I can't recall

Maine's mixed history with recall efforts
By AL DIAMON  |  April 13, 2011

“I can think of no single measure that would do more to strengthen the credibility of state government than . . . the institution of recall.”

The person confessing to that utter lack of imagination — not to mention a deficit of common sense that, by comparison, makes the federal budget look balanced — was former Democratic state Representative William Lemke of Westbrook, quoted in a 1992 Associated Press story. Lemke was the sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed voters to recall a sitting governor for any reason, including having a bad hair day, inclement weather during outdoor wedding ceremonies, and poor service at McDonald’s drive-through windows.

“I firmly believe that the public wants structural changes in government that will make our elected officials more responsive and accountable for their actions in office,” Lemke added in a press release, apparently unaware that such a provision already exists.

It’s called elections.

Lemke was pushing his bill because there was widespread discontent with Republican Governor John McKernan, who had been accused of concealing the state’s dire financial situation in order to win re-election in 1990. McKernan also waffled his way through a state shutdown in 1991 to the point where the Senate GOP caucus pushed him aside and assumed the lead role in negotiations.

In short, McKernan was a lousy governor. But he muddled through, serving out his second term as a nonentity. The state was spared the constitutional upheaval and a bitter partisan battle over his fitness to continue in office.

Maine has a mixed history with recall efforts, which are allowed in a handful of municipalities. Portland’s School Committee members survived a 1967 attempt to turn them out of office for the sin of picking the wrong guy to be a high school principal. Waterville Mayor Ruth Joseph got bounced from her post in 1998 for being an arrogant jerk. Standish Town Councilor Larry Simpson has the distinction of being the object of two recall campaigns, a successful one in 1988 and a failed effort a decade later. A Swanville selectman survived a 2002 removal effort; an attempt to dump most of the Bangor City Council fizzled the following year; but in 2009, Van Buren voters ousted three councilors. Other recent recall campaigns have occurred in Andover, Rumford, Lisbon, and Lewiston.

If, as Lemke promised, these actions strengthened the credibility of municipal governments, the results aren’t readily apparent.

Nevertheless, those who have trouble learning from experience (“ouch, that hot stove burns me every time I put my hand on it”) remain committed to the concept, periodically reintroducing the idea whenever things aren’t going their way. The latest instigator (you can spot them by the bandages on their hands) is Democratic state Representative Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth, who recently attempted unsuccessfully to have a legislative committee draft a constitutional amendment that would allow citizens to petition to recall the governor and other top officials. Dill’s bill would also have made it illegal to maintain a hot stove in her immediate vicinity.

Dill told the AP, “My proposal is prompted by the literally hundreds of people who have contacted me wanting a process to engage in, in response to what the governor’s done.”

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