When Roy Atkinson, a graduate student at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, heard that Angus King was running for the Senate, he got in his car and drove roughly 900 miles to Brunswick.
Atkinson, who described his trip to Maine as a “big leap of faith,” said that he had read about former two-time governor King in Politico and was drawn to the independents’ platform of resisting partisanship. The risk paid off, and Atkinson spent the summer working for the campaign and living with fellow interns at King’s home in Brunswick.
Atkinson is one of approximately 70 interns who flocked to Brunswick this summer to support King’s Senate campaign. College students and recent graduates came from as far as Virginia and as close as Albion, Maine to analyze election polls, conduct policy research and encourage Mainers to vote for King.
While King is something of an anomaly in U.S. politics—the magazine Maine Home Design described the former two-time governor as a “wide-eyed idealist with a lot of old-fashioned common sense”—his campaign interns and former students say that he is an inspiration to moderate voters, a passionately independent statesman committed to advancing bipartisanship in the Senate.
A Moderate Candidate
In early March, hundreds of Maine residents, reporters, students and professors gathered in Lancaster Lounge of Moulton Union to watch Angus King announce his independent candidacy for the Senate.
King offered his candidacy as an alternative to the partisan gridlock that dominates Congress and defines the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign.
“If you like the system as it is, I’m not your guy,” King told the Bangor Daily News. “If you want a shot at changing, join me.”
In an interview with the Orient, King explained that Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s decision not to run for re-election prompted him to consider possible solutions to the bitter partisan divide in Washington. Snowe cited frustration with partisan gridlock in Congress as one of her reasons for stepping aside.
King said that he has enormous respect for Snowe and that “if she can’t get anything done, my conclusion is we have to do it a different way.”
“If we’re going to do it a better way, I’m in a unique position to take this on, having been a two-term governor and an independent, and I can try to change this culture that is so…divisive and so bitter and so partisan,” said King.
Since entering the race, King has made nonpartisanship the focus of his campaign. On his campaign website, Angus2012.com, King declares, “I am not bound by the ideology of a party—I make decisions based on the facts, after talking with people who would be affected. Above all else, I make decisions according to what I think is right, after listening to both sides.”
Maine residents appear to support King’s independent stance. A poll released in early July by the Portland Press Herald showed King with a 28-point lead over his closest rival, Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a Republican. Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Dill came in third with seven percent.
Allison Beeman ’13, who interned at King’s headquarters in Brunswick this summer, noted King’s appeal for “passionate moderates or passionate independents who are looking for a different system regarding parties.”
Indeed, Atkinson, the intern from Michigan, said that his fellow campaign interns were “mostly middle-of-the-road independents” who admired King’s frankness about the political atmosphere in Congress.
“He’s a straight shooter. I heard a lot of people talk about that,” said Atkinson. “I think that’s the general consensus among a lot of the other interns.”
Despite the positive reception he received after announcing his candidacy, King’s campaign has not been without its troubles. In spite of his efforts to keep the campaign focused on the economy, energy prices, bipartisanship and the budget deficit, Super PACs—and recently the National Republican Senatorial Committee—have released a slew of negative advertisements accusing King of mismanaging the state’s money.
King attempted to forestall Super PAC spending this past June, asking his opponents to adopt a practice of donating to charity an equal amount to whatever Super PACs spent on their behalf. Dill’s campaign expressed interest in the pact, but Summers declined to enter into an agreement.
The television ads lambasting King began in July with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Mainers Know,” a $400,000 advertising campaign that accused King of increasing state spending by $2.6 billion and leaving Maine with a billion dollar deficit.
King and his supporters have responded to the ads by saying that increases in state spending reflect his efforts to take advantage of a strong economy in order to invest in infrastructure and business developments that have since benefited Maine.
The former governor also defended his financial strategies at a town hall meeting held in Portland this past Sunday. Federal debt commission co-chairman Erksine Bowles told the Portland audience that King had the ability to cut spending and close tax loopholes in order to reduce the national deficit, according to the Bangor Daily News.
Bowles, a Democrat and Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, said that as an Independent, King would “have more power than anyone else.”
“It’ll be close to 50-50 in terms of political control [in Congress], and all the guys in the middle—and he’ll be one of them—will have the power. I think this one guy can make a big, big difference,” Bowles said in the Bangor Daily News report.
In his interview with the Orient, King echoed Bowles, stating that “It’s entirely possible that the Senate could be virtually tied. In fact, the most recent national poll predicts 50-49-1 [in the Senate], and I’m the one, and depending on who the president is, I could have the vote that determines the Senate.”
Smear campaigns against King continue to make their way to Maine as election day nears. This past week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee entered the open Senate race with a television spot accusing King of using his political connections to get a taxpayer-backed loan for his windmill business, Independence Wind.
King sold his stake in Independence Wind to his partner, Rob Gardiner, last March, two days before a Congressional Inquiry cited the Independence Wind loan guarantee in a report focused on green energy projects.
King said that he is not so “naïve or arrogant” to think that he can go to Washington and end partisanship in Congress. However, he said that his experience as governor gives him a unique perspective on how to foster bipartisanship in the Senate.
Bipartisanship, King said, “starts with a willingness to compromise” and an effort “to try to find common ground.”
“I see myself as the beginning of a process of change, not change itself,” he said.
King’s former students say that they see the leadership lessons King taught in his Bowdoin class, Leaders and Leadership, reflected in his campaign.
Jordan Francke ’13, who took King’s course his last spring, wrote in an email to the Orient that King has a “wealth of knowledge about historically what has and has not worked for certain issues.”
“He is diligently reflective about his own actions, constantly critiquing himself on how his own leadership style is or is not effective and how it can be improved,” he wrote.
Francke got to see the campaign from a unique perspective; King announced his candidacy for the Senate while teaching Francke’s class.
“It was certainly a unique situation for the students for the second half of the term, where their professor was undertaking a major leadership challenge,” said King. “That made this [past] semester unlike any other I had taught.”
“It’s a remarkable experience to see a previous professor of yours running for the Senate,” said Francke, who added that his experiences in King’s class solidified his decision to vote for King this November.
Atkinson said that he doesn’t foresee too many problems with King’s campaign in the coming weeks.
“Honestly, I don’t see any weaknesses,” he said. “He’s a very clean and clear-cut person.”
Beeman, the Bowdoin student who interned with King this summer, agreed.
“It just feels like…we’re doing something a little bit different that will hopefully change things,” said Beeman.