Museum dreams

Political Paleontology
By AL DIAMON  |  August 24, 2011

This week, we're joining a guided tour of the Maine Museum of Political Paleontology. A docent is explaining to a group of schoolchildren what's happening in a scene depicting cave people trying to register to vote.

"That mean-looking creature dressed in the bearskin loincloth and carrying a big club is standing in their way," said the docent. "He's called a 'Charlie Webster' or in Latin, Neanderthalus bumblebrainium, and he's arguing that living in a hole in the hillside does not constitute residency. Charlie's species, the Maine Republican State Committee, lost the power to think logically about 50,000 years ago, after repeatedly banging their heads against big rocks."

The group moved on past a perfectly preserved fossil of the Maine Democratic Party. "This specimen has to be propped up," said the guide, "because it doesn't stand for anything."

Next was a painting showing primitive politicians trapped in what appeared to be a tar pit. The docent explained, "This is a scientifically accurate depiction of several extinct species — such as 'Ethan Strimling,' 'Nick Mavodones,' and 'Mike Brennan' — being sucked down in the 2011 Portland mayoral election by something called 'instant-runoff voting.'"

There were other exhibits showing the sad results of failed evolutionary paths: term limits, public campaign financing, the movement to reduce the size of the Legislature.

Then, in a dim hallway in the back of the building, they came upon a musty relic, displaying the unfortunate results of years of neglect.

"Oh," said the surprised docent, "I didn't realize this was still here. I thought it had been disposed of because it was no longer relevant."

"What is it?" asked one of the little brats, poking at the cobwebbed form. "It looks like a giant mosquito."

"It's a gadfly," the guide said. "In the 20th century, there were lots of them hovering around municipal government in an effort to keep property taxes down. But after Paul LePage got elected governor in 2010, the idea of reducing property taxes died off, and these pests ceased to exist.

"If you were really, really old, you'd probably remember all the talk back in the 1980s and '90s about reforming local levies on houses and land to make them less burdensome to middle-class families, young people, and those on fixed incomes. I think the museum's archives might even have some of those ancient statements on file. Yes, here they are."

In 1989, GOP state Representative Philip Jackson of Harrison was quoted in a Portland Press Herald story as saying, "[E]very community in the state wants some form of property tax relief."

"I want to tell you, there's not a whole lot good to say about the property tax," Bangor City Manager Edward Barrett told the Bangor Daily News in 1993. "Every poll that's ever taken, the property tax is the least popular tax."

In 1998, Portland Mayor George Campbell wrote a newspaper op-ed that claimed, "Reducing property taxes is the highest priority for Maine citizens."

"If we [the Legislature] don't deal with [property tax relief] comprehensively, then you will get a citizen-initiated referendum and [the issue] will be taken away from us," warned Republican state Senator Karl Turner of Cumberland in a 2002 Maine Sunday Telegram story.

"Taxes have to go down," Sheldon Bubier of Greene told the Lewiston Sun Journal in 2004. "We're losing our land to taxes."

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