In 2006, when residents of Peaks Island were waging a nasty battle to secede from the city of Portland — and take a sizable chunk of property tax revenue with them — then-Mayor Jim Cohen appointed a five-member team to negotiate with the insurgents. In an editorial I wrote in July of that year, I complained that Cohen’s picks were too tame to tangle with the angry islanders. He had stacked the team with mild-mannered, reasonable people, when what mainland Portlanders needed were ill-tempered, unreasonable negotiators to protect our financial interests.
Flash forward seven years, and the city again finds itself facing a hot-headed agitator determined to take our precious tax money away: Gov. Paul LePage, whose proposal to suspend a revenue-sharing agreement with Maine cities and towns threatens to blow a $6.1 million hole in Portland’s budget.
Who do we have to defend our interests this time? State Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland and Portland Mayor Mike Brennan are leading the charge, but, as with the Peaks talks, both of those guys are way too polite and reasonable to effectively represent our position. They don’t yell or swear at opponents, pound their fists on the table or storm out of meetings like our esteemed governor is prone to do. They are not nearly ruthless enough.
So I’ve got some other suggestions.
My Peaks Secession Dream Team included several tough negotiators who should be considered for this job, such as Portland City Councilor Cheryl Leeman.
Like LePage, Leeman is a Republican who’s been outnumbered by Democratic lawmakers over the years but always sticks to her guns and defends her turf (in this case, East Deering). She’s got nearly 30 years of experience dealing with the wingnuts inside and outside City Hall and nearly 20 years manning the front lines for Olympia Snowe as the former senator’s regional representative. Leeman has beaten back countless dumb ideas over the decades and recently vanquished an especially nefarious threat: cancer. Compared to that, LePage would be a light lunch.
Former Portland Police Chief Mike Chitwood was also on my Dream Team, and he’s on my short list to face LePage. Not long after Portland’s tough-talking top cop left town to lead a police force outside his home town of Philadelphia, he made waves in Maine again by publicly contemplating a run for governor as a Republican. It wouldn’t be difficult to lure Chitwood back up here to fight for the tax money that pays for police — just call a press conference announcing his return and set up a microphone. Like a moth to a flame, he’ll appear.
Attorney and former Portland City Councilor Dan Skolnik often displayed a LePage-like rage that makes him a worthy contender. And the similarly pugnacious Tea Party rabble-rouser Andrew Ian Dodge comes to mind. I’m not saying Dodge would do a competent job, but he might have magic.
City officials have hired lawyers in private practice to represent the public’s interest in numerous complex negotiations over the years. Why not put Dan Lilley or Joe Bornstein on retainer? F. Lee Bailey lives in Yarmouth, and though he’s not licensed to practice law in Maine, that just gives him more leeway to use the tactics he’ll need to secure a fair settlement.
Since Portland stands to lose more than $6 million, it could make sense to invest a million or so to hire a notorious celebrity to square off against the governor. Donald Trump might do it for that price. (“Paul, you’re fired.”) Mr. T is probably available. (“Quit the jibber-jabber and gimmie my revenue, fool!”) Gordon Ramsay would do a great job. (“Are you a complete [expletive] idiot?!) And so would Christopher Walken. (“This situation with the budget is making me very … distressed.”)
Lady Gaga has come to Maine before on a political mission and could be persuaded to return. If she curled up in LePage’s lap and cooed our demands in his ear, chances are we’d end up with more money than we stood to lose in the first place. Charlie Sheen is another tempting pick, but I think he’d end up costing Portland more money in property damage and lawsuits than he’d reap for us in tax revenue.
There are figures in the sports world who could persuasively convey our bargaining position, too. I hear retiring Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has some time on his hands these days. And any number of tantrum-prone coaches could be called upon to go to bat for us, though I’d choose Bill Belichick. He would show up in his hoodie, direct his Jedi master stare at LePage, and within a minute it would be game over.