LEWISTON, Maine — Just a year out of college when he arrived at the State House in 1964 as a newly elected lawmaker from far northern Maine, John Martin entered a world quite different from the one newcomers find there today.
The chamber still had spittoons and ashtrays on every member’s desk, he said, and from the podium you “couldn’t see legislators in the back row” because of all the smoke in the air.
Lobbyists wrote nearly all of the bills and stood behind the representatives passing notes, Martin said during a Great Falls Forum lecture Thursday at the Lewiston Public Library.
Beyond the optics, the Legislature was clearly a junior branch of government, dealing mostly with little things while the governor’s office ran the state, he said.
That none of that is true any longer is in part a testament to the half-century legislative career that turned Martin from a brash young man into a legend who logged 10 terms as speaker of the House and transformed the structure of state government before leaving that leadership post after a ballot-tampering scandal.
“We’ve come a long way,” Martin said.
Speaking to several dozen people at the forum sponsored by the library, the Sun Journal and Bates College, the Eagle Lake Democrat said even he is amazed that he’s played a central role in Maine’s governance for a quarter of its nearly 200-year history.
Peggy Rotundo, a former Lewiston legislator who sat at Martin’s side for years, said there is “no greater master of parliamentary rules or institutional memory” than the man who helped instill in her a reverence for the Legislature and its work.
Martin, now a member of the Maine House of Representatives, said he is lucky that he was swept into office 53 years ago during a Democratic landslide that handed control of the Legislature to his party long enough for him “to plant my feet down” firmly enough that he’s still standing now.
The first major controversy he stirred up came early when he declared an end to smoking in the House chamber, a move that nearly created a revolution among nicotine-addicted members who didn’t back down for several weeks.
The following year, Martin said he banned lobbyists from the House floor because their presence “made us look bad” because people might think they, rather than elected officials, were running things.
But some less obvious changes were the real hallmark of Martin’s leadership.
Working hand in hand with Republicans, he created the first professional staff for the Legislature, initially eight people, led by a GOP lawyer.
That small staff has greatly expanded over the years to the point where nonpartisan professionals draft bills for lawmakers of both parties who have ideas for new legislation and who offer their own fiscal analysis that might not align with the governor.
Martin also led the way toward the creation of joint committees that put senators and representatives on the same topical panels rather than having each house operate independent ones.
He also pressed successfully to have committees take over the role of confirming gubernatorial appointments, eliminating a special council that used to perform the function.
By the time he was finished, Martin said the stronger Legislature “could be a co-equal branch of government” in Maine for the first time. It also wound up functioning “a lot better than other states,” he added.
There are a few trends, though, that disturb him.
One thing Martin dislikes is a change made sometime after he left the speakership two decades ago to sit all of the Democrats on one side of the chamber and all of the Republicans on the other, the same way Congress does it. He said mixing it up so that lawmakers often sat beside someone of the other party helped them understand where opponents were coming from on issues.
“We end up not knowing one another,” Martin said, which helps spur a more partisan atmosphere.
Martin is also sharply critical of term limits, imposed by voters in part to push him out of the speaker’s seat.
“I was the poster child for term limits,” said Martin, who managed to stay in office anyway by shifting back and forth between the Senate and House.
He said term limits, which prevent legislators from serving in the same chamber for more than eight consecutive years, have proven “a major disaster” and have weakened the Legislature.
Martin said he would also like to see the pay for governors and legislators increased to make it more reasonable for people to put in so much time.
He said the low salaries make it hard for working people to serve, cutting into the ability of young people to run for office. There should be more folks between 30 and 55 than there are, Martin said.
Right now, Martin said, “the Maine Legislature is not truly representative of the people” in terms of both the ages and aspirations of the populace.
Martin is also convinced that ballot questions that let voters decide issues have gone off track.
“We’re going to have to change” the system for referenda, he said, to block the increasingly common bids by out-of-state activists to press pet issues in Maine.
He cited the marijuana and ranked-choice questions last year, each approved by voters, as prime examples of problematic initiatives.
“It’s a mess,” Martin said. “We’re going to have to deal with it.”