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July 20-27, 2000

[Features]


Tough Rowe to hoe

The race for attorney general finds the incumbent, Andrew Ketterer, a bit flatfooted

by Lance Tapley

Ketterer A good case can be made that Attorney General Andrew Ketterer, a liberal Democrat, is the second most powerful man in Maine government next to the governor. Another good case can be made that this three-term incumbent is, without much public notice, about to lose his powerful job to a challenger, outgoing House Speaker G. Steven Rowe of Portland, another liberal Democrat.

Rowe is being forced from his speakership after only two years by term limits on his legislative service -- and he has to go somewhere. Governmental issues are very secondary in this race. It is more of a personality contest. Still, because the attorney general is so powerful, it is an important contest for the state.

Important, maybe, but it quietly takes place out of the bright TV lights of the typical campaign for high office because you, dear Maine voter, do not get to choose who serves the two-year term as attorney general. Maine is the only state that lets its 186-member legislature do the picking, a quaint artifact of the early-nineteenth-century political process.

Practically speaking, the majority party makes the choice. Very practically speaking, since few political observers expect the Democrats to lose their majority in the November election, this means the successful AG candidate only must convince the majority of the Democratic Party legislative caucus to support him, although having a few Republicans on his side wouldn't hurt.

The caucus vote will be held in late November, and the official election takes place when the new legislature is seated in December. The Republicans will probably put up a candidate, but if the Democrats have a solid majority their nominee will just be a sacrificial lamb.

Let's get even more practical. A number of Democrats among those likely to be re-elected have problems with Ketterer. They feel he has not been as solicitous of them as he should have been. And a number of Republicans even tried to impeach him earlier this year. But if Ketterer were a combination of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, he would have a hard time getting re-elected against popular Speaker Rowe. The political logic involved is another example of the remorseless effect of term limits on Maine politics.

Before becoming attorney general, Drew Ketterer, 51, energetic and sharp, was himself a legislator from the small mill town of Madison in Somerset County, where he was in private legal practice for many years and where he still lives. Rowe But in the term-limits universe his last session in 1994 was long ago and far away. Most of the legislators he served with -- in other words, bonded with -- have been term-limited out of legislative existence or have otherwise departed.

The current legislators re-elected Ketterer at the beginning of their term, but they are much closer personally to Steve Rowe, 47, the quiet, civil, deliberate UnumProvident attorney whom they elected as their leader and with whom they have spent many a long evening wrestling with the slippery legislative snake. Generally, they like Rowe a lot. Even many Republicans like Rowe.

"I think he's got the votes to do it," said flatly a member of Democratic legislative leadership about Rowe's chances. "A lot of people have encouraged him. He's very well liked and respected. He's honest and hard working. Drew has made some mistakes, which is normal after six years. And Steve's people skills are better than Drew's. That's important in the AG job. Plus, Drew has had some staff problems."

That legislator wished to remain unidentified, but Rep. Thomas Bull, a Democrat from South Freeport, was out front with why he's not supporting Ketterer: "There has been frustration with him at times. For example, in the budget process. It's kind of difficult to get full information from him. There's a heavy feeling that he's alienated some members of the legislature."

Bull has had considerable contact with Ketterer because he serves on the Judiciary Committee. Referring to the Republican attempt earlier this year to investigate and remove Ketterer, which the Democrats beat back, he noted: "Some of the Democrats didn't support the investigation, but they felt there are problems within the office of the attorney general, and we need someone less controversial." Rowe, he said, played a "great leadership role as speaker."

Besides, he observed, "Drew just doesn't have the personal contacts he used to" among the legislators. "There's been quite a bit of turnover since he was there."

Among eight Democratic legislators contacted at random, all of whom are very likely to return in the next session, Rowe's strength was highly apparent. Rep. Charles Mitchell of Vassalboro said he was supporting Rowe because "he's worked with him more" and "he is very, very fair. That's the ideal character trait for attorney general. He has great integrity and the respect of both parties."

Another legislator, who preferred to remain unnamed, told of recently discovering in the newspapers Ketterer's position on an issue that she had queried him about months ago. "No member of his staff even called me. I shouldn't have to read this in the newspaper," she said.

She made an analogy between the "constituent work" she has to do to serve the people who elected her and the work she felt Ketterer could have done better among the legislators. "There are times when his staff has not responded as directly and immediately as members of the caucus would have preferred," she said.

She also was disturbed by a sexual harassment charge -- which became part of the ammunition the Republicans fired at Ketterer -- brought in 1999 by a female member of his office, Paula Baker, against David Lauren, Ketterer's closest aide. Although state and federal civil rights agencies and eventually a federal court threw out the charges, she felt the situation was "a bit unseemly" so close to an attorney general. There have been "a couple of other instances" of "loose management style" in his tenure, she felt.

Some Democratic legislators, while not discussing their choice publicly -- they would say on the record such platitudes as "they're both excellent candidates" or "they're both good lawyers" -- would nevertheless discuss the politics of the race.

"It'll be an uphill battle for Drew," said Rep. Scott Cowger of Hallowell. Rep. Patrick Colwell of Gardiner, who is running for majority leader, gave Rowe "a slight inside track now."

No one contacted said he or she would support the incumbent, but Rep. Elaine Fuller of Manchester came closest. "I see no reason to be dissatisfied with Drew Ketterer. . . . Drew hasn't done anything wrong."

