Maine is the only state in the country to not select the state Attorney General through an election of the legislature rather than a gubernatorial appointment or a general election. In practical terms, this means that the majority party in the legislature chooses one of their own, usually a fellow legislator, to hold this post. On Friday, two Maine newspapers published editorials expressing concern about the legitimacy and efficiency of this process. The Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel called it "parochial and insider-ish" and the Bangor Daily News described it a case of "political patronage".
When I spoke to each of the three Democrats vying to be the next Attorney General over the last few days, the first question I asked was about this process.
John Brautigam, a Representative from Falmouth, suggested mostly small changes, including making the process more public and moving the election to the second session of legislators' two-year terms in order to give them more experience before they make their decision.
"There's a risk that a person with good political skills, but not so great legal skills can come out ahead in the current system," said Brautigam.
Janet Mills, a Representative from Farmington, pointed out the advantages of avoiding a general election, and the conflicts of interest that might result when an office with widespread regulatory authority is sought through private campaign fundraising. She also joked that I should check back with her after December 2nd, when the Democratic legislators make their decision, to see if she has a different opinion.
Sean Faircloth, a Representative from Bangor and House Majority Whip, said his opinion on the matter was of "limited value" since any change would have to be written into the constitution, something he sees as very unlikely.
The process may have its weaknesses, but this year it has fostered a contest between three strong candidates who offer a choice of three very different backgrounds and views of the office, despite all sharing similar Democratic political philosophies.
Sean Faircloth is a pillar of the Bangor political establishment and has been in and out of elected office since 1992. He ran for US Senate in 1996 and Congress in 2002, but lost in the Democratic primaries. He has also served as an Assistant Attorney General earlier in his career, taught courses in justice and law, and helped found the Bangor Discovery Museum.
In public forums, in his correspondence with legislators, and in our interview, Faircloth seems much more focused on the public and political aspects of the office than either of his opponents - something that has been noted by both Mills and Brautigam, who speak more about the managerial and legal parts of the job.
"My competitors have chosen to raise this as a difference," said Faircloth, "but I very emphatically stand by my view of the office of Attorney General".
Faircloth's plan for the office, (titled "An Agenda of Innovation") which he has sent to his fellow legislators, describes a series of "Attorney General's summits" that he hopes to conduct on issues such as workplace justice, civil rights and substance abuse.
Faircloth's agenda also includes a sobriety program for drunk drivers that he believes will decrease recidivism and a review of tax law enforcement with an eye towards increasing state revenues. He also plans to work on child protection issues, which have been a major focus of his legal and legislative career.
Faircloth has a ready answer to questions about his lapsed law license, which was the subject of some recent media attention. He cites the public support of District Attorneys Everett Fowle and Neal Adams who he says are in a good position to judge his legal record. He also asserts that the work he has done as a lecturer, legislator and in the non-profit sector during the time he was not an active lawyer has given him a broader understanding of justice policy and will allow him to be a better Attorney General.
Faircloth declined to discuss any specifics about how he would bring the Attorney General's office budget in line with the spending cuts mandated by Governor Baldacci, and noted that firing personnel could lead to reduced legal protection for vulnerable Mainers and perhaps even a loss of some of the state revenues gained through the office's enforcement efforts.
"I'm wary of cuts by percentage when governing," said Faircloth. "My view of final budget is that you have to really think carefully and pick and choose where you cut."
Asked about seeking another high office after a stint as Attorney General, Faircloth refused to rule anything out, but did pledge to run for re-election if he won and to serve for at least four years.
Faircloth may have an advantage in this election due to his caucus leadership position. He has worked to help elect Democratic candidates across the state for the last three cycles and says he's a known quantity to many in the House and Senate.
"Returning incumbents have direct knowledge of my ability to work with others and get things done," said Faircloth.
Janet Mills is a former District Attorney, a former Assistant Attorney General, and a practicing lawyer and has handled over 150 cases. She ran for Congess in Maine's second congressional district in 1994 but lost in the Democratic primary. Her family has long been involved in Maine politics and her brother, Peter Mills, is a Republican state senator who is often mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2010.
Mills recently won the Maine Bar Association's Caroline D. Glassman Award for her work to advance to position of women in the legal profession. If elected, shewould be Maine's first female Attorney General.
While Faircloth focuses on the public aspects of the office, Mills instead stresses her managerial abilities.
"The bully pulpit is one aspect of the job, but administering the office is the first challenge," said Mills. "I'm the only person to have managed a law office."
Mills also disagreed with Faircloth's idea of holding issue summits.
"I don't need a listening tour or public forums," said Mills. "I'll be a hands-on manager, a hands-on attorney and a hands-on advocate. I already know what people want from working across state."
Mills lists public safety, consumer rights, and environmental justice as her three top priorities.
Mills also declined to discuss how she might cut the office's budget, but said her experience on the appropriations and judicial committes will be helpful in making those decisions.
As for running for further office? "That's no in my game plan," said Mills. "I'm interested in being Attorney General for the sake of being Attorney General."
Mills' campaign efforts among her fellow legislators have included helping with candidate recruitment and training and going door-to-door with incumbents during the recent election. She thinks most know her well enough by now to judge her qualifications for the office. Other than participating in forums, she hasn't been doing any public outreach as a part of her campaign.
"My universe is the 116 democratic legislators," said Mills. "I'm not making a broad public appeal."
John Brautigam is the outgoing chair of the Insurance and Financial Services committee, has served as Executive Director and Legal Director of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund, and spent four years as an Assistant Attorney General where he handled several multi-state lawsuits including the defense of the Maine Rx prescription drug program.
Rather than prioritize the public role of the Attorney General or the managerial aspects of the job, Brautigam instead emphasizes the legal fights that confront a state Attorney General.
"My philosophy is to focus on legal defense and prosecution," said Brautigam. "This is a legal job with legal responsibilities."
Brautigam stresses consumer protection as a top priority, but says the main focus of the department should be the defense of laws passed by Maine's legislature.
Brautigam also declined to state any specific areas where he would make cuts in the Attorney General's budget, but makes the point that most of the office's money goes to personnel costs and that some senior staff may be leaving when the curent Attorney General's term is over.
"There's not a whole lot of fat in the budget," said Brautigam. "The Attorney General's mission is so important that any cuts should be minimal."
Brautigam came the closest of any of the candidates to rule out seeking other political office after serving as Attorney General.
"I do not think about that at all," said Brautigam. "I'm a lawyer - this is as good as it gets."
Brautigam is unique among the three candidates for taking his campaign beyond the walls of the statehouse and seeking to engage the broader public. He sent an email to several lists of democratic activists promoting his candidacy and has created a website at www.JBforAttoneyGeneral.com where he has posted his resume and information about his vision for the office.
"I'm trying to bring the public into the process," said Brautigam.
On December 2nd, Maine's Democratic legislators will choose between these three candidates to select the next Attorney General. All three are experienced lawyers, politicians and policy makers, but each emphasizes a different part of the office to which they aspire, giving legislators a chance to vote on how they want the next Attorney General to carry out his or her duties.
Brautigam promises to be a capable litigator that won't shy away from tackling complex legal questions and defending state law. Mills offers the most courtroom and management experience and a focus on making sure the office is run efficiently and well. Faircloth is running on a wealth of leadership and justice policy experience and promises to be a very public advocate for the people of Maine.
Makes me wish I could vote.