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Toot toot, tootsie, goodbye

It’s time to kiss Carol Palesky farewell.

I don’t mean that literally. After all, she’s a married woman, not to mention a convicted felon. Being caught smooching with Palesky would do your reputation no good. (Although, it might do wonders for hers.) Let’s play it safe, and limit ourselves to a figurative peck on Carol’s cheek, as she slides into political oblivion.

Palesky’s moment in the limelight has been Andy Warhol-brief. It lasted from February 9, when the secretary of state certified she and her followers in the Maine Taxpayers Action Network had submitted enough signatures to force a referendum on a statewide property-tax cap. It ended March 8, at a legislative public hearing on her proposal. Even before that meeting was over, reporters were deleting her phone number from their PDAs and tearing her card out of their Rolodexes. When it came to quotes on the tax cap, Palesky was no longer their go-to girl.

This sudden shift was hardly surprising. The press has never been comfortable with Palesky. Although she’s been a fixture for more than a decade in the debate on property taxes, she’s always been a less-than-satisfactory spokeswoman for her cause, given her criminal record (convictions for forging dates on an earlier set of referendum petitions and embezzling thousands of dollars from a former employer; she avoided being found guilty of bank robbery only by pleading insanity), her personality (she claims her opponents are part of a vast conspiracy of hideous evildoers), and her inability to get the facts straight (fitting all her oddball assessments into a parenthetical expression would take an industrial trash compactor, but here’s one example: While state and municipal officials say her tax cap would reduce revenue to cities and towns by $700 million per year, Palesky told a legislative committee it would only cut their income "a little bit." Once the cap was in place, she said, the average tax rate in the state would be about $17 per thousand. Uh, Carol, according to the Maine Revenue Service, the average rate last year was $16. Are you saying your cap will increase taxes?).

But the real reason Palesky is as out of fashion as J-Lo’s last wedding dress is because the news media have finally discovered somebody else who can stand up for the pro-tax-cap crowd, and dish out sound bites. The new poster boy for fiscal conservatism is Phil Harriman, a former Republican state senator from Yarmouth and a frequently mentioned GOP candidate for something, anything, everything.

Harriman is the anti-Palesky. He’s credible, articulate, telegenic, friendly, and devoid of serious criminal convictions. As an ex-member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, he can cite loads of state-budget data to boost his contention that only a strict cap will ease Maine’s crushing tax burden.

Suddenly, the debate is no longer between normal people and nuts.

Harriman is careful to distance himself from Palesky and her group. "I don’t know her," he said. "I have no intention of being part of the Maine Taxpayers Action Network. I have not collaborated with Ms. Palesky in any way.

"All I am focused on is the initiative that gives the citizens of the state of Maine the opportunity to lower taxes. All the labeling — including Ms. Palesky’s pedigree, if you will — doesn’t overcome the fact that this is the only opportunity the people have to reduce the tax burden."

Pretty slick. Harriman has managed to shove Palesky to the sidelines, where she’s left with two choices. She can either sit quietly while he gets the attention, or she can attack him for being part of the conspiracy against her. Either way, he gains stature with mainstream voters and the media, while she’s marginalized.

The next step for Harriman is to form a political action committee to raise money for the pro-tax-cap campaign. He said he’s already had calls from "dozens of people" who want to help, but insisted he doesn’t want a leadership role in the PAC.

"I don’t plan to be the campaign director or anything like that," he said. "I’m interested in being the voice for people who are genuinely oppressed by the taxes they’re paying."

There are some who suspect Harriman may be using the tax-cap issue to enhance his political prospects, speculating the new PAC will have a name like People Helping Implement Limits For Overall Reductions in Government Operations and Ventures (PHILFORGOV). If the referendum is successful in June or November (the ballot date hasn’t been set yet), Harriman would be well positioned to run for major office.

"That speculation is unfounded," said the non-candidate. "I do not have plans to run for governor at this point. I have two kids in college, and I have to pay my property taxes, as well."

If you live in the Blaine House, you don’t pay property taxes. Although, you might find Carol Palesky lurking in your shrubbery. If you do, give her a kiss for me.

Clap or carp about the cap by emailing me at ishmaelia@gwi.net

The Politics and Other Mistakes archive.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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