Former Gov. John Baldacci is being honored this week by the University of Maine with the Alumni Career Award.
He’s earned it – and a lot more – for a lifetime of public service all dedicated to fighting for the people of Maine.
Partially due to the time in which he served and partially due to his own personality, Baldacci does not often get the credit he deserves as both a politician and an innovative, boundary pushing political leader.
Baldacci, now retired from politics, has won a lot of elections. He’s served on the Bangor City Council, in the State Senate, eight years as the congressman from Maine’s 2ndCongressional District and eight years as governor of the state.
That alone would be enough to cement his legacy in Maine politics. It’s a tremendous track record of achievement. But to remember just his electoral success doesn’t do justice to his many accomplishments.
Let’s start with Baldacci personality and attitude: In the four years I worked for him, I never saw him say a nasty or mean word aimed at either friend or political foe. His favorite expression when Republicans would savage him, which they did often, was to say: “They should aim before they shoot.”
Sure, he got angry and frustrated at times. But he never let it become personal. He tried to let the insults and political theater aimed in his direction simply roll off. Better to be the adult, better to match the barbs with a smile and an extended hand.
He also taught me two of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about politics: Be gracious and share credit, it doesn’t cost you anything; and try to remember who’s married to whom.
Baldacci racked up a list of accomplishments that demonstrate that he was far ahead of the national curve, an innovative and often courageous political leader who broke ground that would take other, more well-known politicians years to follow.
Baldacci and his team led the nation with health care reform, passing Dirigo Health, a program that became a model for the Affordable Care Act. He passed the law, which mixed expansion of public health care with private subsidies and a commitment to better health, with a two-thirds majority.
While the law became controversial later, it started out with strong, negotiated support from Republicans, Democrats and independents. The law made Maine a national leader in reducing the number of uninsured and literally saved lives.
In 2009, Baldacci became the first governor in the country to sign a law allowing same-sex couples to marry, and then he became a champion of the fight to defend it against a people’s veto.
He conserved more than a million acres in the state preserving access for generations to come and completed the deal that brought Katahdin Lake into Baxter State Park, completing Gov. Percival Baxter’s vision.
He raised the minimum wage multiple times and campaigned for the most recent citizen’s initiative to keep the work alive in a gridlocked Legislature.
Baldacci and his chief of staff, Jane Lincoln, helped to shatter glass ceilings throughout state government by appointing smart, powerful and tenacious women to the biggest leadership positions in the executive branch, including naming the first female commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.
In Congress, he was brave enough, and forward looking enough, to vote against the Iraq War. It seems like common sense in hindsight, but at the time, almost everyone – Democrat and Republican alike – was beating the drums of war. He never bought the Bush administration’s rationale.
He fought to clean up toxic waste sites and helped negotiate the groundbreaking Regional Green House Gas Initiative to reduce pollution and bring new energy efficiency dollars into the state.
He went to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. He knew it would create a political firestorm, but because Maine farmers convinced him it would make a huge difference for their farms and business, he went. He took the heat.
And when the global economy collapsed and the fate of the US economy was on the line, the White House and governors from all over the country turned to Baldacci to help close the deal on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
With trust in DC at a low, Baldacci was able to help bridge the gap between the two sides because they all trusted him. He was neither looking for credit or headlines. He was simply trying to do what he thought was best for Maine and the country.
From land conservation and the environment to civil rights to economic justice to global financial collapse to war and the H1N1 flu epidemic, Baldacci guided our state at a time of great distress and consequence. He broke new ground – over and over and over again.
And he always lived up to the question his father asked him early on in his political career: “What have you done for the people today?”
Very few can answer that question the way Baldacci can.