Legislative Republicans don't agree. The ill will between him and them seems to have arisen from, first, the very smell of a top Democrat's political blood in the Lauren affair and, second, Ketterer's defense of an assistant attorney general, Jeff Pidot, who in February criticized a former Second District Republican congressional candidate, Jonathan Reisman, for using "violent" language in a widely distributed e-mail.

Reisman, a University of Maine at Machias professor notorious for his intemperate remarks, had suggested metaphorically that environmentalists were "violent rapists" of Washington County who perhaps should be "executed" because they wanted to protect the wild Atlantic salmon.

Reisman is a darling of the property-rights wing of the GOP. Some Republicans thought Pidot's remarks were an attempt to muzzle free speech. But even Democrat Thomas Bull felt "Ketterer should have been more forthcoming" in dealing with this situation.

"People are kind of wary of him" is how Rep. William Schneider of Durham, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, described GOP legislative sentiment toward Ketterer. Schneider once worked for Ketterer as an assistant AG. On the other hand, he said, "everyone in my caucus has a lot of respect for Steve Rowe. He's a very honorable person" and has always treated Republicans fairly.

The argument that the AG is the second most powerful figure in state government rests on the basis that he is independent of the governor -- since he is a legislatively elected "constitutional" officer like the secretary of state, state treasurer, and state auditor -- and that he is the top law-enforcement official, and that he runs the state's law firm of 175 employees.

This staff represents every state department in legal proceedings and performs a great variety of services -- for example, prosecuting all the state's murder cases, rendering legal advice to the legislature, investigating hate crimes, breaking up pyramid schemes, making sure the state's nonprofit organizations behave themselves, enforcing the consumer-protection laws against fly-by-night home-repair contractors, investigating cheating town officials, taking on corporate giants in antitrust suits, chasing down welfare cheats, defending our boundary against New Hampshire's claim that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard really is in Portsmouth (we say it's in Kittery), and many other actions.

Reflecting on his six years, Ketterer said he is proudest of the suit he joined with his counterparts in other states against the tobacco companies. Last year it resulted in a settlement that will see $1.4 billion coming into Maine over 25 years -- the "largest judgment in the history of Maine," he said.

He also cited as a major achievement making domestic violence and sexual assault into civil-rights issues. Because of his leadership, he claimed, Maine "leads the nation" in civil-rights enforcement and education.

When he became AG, he said, he noticed that many perpetrators of hate crimes were males 14 to 19 years old. So he established "civil-rights teams," which now are in 123 middle and high schools, in order to raise civil-rights consciousness among students. If re-elected, he said he would continue to emphasize civil rights and the need to combat sexual violence, be a voice for women and children, and showcase nationally what the Maine AG's office has achieved. (If he loses? "I haven't given it a thought.")

His biggest frustration? "Running the office was more of a challenge than I had ever figured it could be," he admitted. When told that an assistant attorney general had complained off-the-record about high turnover, he replied "you're going to have turnover" when attorneys move on to become judges and prosecutors, go into private practice, or, in one instance he noted, become a poet.

He was "sidetracked" by the Lauren sexual-harassment affair, he said, but was pleased that that federal magistrate who threw out the lawsuit did not find "a scintilla of evidence" -- he was quoting the judge's ruling -- that Lauren had harassed and discriminated against Baker.

Ketterer acknowledged Rowe is a formidable opponent: "The impact of term limits is real." But he was unsure of Rowe's strength in the Senate and, like Rowe, he was currently busy -- and he appeared to be busier than Rowe -- wooing first-time legislative candidates by giving them advice on such practical matters as mailings and how to campaign door-to-door.

Rowe hit upon some of the same themes as Ketterer -- domestic violence and civil rights -- when asked his priorities should he become AG. Almost uncannily, in his legislative service he was proudest of the very same issue Ketterer cited as his greatest achievement, the tobacco-settlement money, except in this case it was Rowe's work in creating and passing legislation to spend this year's $60-million payment for health programs benefiting children and fighting smoking and substance abuse. He also played a major role, he said, in obtaining passage of this recent session's landmark legislation intended to reduce prescription-drug prices.

Rowe touted his role, too, in getting laws passed reducing dioxin and mercury industrial emissions and in expanding University of Maine System community centers. However, appearing a little sensitive on the issue, Rowe repeated several times in an interview that he understood the attorney general's job was not the same as a legislator's.

Still, he felt his legislative experience was a strong point in his campaign for AG. "I understand how government works," he said, and he wanted to make a priority of strengthening the connection between the legislature and attorney general. But he had no master plan for improving the management of the AG's office.

"It was not an easy decision," he commented, to get into this race: "I have supported Drew in the past." But now, he said, "I fully expect to win. I feel very pleased with the response and the support I'm receiving." (And, he, too, said he was not sure what he would do if he lost.)

Rowe was born in Oklahoma, graduated from West Point, has an MBA from the University of Utah, and has a law degree from the University of Maine. Ketterer is originally from New Jersey and is a graduate of Connecticut College and Northeastern University Law School. He is currently president of the National Association of Attorneys General.

Ketterer and Rowe served in the 116th legislature together before Ketterer won his first AG term. Both said they had a friendly relationship. In interviews, when invited to criticize the other, both refused.

But they are in a battle. In a rare instance in politics, the incumbent does not have the advantage. Two assistant attorneys general, when asked who they expected to be their boss come December, responded that they assumed they'd be working for a different AG.

Lance Tapley can be reached at ltapley@ctel.net.


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