Report from the culture wars

October 1, 2014

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

Evidently the Governor and I have very different thresholds for what constitutes a “perfectly qualified” nominee.

Believing that I always owe you an explanation of my reasoning on controversial votes that I make as your representative, I want to report on the confirmation hearing that my committee held Friday in Augusta — especially as our committee vote and subsequent action in the Senate yesterday drew fire from the Governor’s office in a press release which, unusually, names me explicitly.

Although the regular session is over, our committee was called back to Augusta to hear the Governor’s nominations to fill 22 slots on various education-related governing boards including those of the University System and the Community College system. I do not know why the Governor waited to make these nominations until the final two months of his current term.

Legislative confirmations rarely are controversial.  To the Governor’s credit, the dozen or so nominees that our committee has reviewed over the past two years have seemed well-qualified.  If any of the nominees harbored ideological views, they were greatly tempered by moderation and experience.  It’s unusual for us even to know a nominee’s partisan affiliation.

Of the 22 nominees that we considered on Friday, 21 of them seemed similarly well-qualified.  (One of the nominees to the board of the Maine School of Science and Math, Charlie Wray, is from Mount Desert and also chairs the school board of our own MDI High School. He easily earned confirmation.)

But one of the nominees to the board of trustees for the University of Maine System, Susan Dench from Falmouth, a conservative activist and former blogger for the Bangor Daily News, raised unusual consternation.

While I certainly don’t share most of Dench’s published views about the advantages of parochial education, the stabilizing function of traditional gender roles, and her suspicions about the feminization of education, I don’t see her opinions in themselves as necessarily disqualifying.

What I found substantially more concerning was Dench’s lack of oversight experience in any sort of public governance.

While, again, I don’t think such inexperience is necessarily disqualifying, I did want to be reassured that, for all her published criticism of public institutions, she had some understanding of the special charges and challenges of public oversight.

Many people coming from private enterprise — our Governor comes to mind here — find it frustrating to deal transparently with public process — especially those who already are certain that they know the way an organization should be.

Last March, businessman and former independent candidate for governor Shawn Moody came before us for confirmation to the University of Maine board and, initially many on our committee were similarly skeptical.  But Moody spoke long and passionately about his hopes and vision for public education in relation to his own formative life experiences, readily convincing the committee of his earnestness, commitment, and understanding of complex process.

In contrast, at this hearing, in the context of her inexperience with public education and published advocacy for private and parochial schools, when I asked Dench for her view of the mission of public education, she offered only that public education represented another “choice.”

Given our greater expectations of the strategic alignment of a land-grant research university system to meet the state’s educational and economic needs,  I took this answer as terminally insufficient and ultimately disqualifying.

The hearing was then further complicated by public testimony that Dench had plagiarized some of her published work.

The plagiarism issue aside, I voted not to confirm Ms. Dench simply because she lacked any experience in overseeing a public institution and because she could not articulate any vision for the purpose, necessity, or value of public education.

Surely anyone with any claim to political instincts could have predicted a rocky confirmation process for a nominee with Dench’s public political persona.

At this point in the election cycle, it is probably unavoidable for accusations of partisanship to fly out of deliberations such as these.  And certainly the Governor has always felt entitled to his own characterizations such as those in his press release.

But I want to make sure that my constituents understand my own reasoning.

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