The Influencer: Severin Beliveau

Professional Services

By Edgar Allen Beem
Photographed by Benjamin Magro

The Professional and Business Services sector — including lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants — accounts for 58,456 jobs, the largest share of which are administrative.

From the window of his fourth floor Augusta office, Severin Beliveau has a bird’s-eye view of the State House, State Office Building, and the Blaine House — the political playing field on which he has operated for close to fifty years, first as a legislator and Democratic Party chair but mostly as Maine’s most powerful lobbyist.

There are roughly the same number of lawyers in Maine as there are full-time lobstermen ( 3,500 ). If Severin Beliveau were a lobsterman, he would be considered a highliner — a highly successful fisherman. As a highly successful legislative attorney, a partner in the Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios law firm, he has been called many things, among them “Mr. Democrat,” “Darth Vader,” and “the man behind the curtain.” Pulling strings in Augusta for his clients is what Beliveau does for a living, so it seems fitting that his entry into Maine politics involved his father pulling a few strings for his son back in 1964.

Severin Beliveau was born in the paper mill town of Rumford in 1938, but he is not really a mill town kid. He attended a Catholic prep school in Danvers, Massachusetts, then went on to Georgetown University and Georgetown Law School. He had never tried a case when, upon graduation from law school, his father, Albert Beliveau, a justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, arranged to have his son nominated as Oxford County District Attorney. “If my father hadn’t gotten me on the ballot,” Beliveau says, “I’d still be in Washington, D.C.”

Severin Beliveau is a familiar figure in Maine’s corridors of power, an affable gentleman always dressed just a little better than everyone else in expensive grey suits, tassel loafers, and brightly colored ties. When it comes to pressing the flesh and twisting arms, Beliveau has few equals.

“He could easily have written the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends & Influence People,” says Farmington attorney and Maine political historian Paul Mills. “The twinkle in the eye, the friendly focus, the affinity and rapport Severin has with others is almost incomparable.”

There are few families in Maine to rival the Mills family when it comes to public service (Paul Mills’ grandfather, father, and his brother, Peter, all served in the Maine Senate, sister Janet Mills was a member of Beliveau’s law firm between stints at the Maine Attorney General, and sister Dr. Dora Anne Mills was head of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention), but Severin Beliveau’s family comes close.

Not only was Beliveau’s father a justice of the Maine Supreme Court, his grandfather, Matthew McCarthy, and his uncle, William McCarthy, were also judges. His brother-in-law, Robert Murray, is a Superior Court judge. His son, Devin, recently served in the Maine House of Representatives, and his son, Emmett, is the director of advance in the Obama administration, responsible for planning all the president’s appearances outside the White House. Beliveau’s spouse, Cynthia Murray-Beliveau, was a founder of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “Even our relationship began at a political event,” says Beliveau, noting that he met his future wife at a Democratic fundraiser in Bangor.

Beliveau’s own electoral life began with being elected Oxford County District Attorney in 1964. He was elected to the Maine House in 1966 and subsequently served in the Maine Senate and as chair of the Maine Democratic Party. His career as a politician came to an end when he lost the 1986 Democratic gubernatorial primary to then-Attorney General James Tierney.

Beliveau, who describes his politics as “slightly left of center,” was too conservative for the Democratic base, and he also had begun lobbying for interests not traditionally supported by Democrats — alcohol, tobacco, and gambling.

Beliveau now regrets having lobbied for the tobacco industry. “At the time,” he explains, “the agreement I had with the tobacco company was that I wouldn’t argue the health issues, only taxation and regulation. The pressure to stop representing the tobacco industry came internally from my family.”

“Severin Beliveau is far more progressive than his clients,” says James Tierney, now director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia University Law School. “Maine is a much better place because of Severin’s work.”

“I can afford to be a Democrat,” Beliveau is fond of saying, “because I have Republican clients.” Though he has represented such clients as Anheuser-Busch, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and Scientific Games International, his Democratic credentials remain firmly in place, both because he is an important fundraiser for the Democratic Party and because he is virtually hard-wired into the Democratic establishment. It was Severin Beliveau’s phone at the state chair desk of the Democratic National Committee headquarters that was tapped by Watergate burglars in 1972, and he has entertained and been entertained by Democratic Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama.

