Democrats could have demanded accountability at DHHS. They caved instead.

Maine Democrats had an opportunity to start correcting a grievous wrong last week.

A federal report showed Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services failed to investigate more than 15,000 suspected cases of abuse, neglect, and medication error within the state’s Adult Protective Services (APS) division, including the deaths of 133 developmentally disabled adults. Acting DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton had oversight responsibility for APS at the time of the report, and last week the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee had the opportunity to question the man responsible for this horrendous failure.

Hamilton deserved to be sent packing for his leadership lapse, with extreme prejudice. But instead of a pink slip, the HHS committee gave him a promotion. By a vote of 10 to 1, Hamilton was confirmed as DHHS commissioner.

The lone lawmaker on the committee who voted “no,” Democratic Rep. Jennifer Parker, put it pretty plainly. “I didn’t feel as though I could support a nomination that will lead to more of the same.”

Ricker Hamilton

But her 10 colleagues did just that — they voted for more of the same at DHHS.

It’s not hard to understand the votes of Republican committee members: they simply do whatever the governor tells them to do. Raise taxes? Sure! Appoint incompetent people to positions they don’t deserve? No problem!

For Democrats, though, it’s inexplicable. All the posturing about LePage’s failures, and all the concern they voice about the impact of DHHS failures on those in need, all of it adds up to nothing if there are no steps taken to correct the problem.

When faced with the chance to demand competent management at DHHS, Democrats (save one) did not act. When the person responsible for the APS failures testified before them, they did not hold him accountable.

They promoted him.

This is what Democrats have exasperatingly done for years. They’ve complained about LePage’s actions, but have done little to leverage the power they hold to fix the problems.

When LePage appointed the lawyer responsible for the 2015 missed-veto debacle to be a judge, Democrats voted to confirm her. When LePage appointed a former legislator who had recently had his keys taken from him by a stranger at a gas station because he was too drunk to drive to be public advocate, Democrats voted to confirm him.

The message Democrats have sent LePage is clear: “We’re going to make a lot of noise, but you go ahead and do whatever you want.”

A properly functioning democracy requires a robust opposition party to hold those in power accountable. Maine suffered for years because Republicans failed to fulfill that role. Democrats expanded government at a breakneck pace for decades, and Republicans hid in the shadows. Now that Republicans have asserted themselves, it’s the Democratic Party that is afraid to stand up and fight.

The confirmation of Hamilton was a terrible lapse on the part of everyone involved. The 10 HHS committee members who voted to reward Hamilton for his conduct should join him and his former boss Mary Mayhew in explanation to the victims of these tragic abuses. They need to explain what their rationale was for endorsing a system that caused such horrifying results.

But Hamilton’s appointment was also a strategic failure for Democrats. By voting to “stay the course” at DHHS, Democrats gave up the moral authority to complain about the department’s management going forward. And politically, how can a party make the lapses at DHHS a campaign issue when they’ve gone on record in support of the leadership team?

The Maine Democratic Party is a mess right now. After six years of the LePage fiasco, Democrats should be flipping legislative seats left and right. But they’re not. In fact, they’re performing worse at the ballot box. And the party still has not garnered a majority vote in a statewide race since George Mitchell’s senate run in 1988.

Democrats are torn between two explanations. Some say it’s because the party has become too progressive, alienating older, rural voters who used to be reliable Democrats. Some say the party is not capitalizing on the populist wave, and that they need to be unapologetically progressive.

The Hamilton confirmation points to a third reason Democrats are failing in Maine — lack of effort. Whether it’s laziness, or cowardice, or general malaise, the voters of Maine can see it. They see that Democrats have a reticence to lead, and that makes the individual issues they’re pushing irrelevant. No one cares what your stand is on an issue if they don’t have believe you’ll be able to implement it.

This reticence is bad for Maine, regardless of your political party. We’ve got a crisis of government in Augusta. We’ve had it for some time, and if the check-and-balance of opposing political parties is not working, we’re destined to suffer the unchecked whims of the governor, no matter how reckless or incompetent he is.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.