Angus King doesn’t only have an independent streak. The United States senator from Maine has been an Independent for three decades. “The Democratic Party as an institution has become too much the party that is looking for something from government,” King said in launching his successful bid for governor of the Pine Tree State in 1993. He spent much of his career in the private sector. He voted against Bernie Sanders’ amendment to add a $15 hourly minimum wage provision into the American Rescue Plan and has endorsed his share of Republicans. King has a fondness for taking RV trips through rural America, which likely sets him apart from most members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus.
This isn’t to say that where King is likely to stand on any given issue is a jump ball. He aligns with his Democratic colleagues, with whom he typically votes. After King lambasted Donald Trump’s handling of COVID-19 as the blend of stubborn obtuseness and bumbling ineptitude that it was, Trump lambasted him right back, calling King “worse than any Democrat,” surely an honor on a par with making it onto Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
Still, King’s independent, cerebral approach lends him outsized credibility in the Senate, and he rejects the conventional wisdom that bipartisanship in the world’s supposedly most deliberative body is dead. “A lot of things do get done on a bipartisan basis but they don’t get covered,” says King. He points to last year’s budget deal and the Great American Outdoors Act, the land conservation legislation praised as “a conservationist’s dream” by the National Parks Conservation Association.
But he is not naive about the partisan pingpong that chokes progress in Washington. “What happens is that the primary in so many states becomes the election,” he explains. “In many states if you win the nomination you are going to be the Senator. If the primary is the election, who votes in the primary? The activists. And those people are at the edges of their party. One of the commonalities of activists on the right and the left is a distaste for compromise. You can lose your seat because you are someone who is willing to listen to the other side. That’s an extremely dangerous place for the country to be.”
King recalls a dinner he had with a conservative Republican incumbent who told him that he would probably face a primary challenge. “What are they going to charge you with?” King asked. “They are going to charge me with being reasonable,” replied the Republican. “It makes it hard to solve problems,” King laments, “not because of the substance of the matter, but because consorting with the enemy is considered an executable offense.”
King was one of a handful of senators invited to the Oval Office last week to discuss President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. Biden knew what he was doing. Not only is King effective at building bridges, but he has been beating the drum for providing broadband to areas shut off from digital access for a generation. “Rural America has taken a beating over the past 25 years,” King says. “The pandemic exposed this. Broadband is the first thing that provides the promise of giving rural areas a future.” As governor, in 2002, King launched the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, a groundbreaking program to provide laptops to all middle school students in the state. “I see broadband as important in the short term for telehealth and education and in the long term as a lifeline economically,” says King, who is playing point in the negotiation of Biden’s infrastructure package.
“I have found,” says King, “if you have a difficult problem and you can gather people around a table and establish a common understanding of the facts, you can come up with a policy.” Skeptical of the skeptics, King forges ahead, confident he can help prove them wrong.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.