The Olsen Affair
The resignation of Maine’s Marine Resources commissioner wasn’t what it appeared.
- By: Colin Woodard
Summer is normally a quiet time in Maine politics. The legislature is out of session. Much of the electorate is either on vacation or busy working for those who are. Even political junkies tend to take a break, log off Twitter, and try to enjoy the warm weather while it lasts.
But on July 20, Augusta was rattled by a sizeable political explosion. A cabinet member had angrily resigned and wasn’t going quietly. Maine’s governor stood accused of bullying and having declared the state’s largest city to be his enemy. Malfeasance at a state agency was alleged. The Blaine House, it seemed, was on the precipice of a damaging scandal.
Or was it?
On tendering his resignation, Marine Resources Commissioner Norman Olsen issued a statement blasting Governor Paul LePage. “This administration is more interested in pacifying special interest groups than in responsibly managing Maine’s marine resources for the benefit of the entire state,” he declared. “I cannot be a part of that.”
The governor, Olsen said, had turned against him after holding private meetings with lobster fishermen, refusing for weeks to grant him face time to discuss key issues, and then ordering him to abandon efforts to help the Portland-based groundfishing fleet because “Portland was against him” and the governor would “not work with that city.” Olsen was to halt his drive to reform the shrimp fishery and was told he would be fired if he didn’t appease unnamed fishing interests who had complained about his agenda. Most ominously, Olsen reported that industry members and Department of Marine Resources (DMR) officials had “found common cause in attacking me” after an independent review he’d ordered be conducted on the agency started uncovering serious deficiencies. A cover-up, he warned, was already under way.
“I found some things very distressing and which backed up complaints I’d seen from industry and even legislators for some months, ” Olsen told us. “I’m not going to say anything specific because frankly nobody would believe me.”
The governor’s office flatly denies many of Olsen’s accusations. No, Governor LePage did not cut the commissioner out of the conversation, nor did he order Olsen to cease helping Maine’s largest city because 81 percent of its voters had cast ballots for other gubernatorial candidates. The DMR review would continue with the governor’s full support and Olsen’s handpicked investigators. The governor had not caved to the lobster industry, although he had warned the commissioner he was mishandling relations with key stakeholder groups.
“The governor was surprised by Olsen’s resignation and did not anticipate his departure from the administration,” says LePage’s spokesperson Adrienne Bennett. “The governor was concerned about the many complaints that his office had received about Olsen, in particular [regarding] his inability to communicate effectively with important constituencies . . . and he was encouraged to make improved relations . . . a priority over the summer.
“For a policy maker to be successful, it is not enough to simply create the correct policy, it is necessary to build public support for the policy,” she adds. “This is particularly true for policies that require statutory changes.”
So what really happened?
A review of administration documents and interviews with fishing industry sources suggest a head-on collision between two strong personalities, a conflict catalyzed by the one group of Mainers no politician wants to anger: commercial lobstermen. Neither side emerged from the wreckage unscathed, but nor were there the makings of a Watergate-grade scandal, nor even a Whitewater one. With any luck, some good may yet come of the Olsen affair for ground- and lobster-fishermen alike.
Scheduling and meeting notes we received in response to a public records request show the governor and his natural resources policy advisor, Carlisle McLean, had no axes to grind in the marine policy realm, a world they knew little about. (McLean, a lawyer on loan from Preti Flaherty, is an expert on development in the North Woods; LePage, a lifelong resident of Maine and New Brunswick, has never lived within twenty miles of the sea.) Not surprisingly, they spent much of their first months in office learning the basics of how fishery and ocean policy works, querying Olsen and industry officials on such basic facts as where Maine territorial waters end (three miles) and how far out U.S. federal jurisdiction extends (two hundred miles) to how the lobster fishery is managed (in regional zones). The documents we received indicate the governor devoted considerable time to marine issues during the spring and early summer, and that Olsen was in attendance for most of the relevant meetings. LePage and McLean appear to have still been trying to get themselves up to speed on the issues when fishermen’s complaints against Olsen began to multiply. On June 2, the governor asked McLean “is Norm moving too fast?”
