Tough Rowe to hoe
The race for attorney general finds the incumbent, Andrew Ketterer, a
by Lance Tapley
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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 email@example.com.