Bipartisan politics is suddenly sexy. Barack Obama extols the middle road in campaign speeches. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's will-he-or-won't-he presidential dalliance is wedded to his updated résumé as a registered independent.
And Angus King, standing in the living room of a Vashon Island house overlooking an arm of Puget Sound, is taking a cell-phone call from a TV celebrity who's worried about the uber-partisan state of the union.
King is that rarity in American politics, a successful, vote-getting independent. He's a former two-term Maine governor who won the state house in 1995 running in a three-way race against a popular former Democratic governor and a Republican newcomer, Susan Collins, now the state's junior U.S. senator. King won narrowly and was reelected four years later in a landslide.
Since leaving office, King helped found Unity08, a group advocating bridge-building centrism as the only realistic way to solve such looming national budgetary headaches as Medicare and Social Security. He's working on a wind power project and evangelizes around the world on the virtues of laptop computers in schools. He also lectures at Bowdoin College, a lobster's throw from his home in Brunswick, Maine.
King is also one of the Oklahoma City 17, the group of political lions – Gary Hart, Sam Nunn, David Boren, Christine Todd Whitman, Chuck Hagel, et. al. – who met two weeks ago to register their disgust with the status quo and, just perhaps, remove one more veil from Bloomberg's presidential burlesque.
King visited the Pacific Northwest last week. After his phone discussion with the television star and before racing to catch the ferry, he talked to Crosscut about the virtues of third party politics, how he feels about a Bloomberg run for the White House, and why driving an RV is ideal therapy for ex-officeholders.
Crosscut: Would states benefit from having politically independent governors?
King: I found being an independent a real advantage. On the management side, you have a broader talent pool. I could appoint anyone I wanted and I would argue that I had one of the best teams Maine has ever had. On the policy side, you're allowed to make decisions based on what's best for the state or country, not what's best for a party or interest group or financial group. I ended up forming coalitions from both parties, one issue at a time. Sometimes I was at odds with Democrats, sometimes with Republicans, but at least it allowed us to move forward and make decisions.
Crosscut: Could an independent president govern effectively?
King: Hard to tell because it's never been tried. I was successful because I was working with Maine legislators who are citizens first and partisans second. In the Congress, the members are professional partisans. Whether an independent president could work with the intensely partisan Congress is a fair question. They could stonewall him or her.
Crosscut: Was there discussion at the Oklahoma City meeting about a Bloomberg presidential run?
King: Practically none. The press jumped to the conclusion that this was some sort of launching pad, and that wasn't the case. The meeting was convened by Nunn and Boren and Mayor Bloomberg was invited.
Crosscut: If not a Bloomberg candidacy, what did you talk about?
King: The talk wasn't about independence but bipartisanship. There were only two independents, Mayor Bloomberg and me. Everybody else was a pretty solid partisan. Sen. Boren, Bill Brock, Gary Hart, Sam Nunn. The common denominator was that almost everyone had served in state government or the Congress in the '80s and '90s, a time when bipartisanship worked. Most of them left under their own steam because they were so disgusted with the way things were going. They weren't defeated. They said this isn't fun anymore.
Crosscut: Did the group have a vision of how bipartisan government could work?
King: One model was the British War Cabinet that Churchill formed in 1941 with Labour, Tories, and Liberals. That model came up several times.
Crosscut: Is Bloomberg being coy about his future?
King: I don't think he's being indecisive at all. I think he thinks he may have a contribution to make. I don't think he has a burning need to go for ego reasons. I think he's waiting to see who the candidates are.
Crosscut: Would you support a Bloomberg candidacy?
King: I might be prepared to back the mayor. I don't know. It depends on the other candidates.
Crosscut: What did the Oklahoma City meeting accomplish?
King: We reached consensus, which was sort of amazing, on a statement that the candidates for president should commit themselves to a unity government. There was also a loose decision to meet again and assess where things stand in early spring. The question of what happens then was left open.
Crosscut: What was the biggest surprise?
King: Here we are, 17 people from all over the country. We walked into the press conference and there were a thousand people in the auditorium. Apparently people drove in from all over the Southwest. Before anyone said a word, there was a five-minute standing ovation. We looked at each other and said, 'What the hell's going on?' The only conclusion was that people were deeply appreciative that someone was trying to get at this problem. It was very moving.
Crosscut: What's your political future?
King: I'm not running for anything. I'm still vitally interested in issues. Under the right circumstances, I'd be willing to serve in some capacity.
Crosscut: You defeated Susan Collins once. Did you think about taking her on again in her Senate reelection race in November?
King: There was a lot of talk about it. I considered it and rejected it out of hand. Our differences aren't so great, so running against her would be an ego thing. I think she's a pretty good senator. Besides, I'm 63 and I'd have to serve in the Senate until I was 80 to have any seniority. And there are the big personal considerations of where does your family live.
Crosscut: One of the hallmarks of your administration was a program to supply a laptop computer to every 7th and 8th grader in Maine. How has that worked out?
King: It's a success beyond even my inflated expectations. It's grown to 40,000 laptops, 5,000 teachers, and 35,000 students. It's the largest educational technology project in the world. I've been to Vienna, Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia to talk about this program. I'm going to Alaska, New Jersey, and Sweden. In education circles, it's a world model.
Crosscut: You surprised a lot of people the day after you left office by driving off in a motor home with your wife, Mary Herman, and two children and spending the next six months touring the U.S.
King: It broadens your perspective. Instead of worrying about the Legislature, I was worrying about whether the next RV park had a dump station. It was a fantastic experience for the family. I'd do it again in a minute."