Why a Congressman Wants to Take a $104,000 Pay Cut

FILE-In this Friday, May 31, 2013, file photo U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, appears at an event in Brewer, Maine. Michaud is forming an exploratory committee and is beginning fundraising for a possible challenge of Gov. Paul LePage in 2014, taking a jab at the blunt-spoken Republican incumbent on Thursday, June 13, 2013, by saying Maine needs a governor who "can restore civility in Augusta."
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Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Aug. 20, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

Con­gress­men who leave the Cap­it­ol to cash in for high­er-pay­ing jobs are a bit of a Wash­ing­ton cliché. So when Rep. Mi­chael Michaud says he wants to leave of­fice to be­come Maine’s next gov­ernor — and take a $104,000 pay cut — he stands out.

In­deed, the Maine Demo­crat wants to leave be­hind his $174,000-a-year con­gres­sion­al salary in a seat he’s won by healthy mar­gins in the last four elec­tions for a chance to serve as the coun­try’s low­est-paid chief ex­ec­ut­ive, at $70,000 a year.

Why would any­one do that?

“Good ques­tion,” said Michaud, 58. “A lot of people are ask­ing me about that. Well, I nev­er got in­to pub­lic ser­vice to make money. I got in pub­lic ser­vice to help the people of Maine.”

That’s es­sen­tially what his fel­low Demo­crats say as well. The de­cision, they ar­gue, fits with his blue-col­lar back­ground and a le­gis­lat­ive ca­reer that began at the state House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives in 1980 and con­tin­ued in the state Sen­ate in 1994 be­fore he ever got to Wash­ing­ton.

For nearly three dec­ades, Michaud, who did not at­tend col­lege, punched a clock as a mill work­er at the Great North­ern Pa­per Com­pany in rur­al East Millinock­et, Maine. He began in the “pa­per room,” where pulp trans­formed in­to pa­per, then moved to the ship­ping de­part­ment. When he was in the Le­gis­lature, he com­muted from Au­gusta to work overnight shifts on the week­end. He’s the kind of law­maker who could cred­ibly con­vene a “beer sum­mit.”

“I don’t think there’s a com­pel­ling fin­an­cial reas­on to get in­to this race,” said Mike Cuzzi, a Maine Demo­crat­ic strategist whose wife is a former Michaud cam­paign man­ager. “Mike de­serves a lot of cred­it in my mind for hav­ing the cour­age and the where­with­al to get in­to this race, leav­ing the safety of that con­gres­sion­al seat as well as the salary that comes with it.”

Ul­ti­mately, Michaud ac­know­ledges the fin­an­cial risk in run­ning, but waves the salary ques­tion aside. Un­like many oth­er mem­bers of Con­gress, though, whose net worth is es­tim­ated in the mil­lions, Michaud does not have that kind of wealth.

Michaud’s net worth in 2010, ac­cord­ing to data ana­lyzed by The Wash­ing­ton Post, was $524,000, nearly $200,000 be­low the me­di­an and sig­ni­fic­antly be­low the $6.5 mil­lion av­er­age net worth of House mem­bers in 2011, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics.

Of course, the gov­ernor’s man­sion does have its perks.

For one, a gov­ernor has more power com­pared to a mem­ber of the minor­ity party in Con­gress, even con­sid­er­ing that Michaud is the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said James Melch­er, an as­so­ci­ate polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Maine.

It also of­fers ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence that, to­geth­er with Michaud’s Wash­ing­ton years, could bring luc­rat­ive of­fers should he de­cide to leave pub­lic life.

There’s also a fin­an­cial safety net for re­tir­ing law­makers. Mem­bers of Con­gress are ves­ted in their fed­er­al pen­sions after five years of ser­vice. Elec­ted in 2002, Michaud would qual­i­fy for a pen­sion, join­ing 527 re­tired mem­bers of Con­gress who were re­ceiv­ing fed­er­al pen­sions as of Oc­to­ber 2012. Av­er­age pen­sion rates vary from about $71,500 to $40,600 a year, de­pend­ing on a num­ber of factors, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice.

Then there’s the po­ten­tial that Michaud will be a polit­ic­al god­send for his party.

Maine Demo­crats have suffered a string of statewide de­feats, in­clud­ing los­ing three-way races for gov­ernor in 2010 and for Sen­ate in 2012. The pres­sure, then, was on to re­cruit a top-tier can­did­ate, and Michaud provided that.

“Mike gives them that blue-col­lar im­age, and the name is cer­tainly well known in the 2nd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict,” said Philip E. Har­ri­m­an, a former Re­pub­lic­an state sen­at­or who served with Michaud in the Le­gis­lature.

The race is shap­ing up to be a con­test pit­ting Michaud, who an­nounced last week, against vul­ner­able Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent Paul LePage and wealthy in­de­pend­ent Eli­ot Cut­ler, who fin­ished second to LePage in 2010, beat­ing Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate Libby Mitchell by al­most 100,000 votes.

“If Mike did not run, there was a pretty good chance that the Demo­crats would prob­ably come in third again,” Har­ri­m­an said.

To Demo­crats, it’s an open ques­tion wheth­er Cut­ler’s voters will back him again in 2014. Polit­ic­al watch­ers in both parties also agree that Cut­ler’s can­did­acy cuts in­to Michaud’s mar­gin more than LePage’s. Demo­crats point out that LePage’s path to vic­tory re­quires Cut­ler and Michaud to “de­vour each oth­er,” as Cuzzi put it.

Har­ri­m­an al­lots a base of about 30 per­cent to LePage and Michaud, and 25 per­cent to Cut­ler. So, Har­ri­m­an cal­cu­lates, that leaves the three can­did­ates fight­ing for about 15 per­cent of the vote.

“Michaud’s op­por­tun­ity is to con­vince people that a vote for Cut­ler is a wasted vote,” he said.

Michaud is op­tim­ist­ic he can cut in­to Cut­ler’s sup­port, though he vows he will not run a neg­at­ive cam­paign.

“Yes, Eli­ot came in second, but the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate was plum­met­ing in the polls about three weeks out in the elec­tion and there was nervous­ness,” Michaud said. “It wasn’t that they really be­lieved in Eli­ot. About a third of Eli­ot’s sup­port­ers are there be­cause they don’t like the gov­ernor.”

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