For Maine Gov Angus King, competing as a political independent in a partisan arena is like being a long distance runner: It can become very lonely during the race.
"I have neither allies nor enemies. What I have are 180 skeptics," he says, referring to the Legislature. "I try to work with both sides... It's an incredibly luxurious position for a politician to be in, to just try to make decisions on the merits."
King was elected in 1994 as an independent, only the second in the state's history, with just over a third of the vote in a five-person contest. Four years ago, he became the first independent to win re-election in Maine, taking almost 59 percent in a four-way race. While his job performance rating has slipped 12 percentage points in one year, the latest statewide poll still puts him at 57.5 percent, an enviable number for someone with no political base.
Independence from the two major parties, he says, "is tricky, but holds the potential for a great opportunity. I use that old line, Golden opportunities often come disguised as insurmountable obstacles.'"
The biggest obstacle, King says, was public perception. Even though James Longley, who was elected as an independent 20 years earlier, showed that it could be done, his one term was marked by conflict. "He was very combative and he always castigated the politicians... That doesn't get you anywhere," he says.
King remembers that when he declared his candidacy, the Longley-era political enmity prompted the news media to ask, "Can this work?' They obviously interviewed all these partisan guys, and they said, Of course not, this won't work, they won't be able to get anything done, it'll be deadlocked.' I think whatever else, we've laid that one to rest."
His lack of party affiliation has been both a strength and a weakness, King says, adding, "It's a complicated issue. The relationship between a governor and a legislature is largely personal, regardless of party... There's always tension and there's always resistance and tugging back and forth. I am sure that Pericles came home at night and bitched to his wife about the Athenian senate."
The learning curve, he admits, was longer for his administration "in terms of knowing the ins and outs of the operations, but I don't think that was a really significant disadvantage. The big advantage was that I could pick anybody." That's because without major party backing, there was no demand for patronage appointments.
"Typically, a Democrat or a Republican, whether it's a governor or a president, picks within their own party, usually 90 percent," King says. "It suddenly hit me as we were starting to choose the cabinet that 30 percent of the people of Maine are registered Republicans, about 30 percent are registered Democrats, about 40 percent are in neither party, which means that if you choose only from within your own party you have immediately eliminated two-thirds of the talent pool."
But King, 58, was no stranger to politics: eight years ago; a registered Democrat at the time, he had worked as a lobbyist and as an aide to former U.S. Senator William Hathaway. Early in his administration, King remembers, "the conventional wisdom was that I really was a Democrat in sheep's clothing." But when he vetoed Democrat-sponsored legislation involving tax hikes, workers' compensation and a minimum wage increase, as well as GOP legislation that made Republicans "mad as hell... I think both of them at least sort of figured out where I'm coming from." And that, he says, is the pursuit of "economic opportunity."
"I'm not a Democrat anymore in some sense," he adds, "because I think you've got to look at both sides of the equation... I still consider myself a liberal in the sense of wanting to help people who can't help themselves, but I'm also pragmatic enough to understand where the resources come from to do that. If you strangle your economy in the name of good intentions, you've hurt the very people you say you want to help."
With that in mind, King says, he "probably" will endorse a candidate to succeed him in the November election. "I have a very intense interest in what happens next because I want Maine to succeed, and I know that a lot of what has happened is fragile, that our economy is fragile."
King believes that being a political independent in a legislative setting would be more difficult because "the whole institution is organized on partisan lines." As for why just he and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura who faces a tough challenge for reelection this fall are the only non-affiliated governors, he says, "A lot of it is habit. And a lot of it is what the rules are in a given state about how to get on the ballot."
"I hit it at exactly the right time, in terms of the public mood... It was a kind of anti-politician year," he adds. "So all of those things came together. And they will in other states, from time to time. But I don't think it's going to just swamp the parties. I think the parties will respond to this and absorb it."
Would he run again, if he weren't term-limited out? "I don't think so," he says. "This is intense, and I'm working it really hard, and I'll be ready for a break... I think eight years is long enough." King, who was born in Virginia, says he has no regrets about the job he did. As for how he would sum it up: "If you were going to carve it on a gravestone, I guess it ought to say... He didn't do bad for a boy from away.'"