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Back in 2011, Maine Senate Democrats chose Barry Hobbins to be their legislative leader. He was picked to serve as their foil to the newly-inaugurated GOP Gov. Paul LePage.
That decision did a lot of good for our state. And it offers an example of what hard-scrabble politics can look like without partisanship.
Hobbins is the prototypical “old school” Maine Democrat. A Catholic boy from York County, he was 21 when he was first elected to the Maine Legislature in 1972.
But it’s Maine, and our state is one big small town. The young Rep. Hobbins served in the House with Republicans Peter Snowe and Jock McKernan, the late and later husbands of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. In the state Senate, he served with Bennett Katz, father to later GOP Sen. Roger Katz.
Fellow Democrats included John Martin in his pre-speaker days, as well as Gerald Talbot, father to current House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross. The Senate Democrats included future governor Joseph Brennan as well as Chuck Cianchette, my great uncle.
Hobbins served as a state representative for 12 years. Then, in 1988, he won election to the state Senate. He served with people like Donald Collins — Susan Collins’ father — and well-known names like John Baldacci, Charlie Webster and later U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews. The governor at the time? Republican Jock McKernan, Barry’s old House colleague.
Hobbins’ lived experience is the tale of Maine’s modern political history. Those who know him will tell you that he was a zealous advocate for what he believed to be right. And if you disagreed with him, you would close the door and fight it out … then have a drink together, as long as it wasn’t Lent.
That is why Hobbins was one of the Democrats who could work with LePage. Neither of them were one to shy away from a fight if they believed in their position. Yet steel sharpens steel and they were able to work to find areas where acceptable outcomes could be reached, even if neither side was completely happy.
Later, LePage appointed Hobbins to be the Public Advocate, responsible for representing ratepayers’ interests before the Public Utility Commission. And just last week, Hobbins announced he was retiring from the office.
That is the genesis of this retrospective. With a near-50-year career of civic engagement and public service, Hobbins is living proof that partisanship needn’t be a foregone conclusion.
Now, full disclosure. I count Barry as a friend. However, he also is the lawyer who moved my admission to the Maine bar; he was the Democratic leader and I was going to work as counsel to the (Republican) governor. But those party labels were irrelevant.
I distinctly recall stories Barry has shared of his work over the years. In the 1970s, there was plenty of infighting between Portland-area Democrats and those from elsewhere in the state. The GOP had their own issues, with the House caucus wandering in the wilderness for decades.
Nevertheless, work got done in Augusta. Rarely were things broken into the ultra-tribal “blue” and “red” camps that appear to exist today. Issues were dealt with on their own merits. If people didn’t agree, they made their position known. Then they moved on, developing friendships despite disagreements. Like Hobbins and LePage.
It seems to be a lost art. Technology has made it far too easy for people to react to events with emotion. Instead of letting cooler heads prevail, the outrage machines — Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour news channels — demand content. An army of political fundraisers feed their families by stoking our basest instincts.
But it hasn’t always been this way. And it needn’t be this way moving forward.
If you don’t believe me, ask Barry Hobbins.