On Sunday, during an emergency meeting of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, did something that’s very hard.
She stood up to the governor of the state, in full public view, with the cameras rolling. She held her ground, and she did the right thing, not knowing exactly how it would be portrayed and understanding full well that the anger of Gov. Paul LePage would be directed right at her.
The next day, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a tough guy from Aroostook County who’s developed a reputation for taking on the governor and fighting hard fights, did something equally courageous.
During floor debate on a bill to pay old debts and expand access to health care for 69,500 Mainers, he laid bare his soul in a personal plea in defense of Mainers living on the edge without access to health care.
In a hyper-partisan world and made-for-TV politics, I’m not sure that most people understand just how hard it is to tell the governor of the state “no.”
From the comfort of my desk or your living room couch, it’s easy to talk about the governor’s policies or his performance. There’s distance. A buffer from the consequences. An immunity that comes from the fact that he’s not right there.
But I can tell you, it’s tough to deliver bad news to a governor, to stand up and tell him he’s wrong. There is power in the office that transcends the occupant, and that’s why in some administrations we see a staff that can’t deliver the hard facts or political allies unable to buck the boss.
On Sunday, LePage showed up unannounced to an Appropriations Committee work session. Just by being there, he influenced the outcome.
When a governor is in the room, it matters. It changes everybody’s behavior, and it can be intimidating.
At the end of the work session, the governor wanted to be recognized. No doubt, he planned to lob a few bombs into the proceedings and try to bully the discussion in his direction.
Hill, the Senate chair of the committee, politely and within the authority of her position, declined to play his political game. She didn’t allow the governor to speak.
The governor was irate, which was clear at the time and has become clearer in the days since.
While there are legions of folks who will stand up to the governor in the pages of a newspaper or from the safety of a bar stool, there are very few who can manage the job up close and personally – and do it in a way that is both respectful and firm.
A day later, Jackson took to the floor of the Senate and proceeded to break my heart and the hearts of anyone who was listening as he spoke.
Jackson is no softy. He earned his political stripes in the woods and logging communities of northern Maine.
He took to the floor of the Senate and spoke for more than 20 minutes about why it’s critical for our state to expand access to health care for thousands of Mainers, many of whom work but can’t afford insurance.
Jackson told the story of two of his friends, neighbors, people just like him.
Both got sick but put off care, thinking they had acid reflux disease when the real issue was with their heart. Jackson, feeling a pain in his chest, thought the same thing, he said, or that maybe he had pulled a muscle.
But instead of playing the odds, Jackson went to the hospital, where a heart problem was discovered and treated with a pacemaker. His friends, without insurance, weren’t so lucky.
“Of the three of us, I was the only one with health insurance,” Jackson said. “ I could afford to get the care I need, and I’m the only one who is alive. I can’t help thinking that’s the reason: I had health insurance. We should be throwing people like them a line, not pulling up the ladder behind us.”
Breaking up as he spoke, Jackson said he was embarrassed. “It’s … embarrassment that I had health insurance, and they didn’t. It’s embarrassment that I’m alive, and they didn’t have the opportunity.”
If we, as a state, decide to turn our back on nearly 70,000 of our neighbors, if we aren’t willing to stand up to the powerful forces that would turn us against one another, then we all should be embarrassed.
That’s what at stake. We can change lives for the better. Or we can stay safe at our desk or on our couch. Hill and Jackson have set the example.