Learning the hard way

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  September 13, 2006

Barbara Merrill spent the summer demonstrating she’s not qualified to be governor.

Of course, ineptness doesn’t have much to do with electability. Democratic Governor John Baldacci has devoted nearly four years to proving he’s incapable of running the state, and he’s still ahead in most polls.

Even if competency turns out to be an issue, Merrill, a Democrat-turned-independent, still has an outside shot at winning the Blaine House, mostly because the public has been distracted by such crucial matters as whether Pluto is a planet or a cartoon dog, and hasn’t paid much attention to her bumbling campaign. A recent fictitious survey to determine which candidates had the highest name recognition found that while a majority of voters correctly identified Baldacci as “that doofus in Augusta” and Republican challenger Chandler Woodcock as “one of the main sources of avian flu,” most people thought Merrill was the star of the new TV series Ugly Betty.

It could be worse. The most common response when Green Independent Party gubernatorial candidate Pat LaMarche’s name was mentioned was “Tom Cruise’s new baby.”

Speaking of Cruise, there’s no truth to the rumor he’s secretly running Merrill’s campaign. If he were, her television ads would have lots of explosions and people jumping on couches. Which would be an improvement.

Merrill’s most recent spot promotes a study her campaign conducted that proves that Democratic legislators vote like Democrats, while Republicans act like Republicans. It’s not clear why this should be surprising. It’s also not clear what it has to do with the governor’s race. Maybe, it’s something to do with Scientology.

Still, this spot is better than Merrill’s first ad, which claimed somebody (it doesn’t specify who) sued the state over the amount of pollution the Baldacci administration was going to allow paper mills to dump in the Androscoggin River. The commercial had to be pulled from the air and revised, when it turned out there was no such suit.

In its new form, the ad said, “Legal action was taken and the commissioner [of the Department of Environmental Protection] was forced to resign.” There’s an inference there that a judge ordered the commissioner to quit, but that isn’t true, either. Commissioner Dawn Gallagher was forced from office, not by the courts, but by Baldacci, after it was revealed her staff had conducted secret meetings with paper industry representatives to craft a deal delaying the river clean-up.

Merrill’s commercials aren’t just inaccurate. They’re also irrelevant. She’s yet to run a single spot dealing with issues that voters might consider helpful in deciding whom they’ll support for governor, such as high taxes, low job growth, or the stagnant economy.

It’s not as if Merrill has nothing to say on those subjects. In her book Setting The Maine Course: We Can Get There From Here, she lays out a clear plan to deal with a state government she calls “flabby, overweight and darn near immobile.” She promises to fire incompetent bureaucrats, trim social services to sustainable levels, and “[r]ecognize there are needs we can’t meet even though the needs are real.” Then she spells out where she’d cut spending and why.

The book is loaded with the sort of straight talk the public might appreciate in a gubernatorial candidate. Why none of that has made it into her advertising is a mystery.

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