Bowdoin College government professor Christian Potholm, perhaps Maine’s best-known political pollster and campaign consultant, says Beliveau has so many connections that he is like a spider weaving a great web over the public life of Maine. “Even the flies who don’t think they’re in the web are in it,” observes Potholm, who credits Beliveau with being the behind-the-scenes player who almost single-handedly determined the outcome of one of the most important gubernatorial elections in modern Maine history.

In 1970, Biddeford Democrat Plato Truman, who had lost to Democratic incumbent Governor Kenneth Curtis in the primary, announced that he would enter the governor’s race as an independent because he opposed the state income tax that Curtis supported. Armed with the suspicion that some of the signatures on Truman’s nomination papers might have been forged, Beliveau, in his capacity as Democratic Party chairman, prevailed upon Truman not to run. Curtis went on to defeat his Republican challenger, James Erwin, by fewer than one thousand votes among some 325,000 votes cast.

If Beliveau hadn’t intervened, Curtis wouldn’t have been re-elected, says Potholm, who argues that the race was a turning point in Maine political history because it ushered in an era of expanding state government, not just through the state income tax but also state subsidies for public education. “Maine has never looked back since 1970,” Potholm says. “[Beliveau] has been at it for a long time, he has been successful for a long time, and he’s still a major player.”

Beliveau’s backstage machinations inspire some to think of him as Augusta’s Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain running the show. But to those who often find themselves in opposition to him — such as Maine environmental organizations — he raises the specter of Darth Vader, the arch-villain of the Star Wars series. Beliveau, for instance, worked on behalf of the highly controversial Plum Creek development, which won permitting for close to one thousand homes and a resort around Moosehead Lake.

“While he ultimately won rezoning approval for Plum Creek’s massive Moosehead project,” says Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of Restore: The North Woods, “in a moment of candor Severin told me Plum Creek was so unhappy with Preti Flaherty’s work on their Moosehead project that they went with a different law and lobbying firm to defend against our appeal of the LURC approval.”

What Plum Creek may have been unhappy about was that it had to agree to conserve close to four hundred thousand acres in order to win permission to develop 16,000 acres. Some people see Plum Creek’s Moosehead development as an environmental disaster, while others see it as an historical conservation victory.

Former Governor John Baldacci is in the latter camp, and he says he always feels better when Severin Beliveau is involved in a project, because Beliveau will look out for Maine. “Having Severin on that side,” says Baldacci of the Plum Creek development, “allowed us to do what is right for the state.”

“Politics is mostly about relationships and he has relationships that go way back,” says Pete Didisheim, Natural Resources Council of Maine senior director of advocacy, of Beliveau. “I just wish he had better clients.”

Didisheim cites Beliveau’s lobbying against the 2003 nomination of Portland attorney Andrew Cadot, an ardent environmentalist, to the Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) as “a blatant effort to increase the chances of his clients to get their projects through the Board of Environmental Protection.” Cadot, who served on the BEP from 1997 to 2002 but was not reappointed by independent Governor Angus King. Baldacci nominated Cadot, but he withdrew his nomination at the last minute. “It was an ugly example of raw political power used to damage the reputation of a model citizen board member of the BEP,” Didisheim says of Beliveau’s role in the matter.

But Baldacci says people give Beliveau too much credit for scuttling Cadot’s nomination. “It was not Severin Beliveau,” he says. “He was part of a chorus of people. There was a lot of opposition to that nomination.”

From the perspective of environmental groups, however, Beliveau’s lobbying against BEP nominees who might actually protect the environment is part and parcel of a larger business agenda to weaken agencies such as the BEP and Land Use Regulation Commission in order to permit more development. “In the area of environmental policy,” concludes Pete Didisheim, “most of the effects he has had have not been positive.”

Portland political consultant Dennis Bailey of Savvy Inc., who heads up the anti-gambling group CasinosNo!, says Beliveau is adept at working both sides of the fence when necessary. As the lawyer for the new Oxford Casino, for example, Beliveau recently worked alongside CasinosNo! to oppose gambling casinos in Lewiston and Biddeford.

“I like Severin. Most people do,” says Bailey. “He’s a charming guy, and that’s his real strength. The other thing is he can be a pretty good fundraiser for Democratic candidates, so that helps.”

