The graceful revolutionary: Angus King

The Independent son of independent Maine promises to shake up Washington.

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BRIDGTON, Me. -- The lumberjack felling monstrous trees for the masts of British ships. The woodsman walking amid the firs on the frigid back door of Canada. The lobsterman with his craggy face turned toward the icy wind. The potato farmer mining the hard earth for her October harvest.

All these are caricatures, the beloved traditional portraits of Mainers at work -- determined, brave, above all independent. And so in this rugged state -- a mountain and maritime redoubt situated hard by Quebec and New Brunswick, its folk myths written by Kenneth Roberts, painted by Winslow Homer and transformed into a noir nightmare by Stephen King -- we should not be surprised to see that the central political figure of this political year is himself an Independent.

He is Angus King, an alternative-energy entrepreneur and a former governor who is the favorite to win a Senate seat in November -- and to mount a frontal attack on the culture of the nation's capital.

Mr. King, 68, is a contemplative man, by temperament no revolutionary. He has the air of a tweedy senior faculty member poking through the mustier recesses of Bates's Ladd Library and Bowdoin's Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, perhaps because he has taught at both colleges. But this summer he is fired with rebellion and passion -- and, in a year when politicians are regarded with contempt, with possibility.

Mr. King's campaign aims at the heart of Maine's most revered mythology, cultivated even more vigorously now that the state has growing traces of suburbanization and as the Internet and satellite television have reduced the isolation that created Maine's character in the first place.

"The native identity is completely wrapped up in the coast's rural character: hunting and fishing, access to the shore, lakes, streams and forests is regarded as a near birthright," Colin Woodard wrote in "The Lobster Coast," his classic portrait of the state. Maine, which won its independence from Massachusetts two centuries ago, celebrates its weather-beaten sense of independence -- and its ability to solve problems without rancor and recrimination.

"People here are fed up with what's going on in Washington," says Mr. King. "The Senate is broken and trying to fix it with another partisan isn't going to do it. It turns out that this is exactly what the people here think."

Mr. King is aiming to replace a Maine icon, Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate herself, much respected for her independence from her own Republican colleagues. She stood down from a re-election fight, a poignant moment that seemed a sad symbol of the paralysis of politics in Washington.

The King campaign has sent both parties into upheaval -- Mr. King expects an onslaught of $2 million to $4 million in negative ads underwritten by super PACs to begin any day now -- and has raised questions of how he might be regarded, and how he might comport himself, in the Capitol.

Will he do what most independents do, which is to drift into one of the party caucuses so as to win influential committee assignments? Or will he hover above the two parties, threatening them both by the quiet moral superiority a true independent would automatically possess in a poisoned partisan atmosphere? And if he holds the balance of power in a divided Senate, what ransom might he demand?

In a way, Mr. King would underline the Senate's principal contradictions. The chamber is governed by partisanship. The House undertakes the charade of allowing all members to vote for the speaker, but the Senate is more baldly partisan, and without artifice, its rhythms ruled by the majority leader.

But it also empowers the individual. Far more than in the House, individual senators possess almost unbridled power, for in the upper chamber most routine matters require unanimous consent. A truly independent-minded lawmaker can transform political theory into chaos theory with the merest effort.

Which is why Mr. King is both threat and opportunity.

"This is no lightweight," says former Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, who after leaving the Capitol served as an Independent governor of Connecticut. "He knows that being a Republican now is dicey at best and being a Democrat isn't much better. This is an ideal time to be an Independent. The whole country is bloody well fed up with both parties."

Mr. King's effort is bolstered by three faces of familiarity -- Maine's familiarity with Independent politicians, its familiarity with political figures spurning partisan conformity and its familiarity with Mr. King himself.

Three Republican women in modern times have been fiercely independent in Washington -- Margaret Chase Smith (1949-1973), Ms. Snowe (beginning in 1995) and Susan Collins (beginning in 1997). Another Republican, Rep. William Cohen, later an unorthodox senator and secretary of defense in a Democratic administration, voted in the House Judiciary Committee to impeach President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. That very year, James B. Longley was elected governor as an Independent governor.

Mr. King, the only Independent governor in modern times to be re-elected, is so familiar a figure in this state that the bumper stickers that seem to be everywhere in this lake town say simply, "Angus." Like Ann-Margret or Cher, no last name necessary.

"When I'm campaigning nobody talks to me about health care or even the economy," says Mr. King. "It's 'the system' people talk about. Why can't they compromise? Why can't they act like adults? Why can't they represent the public interest instead of the parties? People just want the problems solved. Washington realizes how far out of touch it is."

Mr. King may talk in an idiom of upheaval but he possesses a gentle touch -- a seldom-noted but much-cherished part of old Maine -- to match his revolutionary rhetoric.

That's what the poet and novelist May Sarton was speaking of when, in 1994, a year before she died, she wrote: "As I think about it today in my 81st year, looking out at the sea from my desk, I realize that what I have found in Maine is more than courtesy and kindness. It is grace."

In the coming weeks, Mr. King must show that grace and prove that his policy positions -- favoring gay marriage, abortion rights and banning drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- don't make him a Democrat in Independent clothing. But it's not so much where he stands on issues that seems to matter this summer. It's the fact he doesn't stand with either party.

davidshribman

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


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