PORTLAND, Maine — Angus King said his experience working across party divides as an independent governor prepares him well to replace Olympia Snowe in the U.S. Senate.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Bangor Daily News Tuesday, King tackled criticisms of being an elitist, talked about the potential for an independent to make a difference in Washington and recalled oft-forgotten government payroll cuts he made before the economic boom that carried the later years of his governorship.

King became the highest-profile candidate to officially declare entry into the Senate race Monday night. Snowe’s surprise announcement last week that she’s not seeking re-election whipped the Maine political establishment into a frenzy, with many Democrats, Republicans and independents signaling interest in the seat.

King said that while an independent will face difficulties building relationships in the starkly partisan Congress, a candidate facing direct pressure from his or her party caucus has “zero chance” of bringing about much-needed change.

He noted the substantial influence in Washington still exerted by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who left the Democratic Party to become an independent in 2006. Lieberman has announced he will not seek re-election this year, and King said being an independent in a divided Senate would give him leverage to seek compromise from both sides of the aisle.

“If it’s 50 to 49 to 1, I could have a significant influence,” he said of the potential Senate party breakdown.

King also said he has no plans to caucus with either party at this juncture, saying that doing so would undercut that independent leverage.

“Once I announce that, I’ve given away a lot of what I have to give,” he said.

The Dartmouth College graduate and Bowdoin College lecturer also took umbrage at criticisms that he is an “elitist,” volunteering that he came from an unassuming family in which his grandparents quit schooling after the eighth grade.

“I don’t drink wine, I don’t know what brie is, I bowl every Thursday night and my idea of fun is to go RVing,” he said. “If that’s an elitist, this country is in trouble.”

King also responded to arguments that he gets unfair credit for overseeing Maine during the skyrocketing national economy in the mid-to-late-1990s.

“That’s true,” he said. “I’ve always said politicians get more blame when the economy is bad than they deserve, and politicians get more credit when the economy is good than they deserve.

“Somebody once asked me, ‘How do you become a successful politician,’” King continued. “And I said, ‘It’s simple, get elected governor during the longest and largest American boom in peacetime history.’”

But the former governor said his stay in the Blaine House wasn’t without challenges, and many people often forget about tough decisions he faced early in his first term, before the economy turned around.

“I walked into a deficit, and that wasn’t [previous governor and Snowe’s husband] Jock McKernan’s fault, that was the economy’s fault,” King said. In his first year he called for the state government to cut 1,200 positions — adding up to $45 million in payroll and benefits — and was scorned early on by the Maine State Employees Association for the move.

“It was necessary because we had a government that was bigger than we could afford,” he said.

King said he learned quickly as governor that, on most decisions, any solution he could come to would anger some group of constituents.

“If that’s the case, why don’t I just do what’s right?” he said. “These calculations about political [implications] and [whether] people are going to like it, or ‘Is it going to be popular?’ or anything, ultimately will drive you crazy, so why not just fall back on what would be right for the state of Maine? People are going to go through my record with a fine-toothed comb, but you know what, I’m not worried about that, because I know why I made my decisions.”

King also said that, given the strong economy, he made the best of it, helping protect 1 million acres of land from development, launching the widely publicized effort to put laptops in the hands of all Maine middle schoolers and building the state’s rainy day fund from $7 million to nearly $145 million.

That track record in government, he said, prepares him to compete in an election against two major party candidates perhaps better than many independents could.

“I think my situation is a little different from somebody who’s never held public office or run a major campaign,” he said. “People said [I couldn’t be elected as an independent] in 1994 and I won.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.