We won’t see people like Governor Joe Brennan again

One thing is certain about Joe Brennan, who died last week at age 89: He was like no other Maine politician, before or since.

Brennan was the first governor of Portland (1979-87) since Percival Baxter, almost sixty years earlier, his temperamental opposite: a working-class scrapper versus Baxter’s polished, upper-crust style.

Portland governors are viewed with suspicion by the rest of the state. Not only is it Maine’s largest city and increasingly the center of growth and prosperity: Portland has long harbored ambitions to be like Boston: the center of everything, including state government.

Even in the 20th century, Portland tried to reclaim the capital from Augusta. Only the building of a grand new state house over the bones of the old finally put an end to matters; Portland still has the Supreme Court, unique among the fifty states.

I arrived in Maine halfway through Brennan’s second term, and the press—bigger and funnier than now—had dubbed the administration “the Brennanistas,” a coinage that conflated Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua with the “Irish mafia” of his Blaine House team.

Sure, there were rough guys working for Brennan, most notably the intimidating Davey Redmond, but there were also formidable Republicans, like Senate President Joe Sewall, who held sway during Brennan’s first term.

My first impressions were mixed. It wasn’t until years later, when I was researching a book, that I appreciated Joe Brennan’s solid performance.

As a Democrat, Brennan had a big heart, but he was strapped for cash — an unusual combination, then as now.

He fought fiercely for working Mainers, who, like him, had grown up in poverty. The son of a union worker, he never strayed far from his birthplace and died just a few blocks from the Kellogg Street residence where he grew up.

During a period of record inflation, he stopped short of cutting programs he thought were ineffective. At times it was too tight; a rare expression of regret in later years was that a minimum wage increase went into effect without his signature, rather than signing the bill.

And he hired bright young cabinet commissioners and gave them space to work. Two of the most notable were Michael Petit of the then Department of Human Services and George Campbell of Transportation, the two largest government agencies.

Campbell, a young city manager, succeeded a DOT highway engineer who resigned when Brennan, after making a no-tax pledge before his first term, refused to call for a two-cent gas tax increase.

Re-elected by an overwhelming margin, Brennan — without promise — put a nickel on the gas tax, sparking a construction boom that for a time improved roads statewide, especially in rural areas.

Brennan would have seen no irony in the fact that his policies disproportionately benefited rural towns. Faced with rising health care costs, DHS’s Petit struck a deal with hospitals: They began receiving full, predictable Medicaid payments but would have to submit to rate regulation.

It worked. The increases were lower than nationally because health indicators improved and the health care financing system helped maintain rural hospitals.

Unfortunately, hospitals got the next government to withdraw the system. Hospitals are now consolidated in Bangor and – especially – Portland, charging whatever they want; only Maryland still has effective rate regulation.

So it was with the University of Maine System, which Brennan’s predecessor, Jim Longley, tried to strangle. Brennan ordered a thorough study that better aligned the seven campuses, and with the excess revenue, provided a significant “down payment” that allowed administrators to reduce tuition.

No governor has done anything similar since then, and the university system – a traditional economic engine in small states – has still not reached its potential.

Brennan had blind spots – particularly the Indian tribes in Maine. He opposed the 1980 Land Claims Settlement, which provided major federal funding, and set a tone of contention in the Tribal-State Council that unfortunately prevails to this day.

No one could credibly accuse Brennan of self-interest. He saw no higher calling than public service and never “cashed in” as so many in Washington have done.

Even his later unsuccessful run for office—nominated twice more for governor and once for U.S. senator—“when I was running for office for the thousandth time,” as he joked—can be attributed to this belief.

He did not shy away from challenging the established power. He was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War and withheld National Guard troops from Central America in opposition to the policies of the Reagan administration – a position he continued during two terms in Congress.

His political personality, like his style of government, can be summarized as tough but fair. We would do well to find such a governor again.

Joe Brennan will be missed. He is absolutely not replaceable.

Douglas Rooks has been an editor, columnist and reporter in Maine since 1984. He is the author of four books, most recently a biography of US Chief Justice Melville Fuller, and welcomes commentary on [email protected].