The answer was almost certainly yes. Olsen had antagonized lobstermen in a variety of ways in a very short period of time. The Maine Lobster Promotion Council, he reported in a May 8 memo, was “ineffective” and “a waste of money,” largely because its board is constituted in such a way that ensures most members will have no expertise in seafood marketing and promotion; he said the board should be replaced and the nomination process wrested from the effective control of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) and given to the DMR, which provides most of its four hundred thousand dollar budget from the lobster license fees it collects. He proposed reducing the (oversized) shrimp fleet in a manner disadvantageous to seasonal, small boat shrimpers in eastern Maine, most of whom are lobstermen the rest of the year. Children in traditional lobstering families, he argued, should have no special dibs on obtaining new (and extremely scarce) lobster licenses.
“The lobsters are a public resource, so how is it that a select group of people gets to get their kids into a program that slides them right in and everyone else has to wait for someone to die?” Olsen explains. “It’s a system that’s become hereditary.”
“It’s not much different from a family farm, where when the patriarch of the family retires, it gets passed on to the sons, who helped him with harvesting,” counters Sheila Dassatt, executive director of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association, whose members peppered LePage with complaints. “Olsen was very strongly against this and didn’t always agree with how much of the lobster industry felt.”
To top it off, he fearlessly grasped what has become the “third rail” of Maine lobster politics: allowing groundfishermen to land a limited number of the lobsters they catch in their trawl nets when fishing in federal waters more than fifty miles from shore. The proposal is not irrational: Under federal law this is entirely legal and, in Massachusetts, they can be landed as well. The primary result of Maine’s ban, groundfishermen argue, is to have compelled twenty trawlers to abandon the state, leaving Portland’s Fish Exchange and vessel services sector in crisis and draining tens of millions from the local economy each year.
“Back when fuel was cheap and there were a lot of fish around, your margins were better, so you didn’t have to shop for every penny you could get,” says Jim Odlin, who owns three Portland trawlers that land their catch in the Bay State. “Now an extra 5 or 6 percent added to the trip [from lobster bycatch] can make the difference between breaking even and not.” But critics note that this was a battle already waged in 2007, when lobstermen packed the Augusta Civic Center to defeat legislation for such changes. Olsen, Dassatt says, antagonized lobstermen “by opening Pandora’s Box again so soon after the issue had been resolved.” MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron says her members want a thriving groundfishery, but that lobster bycatch is not the best or only way to bring that about. “Do you really want to start the discussion at a flash point for the lobster fishery, or do you look at it comprehensively?” she asks.
Olsen had shaken up a hornet’s nest, and soon LePage found himself surrounded by a swarm of angry constituents. The governor has a well-documented pattern of lashing out at his perceived adversaries when criticized and, by Olsen’s account, he did just that in meetings with the commissioner in May and June. Documents show he ordered Olsen to back down on the Maine Lobster Promotion Council nominations; McLean acknowledges that the governor didn’t back Olsen’s shrimp policies; and Bennett says LePage told Olsen any future public show of support for his agenda was contingent on his working “to repair relations with stakeholders.”
Although LePage has denied it, there is evidence suggesting he ordered Olsen to abandon efforts to help Portland’s groundfishing fleet. In May, Olsen says LePage gave him “a typical gruff scolding about working with Portland,” which led him to request a meeting to clarify matters.
In a May 28 memo to McLean, Olsen referred to this change in attitude, writing that he was prepared to move forward to help Portland “but understood from his earlier comments that the governor would want to discuss first.” Other documents confirm that one of the primary purposes of Olsen’s June 27 audience with the governor was “to discuss and get approval” for this effort.
Surprisingly, McLean’s notes from this meeting don’t say what the governor’s instructions were, though another attendee, deputy counsel Michael Cianchette, says Olsen was told to slow down and “tread carefully,” because the governor “wanted a more comprehensive approach.” Portland Mayor Nick Mavodones confirms that Olsen suddenly disengaged from the effort to help the city around this time. “He was very actively involved in promoting the groundfishing industry and getting it back to Portland ,” he says. “Then suddenly he wasn’t around.”
There may be a silver lining in this whole affair. Whatever the governor’s orders were, LaPage has since gone on record in support of Portland, even meeting with Mavodones to build fences. “He assured me that he wanted to work with the city of Portland,” Mavodones says. “I have no reason to doubt that he will.”
He’s also likely learned that the fishing industry is a complex place where backing the demands of one sub-sector can make enemies of another. “Fishermen have high emotions in issues they are close to and that they fear,” says McCarron. “The governor told us he needs more information,” she adds. “I think his office understands that there is no silver bullet.”
- By: Colin Woodard