrax tests and all that kinda thing.
And there has been some funding from Washington, but really, not-- it hasn't recognized the fact that national defense is now a domestic issue as well as an international one. It ain't all at the Pentagon.
Too bad you can't print money, like the federal government does.
If we could, we'd be up to our-- eyeballs in Maine is Moose Bucks or something. I mean it's probably a good thing. But right now, the federal government's printing it pretty fast. And I'm pretty worried about that.
But that's the classic thing that you see in politics. People wanna get reelected, so they make promises, and they hope someone else can figure out where the money comes from.
Well, I see that. And I saw it in the last few years I was in office. And I saw it around the country as something of an epidemic.
People have never liked taxes. I mean let's be serious. But what's happening-- as I observe, is a rising sense of entitlement. Everybody wants the government to take care of whatever ails 'em.
And people expect the goodies, the roads paved, the schools, the Medicare drug benefit, but at the same time, they vote for tax caps. And I never have been able to figure that one out.
A perfect example hit me when I was still governor. I used to tour Maine on a Harley. I like to ride motorcycles. You get a good feel for the road.
Do the state troopers let you go out on a motorcycle?
Yeah. They weren't crazy about it, believe me. And they'd follow behind, you know, in the car. Was sort of like having training wheels with these guys behind me.
But we'd go around and hit a lot of the rural areas. And I once pulled into a little general store up in northern Maine. Put gas in the motorcycle. Walked across the parking lot to pay for it. And the lady's behind the counter. And she sees me comin'. She knows who I am.
She's got her hands-- on both sides of the cash register. And I walk through the door. The first words out of her mouth were, "Ha! The tax man." Well, I can deal with that. I paid for my gas and everything. But the punch line is, I'm on the way out, and she says, "Where you going from here?" I said, "Well, I'm headed south, down the road." She says, "Good. I hope you have a bumpy ride. Maybe you'll fix the road!"
So she didn't wanna pay the taxes, but she wanted the road fixed. And nationally, that seems to be where we are.
And I don't wanna sound preachy. But, you know, people-- there ain't no free lunch.
But some things that people are asking for in your state and around the country aren't frills.
I don't mean to imply that these thing-- aren't things that people have a right to ask for. I think they do, and I think, to some extent, government has an obligation to deliver them.
All I'm saying is there's gotta be two sides of the equation. You can't have it both ways.
Perfect example is, in the last several weeks, we've seen the big debate in Washington about a Medicare drug benefit that's gonna cost $400 billion. Nobody's talking about how it's gonna be paid for. We're already in the deficit.
Nobody wants to tell people they can't have what they want. Nobody wants to tell people they have to pay for it. What happens? What something's gotta give.
What happens is the states are now searching for gimmicky ways to get money. Casinos.
You're not a big fan of casinos.
I hate 'em. For a lot of reasons. I think they're you know, I think they're a tax on the poor all of those kinds of things. And we saw it- it's a cancer. No state has ever stopped with one.
You go to places like Montana, you think of Montana, beautiful, incredible state, outdoors. Every general store's a casino. We went to a pizza parlor in in Missoula. There are 12 Keno machines out back. This is you know, a family restaurant.
But what's the beef? Are you're a Puritan or something?
No, it's-- I think it's part of it is that it does take advantage of people. I mean you go into these places, you don't see lawyers and doctors in there. You see people who are unemployed. You see people that really can't afford it.
And you say, "Well, it's voluntary." Gambling is addictive.
I don't think it-- I'm a conservative in a sort of classical sense. And for-- almost all of human history, most societies have controlled or proscribed gambling. Why? Because it's dangerous.
Drugs are dangerous. We don't allow them. And I don't think it's being Puritanical, I think it's just looking at the effects.
But what really bothers me is when the state becomes a partner. And that's really what we're talking about is, you know, all these proposals say, "Well, the state's gonna get-- the one in Maine, state'll get 100 million a year." We then have a stake in our own people gambling.
And I think if politicians wanna say that, you know, prescription drugs for the elderly is important, or good roads are important, or more aid to schools, they ought to look the public in the eye and say, "By the way, we gotta pay for it."