And though he is Mr. Democrat, Beliveau seems to get along surprisingly well with conservative Republican Governor Paul LePage, who tends to avoid Democrats in Augusta. “He’s like a cat that always lands on his feet,” Bailey says. “Although he supports Democratic candidates down the line, he has a good relationship with LePage, particularly through his law partner, Ann Robinson, who was on LePage’s transition committee. Severin manages to have his hands everywhere. For him, it’s just good business.”

Ann Robinson was co-chair of LePage’s transition team, is state co-chair of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, and served as a key regulatory policy adviser to the LePage administration, helping to author a highly controversial package of regulatory reforms that was largely rejected by the state legislature. “Ann provides a sense of balance in our practice,” says Beliveau, noting that he, and partners Anthony Buxton and Harold Pachios have all been Democratic Party chairs, “and she gives us access to people.”

Unlike most Democrats, Beliveau finds the feisty LePage “an engaging fellow.”

“On social issues, I agree he has gone too far to the right,” says Beliveau, “but I think there will be a correction this session. Like all new governors, he’s learning that to get anything done he has to compromise.”

Beliveau sees LePage’s conservative Republican administration as a necessary “correction” after decades of Democratic rule. “Democrats,” says Beliveau, “have difficulty saying no.”

It doesn’t hurt that Paul LePage is a fellow Franco-American, Beliveau being as much Mr. Franco as Mr. Democrat. A twelfth generation Franco-American who grew up speaking French at home, Beliveau is an Honorary Consul of France and a leader of the Forum Francophone des Affaires, and in 2008 he received the French Legion of Honor. “Our contributions and values had never been recognized or appreciated,” he says.

Though he is Roman Catholic and sometimes seen as a social as well as a fiscal conservative, Beliveau, along with his wife, Cynthia Murray-Beliveau, a leader of Catholics for Marriage Equality, supported Maine’s first-in-the-nation gay marriage referendum in 2012. “We both felt it is a civil rights issue,” says Beliveau, “and that the church is wrong about it.”

Some in Augusta speculate that the November defeat of Beliveau’s long-time ally, former state Representative John Martin of Eagle Lake, might be a sign that Beliveau’s political powers are on the wane, but new Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland) says Beliveau is still “incredibly influential,” both because he is a terrific fundraiser and because he possesses an institutional memory, a valuable asset since voters approved legislative term limits twenty years ago (in an unsuccessful attempt to get rid of House Speaker Martin, who simply ran successfully for the Senate instead).

“Since term limits were imposed,” says Alfond, “the lobby has become incredibly influential and important to the process of making laws and bringing ideas to the table.”

“If he were just a lobbyist, he wouldn’t be as good as he is,” adds Bowdoin’s Christian Potholm. “He’s a good fundraiser and he has no permanent adversaries. He is loyal to his friends and he is loyal to his principles.”

Beliveau, who turns seventy-five on March 15, 2013, is unlikely to retire. He’s just having too much fun. “I have no other interests,” he says. “I don’t play golf. I don’t hunt and fish. I’m a very contented person. I enjoy what I’m doing.”

“Severin plays the game with joy and zest,” Potholm observes. “He is not an ideologue and he doesn’t sulk when he loses. He just loves the game. He loves the action.”

With Maine’s liberal Democratic candidates having finished a distant third in both the 2010 gubernatorial race and the 2012 U.S. Senate race, Beliveau is looking forward to the 2014 governor’s race, which is likely to pit Governor LePage and independent Eliot Cutler (who came close to beating LePage in 2010 ) against an as-yet-undetermined Democrat.

“This will be a defining election for Democrats,” Beliveau says. “We can’t just placate the far left.” He hopes to see “a well-funded moderate Democratic candidate” run for the Blaine House in 2014, a centrist such as Congressman Mike Michaud.

“In the end, [Beliveau] is an interesting knot of contradictions,” concludes environmentalist Jym St. Pierre. “A humble Mainer who has become a powerful big leaguer. A partisan Blue Dog Democrat who lives like a wealthy Red Dog Republican. A fiscal conservative who is married to a liberal spouse and who has liberal offspring. A powerbroker who has used his influence both to help exploiters and for worthy causes.”

Chris Potholm says Beliveau brings to mind a time-lapse sequence he once saw of crocodiles attacking wildebeest at an African watering hole. “There’s one big crocodile left in the end,” he says. “That’s always going to be Severin Beliveau.”

From our March 2013 issue, read more unexpected ways that Mainers are making a living in the Pine Tree State.