BRUNSWICK, Maine - I should have known when Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told me he didn’t love the term “influencer,” the balloons might not go over well.
So when I pulled two large, shiny, made-for-Instagram foil balloons out of the car, they were met with what should have been a predictable response: an awkward smile. But King played along, flashing the sense of humor that helped him ascend from TV personality to governor to the U.S. Senate.
“Do you have to remind people?,” King rhetorically chuckled, referencing the balloons, which were in the shapes of a “7” and “8,” a recognition of how the 78-year-old has cultivated one of the most interesting Instagram feeds in all of the Senate.
Like many politicians, King posts cute shots of babies and self-deprecating humor. But unlike most of his colleagues, King’s feed is dominated by beautiful photos the Senator takes himself.
“I want to show people in Washington and New York who follow me what Maine looks like,” the senator said. “And I want to show people in Maine what Washington looks like.”
King, one of just two independents in all of Congress, also frequently couples his Instagram photography with short captions reflecting his political thoughts of the day.
“It was made for me, in a sense that I like to write,” King said. “And I really like the challenge of condensing a complex subject to a shorter format. I think that's important, particularly in my line of work.”
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But for as much as his online influence has grown, King’s real influence comes — quietly — in the Capitol, where he finds himself in the middle of almost every effort to build bipartisan compromises and relationships.
For instance, he was one of the core group of senators who agreed on the framework for the bipartisan gun bill President Biden signed into law earlier this month. King called the deal important, and “better than nothing,” even though it fell far short of the actions many of his colleagues and constituents were calling for, such as new restrictions on assault weapons access and raising the age to purchase a firearm.
He also routinely brings Democrats and Republicans together at his Washington home for bar-b-que dinner. King says it’s a chance to look past political differences and see the human on the other side of the debate.
“I've probably had 55 or 60 of my colleagues…everybody from Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz.”
Ironically, King says those dinners are among the rare moments he doesn’t want to capture with a photo.
King caucuses with Democrats and typically reflects his state’s left-of-center leanings. But he tells LX News he can’t support the calls from liberals to abolish the filibuster, the mechanism that allows the minority party in the Senate to slow (or halt) most of the majority’s priorities until they can find 60 votes.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the filibuster as flawed.
“The filibuster is too damn easy,” King said. “All you’ve got to do is call [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell or [Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and say, ‘I'm going to filibuster’...[and all of a sudden], 24% of Americans' representatives can block what 76% of Americans want.
“That's not square with democratic theory, and that's not what the framers had in mind.”
Republicans have used the filibuster to block virtually every Democratic priority since January 2021, including a number of reforms that poll very well among American voters, from climate regulations to voting rights to family leave and safety net programs.
Yet King only supports modest reforms to filibuster rules, to retain some ability of the minority party to slow down legislation.
He suggested returning to the “standing” filibuster, which requires senators who oppose giving a piece of legislation a simple majority vote to stand and make speeches continuously to stall a bill.
King also supports “reversing” the filibuster, so instead of requiring 60 votes to proceed with a vote, the minority party would have to produce 40 votes in-person to stall. Because many lawmakers don’t want to spend their whole day on the floor of the Senate, King believes members would become much more selective about what legislation they filibuster.
“The problem with abolishing it altogether and just going to a straight majority vote, is you get these wild swings of policy,” King said. “I like to say today's obnoxious obstruction is tomorrow's priceless shield when the shoe’s on the other foot. ”
However, King admitted a group of bipartisan Senators, who worked for several months on possible filibuster reforms, made no real progress with their colleagues. And the lack of movement could be the death knell for many of the reforms Democrats are trying to push through an evenly-divided Senate.
An Influential Independent
Like so many other New Englanders, Angus King spent much of his adult life as a registered Democrat. But in 1993, the successful businessman and former television host dropped his party affiliation and ran for governor as an independent.
King won, and after serving two terms as governor — and another decade back in the private sector — he won Maine’s 2012 senate race, again, as an independent.
But despite his left-of-center leanings, the wildly popular King tells LX News he likes remaining uncommitted to a specific party.
“It's just where I'm comfortable,” he said. “I don't have to follow the party line unless I agree with it.”
When King’s votes are stacked up against other left-leaning Senators, King consistently ranks as one of the most moderate (fourth-most, according to both GovTrack’s 2019-2020 rankings and Progressive Punch’s 2021-2022 rankings).
“We did a bipartisan budget, a huge bipartisan infrastructure bill, (and) The Great American Outdoors Act got 70 votes in the Senate —- the biggest conservation bill in 50 years,” King said, rattling off a list of recent deals he helped forge with his Republican colleagues. “So occasionally things do get done.”
“Some of the really tough issues — immigration, voting rights — we just haven't been able to get across the finish line. And we should…we're not addressing the country's problems the way we should.”
"I’ve got to tell you,” King said, “it took me about six months to convince my staff to let me do the Instagram by myself.”
King’s love for Instagram is not just about the photography, but also tied tofor how the platform allows him to pair a beautiful image with his reflections of the day.
“It's an opportunity for me to get my message out unfiltered…what you see…that’s me. (Whereas) if I talk to a reporter; it's going to be edited. This way, I can be directly in-touch with people, and people seem to respond to it.”
His Instagram photos have even made it into their own hardcover book, a distinction he says he shares with Kim Kardashian and very few others.
Just don’t call him an “influencer.”
“I've always thought of my job as being partially a teacher. I'd rather call it that. That part of a politician's job is to educate your colleagues, but also your constituents.”