n a state that prides itself on its political independence, Maine’s popular former governor ran an entirely nonpartisan campaign—he would not say which party he would caucus with if elected—and established himself as the early front-runner. Political independent Angus King never relinquished that status to his major party rivals, and was elected to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
King grew up in Alexandria, Va., the son of a lawyer, and attended Dartmouth College and the University of Virginia’s law school. He moved to Maine to work for a legal-assistance organization, then became an aide to Democratic Sen. William Hathaway of Maine. He practiced law and started an energy-conservation business, which he sold for $20 million in 1994. For 18 years, he hosted Maine Public Television’s MaineWatch, making him a well-known figure in the state. He entered the 1994 governor’s race as an independent.
Originally a Democrat, King came to believe that “sometimes the best thing the government can do is get out of the way.’ ” In the ’94 race, he attacked high taxes and clumsy government meddling in business, and called for specific spending cuts. He spent $750,000 of his own money on the race. He overshadowed the Republican nominee—his soon-to-be Senate colleague Susan Collins—and contrasted sharply with Democrat Joseph Brennan, who was elected governor in 1978 and 1982 and had lost narrowly in 1990. King won with 35 percent to Brennan’s 34 percent, Collins’s 23 percent, and Green Party candidate Jonathan Carter’s 6 percent.
As governor, King cut the state budget and workforce, reduced the cost of workmen’s compensation, and shortened environmental permit delays from nine months to 45 days, helping to attract employers like National Semiconductor. He accepted a Republican-sponsored income-tax cut in return for a property-tax exemption for business machinery and equipment. On the environment, King staked out positions between extremes, with varying success. He opposed the ban on timber clear-cutting, but his attempts in 1997 and 1998 to bring experts together on compromise measures were rejected by a coalition of Greens and property rights advocates. After signing a bill in 1997 imposing tight controls on paper mills’ dioxin discharges into rivers, he celebrated by jumping fully clothed into the Kennebec River.
In 1998, with his job-approval rating as high as 86 percent, King won a second term easily with 59 percent of the vote. He then signed a law to have the state leverage its buying clout to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs for people without Medicaid or private health insurance, and to impose price caps if companies would not comply by 2003. It was overturned by a federal judge in 2000, but the state won an appeal the following year. King pressed for a $50 million endowment to buy laptop computers for every Maine seventh-grader. Legislators hated the idea, but he got a $30 million endowment for school technology.
King in 2004 became a lecturer at Bowdoin College and taught a course called “Leaders and Leadership.” He later taught a similar course at Bates College. He also worked for a law firm and a mergers-and-acquisitions advisory firm in Portland. He formed a wind-energy company in 2007, which he divested himself of in 2012 to run for the Senate.
His campaign headquarters prominently featured two photographs side by side: one of former Republican President Reagan, the other of former Democratic Attorney General Robert Kennedy. “My desire is to be as independent as I can be, as long as I can be, subject to being effective,” King told The Washington Post. “I’m not going just for symbolism. I want to do something.” However, the widespread speculation was that he was aligned with Democrats, having said he would support President Obama for reelection, and national Democrats did little to support their nominee, state Sen. Cynthia Dill.
To help the Republican nominee, Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, the conservative nonprofit Crossroads GPS ran ads blasting King’s support of tax hikes as governor. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also broadcast an ad accusing King of using political connections to win a “sketchy” federal loan guarantee to build an industrial wind farm. But such attacks gained little traction against such a known political commodity.