Be afraid

The Dunlap horror
By AL DIAMON  |  October 29, 2009

This Halloween, if you want to scare the crap out of your favorite political activist — liberal or conservative — skip the fright mask, fake blood, and glowing green goop. That stuff just makes you look like a lobbyist for some faction in the health-care debate (Woooo, Senator Snowe, I am the ghost of Republican pre-existing conditions. Woooo, Olympia, I am the specter of Democratic deficits future. Woooo, you RINO upstart, I’m the spirit of Margaret Chase Smith, and I’m sick of being compared to you).

No, if you want to see real fear in the eyes of a campaigner for the obscure cause of the moment (declare the incandescent light bulb an endangered species, ban the use of leg-hold traps in Portland coffee shops frequented by animal-rights activists, outlaw the reading of Tobacco Road in no-smoking areas), you’ll have to disguise yourself as something truly terrifying. Such as:

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

At first glance, Dunlap may not look scary. He has that bald, middle-aged, doofus thing going on that tends to elicit comparisons with character actors who get cast as the best friend’s father in short-lived teen sitcoms on obscure networks (“Jeez, Brandee, when your old man gets, like, mad, his head gets, like, all shiny”).

Nevertheless, Dunlap is the most frightening entity the state’s political process has produced since former Green Independent gubernatorial candidate Pat LaMarche announced her support for the excise-tax cut. But unlike LaMarche, who has potential for developing a lucrative career as somebody you’d hire to endorse your opponent’s position, Dunlap doesn’t just scare away voters. He threatens to frighten the entire referendum-initiative system to death.

Part of Dunlap’s job is certifying citizen petitions seeking to put issues on the ballot. State law gives him 30 days to make sure the submitted signatures are of sufficient number — it takes just over 55,000 — and belong to registered voters, who at the time of signing, did not reside in either a cemetery or the petition circulator’s imagination. To his credit, Dunlap takes this responsibility seriously, checking every name for accuracy and the absence of morbidity. In many states, petitions aren’t subjected to such scrutiny, relying instead on random sampling. But our boy prefers his more exacting — and more time-consuming — method.

And that’s the problem: time.

On October 13, Dunlap missed the statutory one-month deadline to sort through the more than 60,000 signatures turned in by a group seeking a people’s veto of the tax-reform measure approved by the Legislature last session. Dunlap’s attitude toward his failure to fulfill his legal obligation can be summed up in two words:

So what?

“I think we are in material compliance,” he told Maine Public Radio. “We also have other constitutional obligations.”

He said he’d get around to certifying the petitions in the near future (he may already have done so by the time you read this), after which all would be well.

Unless it isn’t.

What happens if Dunlap finds the anti-tax-reform crowd had too many cadavers on its list of supporters and came up short on usable signatures? Does the people’s veto get on the ballot anyway, because he missed the deadline? Or does it fail to go to referendum because it didn’t meet the legal standard?

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