Not get 'em drunk in the middle of the night and pick their pocket. That's what gambling's all about.
But you see it all over the country. And it's only gonna get worse until, I predict, it's in some period-- and I don't know whether it'll be two years, five years there's gonna be a public-- revolt against it because of what people are gonna see.
The problem is, by then, these folks are gonna be so entrenched, and there's so much money involved, that it's gonna be very hard to unwind it.
So I have an Independent sitting in front of me, so I wanna ask you about this.
About partisanship in contemporary American politics. It's getting pretty nasty out there. Bipartisanship is for losers, it seems.
When they draw up Congressional districts now, they do it ruthlessly. So what you get are state legislatures and, to some extent, Congress filled with people who will play by their own party's rules and no one else's.
It's not in the public interest. I mean and I'm not saying that because I'm an Independent. I mean-- it just doesn't serve the public interest.
There is so much-- energy and effort put into gaining the advantage, who's up and who's down, and not that much thought about how that translates into public policy or will make a difference in people's lives.
That-- the stuff of-- well, the California recall. However you feel about Governor Davis, he had just been reelected less than a year before. You know-- California's-- you know, gonna turn into Italy. I mean how many governments are you gonna have in a limited period of time. It's mischievous.
Same thing with the Texas-- redistricting. There's a tradition, an unwritten tradition, that you redistrict once after a decennial census, and then you move on. They came back and took a second bite out of it.
And I guess the party in power has the right to do that. But it's-- I think they're opening Pandora's Box.
Another good example is the problems that President Bush is having getting his judicial nominees-- confirmed. Talk to Bill Clinton about that. I mean I don't know how many hundred federal judges Bill Clinton couldn't get through because the Republicans in the Senate wouldn't let 'em through. I mean-- you-- the-- what goes around tends to come around in politics.
God, you really are an Independent. What is in the water up there in Maine?
Well, this goes back I think it goes back a couple a hundred years. My political philosophy, if you had to put it on a bumper sticker, is, "I call 'em as I see 'em."
And I actually had one period, David, it was divine. It was wonderful. One period of six weeks where I had both parties demonstrating outside my office-- on different issues. And--
They both couldn't stand you for various reasons.
ANGUS KING: They both hated me.
"Hey-- you know, I'm doing something right here." But-- and I don't wanna be-- I'm not a basher of the parties. I think they perform a very important function.
But when the parties become-- sort of an end in itself. When it's all about who gets the job, I don't think that serves the public well.
Do you worry, though, that it's just a reflection of America? I mean you look at the polls, this is a pretty split-down-the-middle country.
Yeah, but I don't think the country is I disagree. The country is split, but it's a soft split, in the sense that it's these the country is not divided into sharp partisan divisions.
Yes, there's 15 percent on each side that are really partisan and can't stand each other, and have ideologies, and are fighting for, you know, truth, justice, the American way. The vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle.
In Maine, you know, 30 percent are Republicans, 30 percent are Democrats, 40 percent are un-enrolled in either party. And in fact, if you study elections, they tend to-- go back and forth.
And, I think a lot of the public just sits back and sort of scratches their head and say, "What are these guys fighting about? I just want the road fixed."
You know, what is all this redistricting stuff, and-- drawing a district that's ten miles wide and 200 miles long?
Now I can't imagine a politician goes very far in your state without being able to render a classic Maine joke. You got any?
Oh, gee. Most of 'em are pretty long, and I won't bore you. But--
It's not film, it's videotape.
I got one.
When my oldest son was born in Skowhegan, Maine and- I wasn't born in Maine myself. My son was born in Skowhegan, Maine 30 years ago.
I ran out onto the main street. I was so excited. I ran into an old farmer I knew, and I said, "Mr. Forbis, guess what? I just had a son born in the Skowhegan Hospital. He's a native of Maine."
And the old man put his pulled his glasses down on his nose, and he said, "Well by garry, just 'cuz the cat has her kittens in the oven don't make 'em biscuits." So I learned that day you can't be a native of Maine even if you're born there!
But you became governor. Thank you very much.
David, a real pleasure.