Blog Local: Westbrook Diarist
Maine has a long history of citizen involvement in local politics, so it's no surprise that many Maine towns now have resident bloggers writing about local issues. That loud guy in the audience at town meetings can now continue his rants on the internet.
Portland has many local blogs, including the Phoenix's excellent About Town. Even tiny Alna, population 675, has two eponymous online journals - the Alna Erratic and the Alna Harridan - although they mostly focus on national issues.
One of the best local bloggers, however, happens to live and write in my adopted city of Westbrook. I sat down with John Morgan, author of the Westbrook Diarist, recently to talk about local political blogging and hopefully learn a bit more about my new home.
Morgan, who jokingly refers to himself as Westbrook's unofficial marketing arm, is a 26 year-old graduate student and ed tech working to earn his teaching certification. He says he's never lived anywhere but Westbrook.
The blog focuses on a mix of local politics, history and culture and anything else related to the Cumberland County city, which Morgan says is “a pretty good microcosm of Maine.” Some recent posts have, for example, highlighted an art showing at the local mill or pointed towards the latest news about allegations of sexual harassment at the Westbrook fire department.
Morgan says he's not out to get scoops, explaining that “that's the job of the American Journal” (a local newspaper) and that he's instead trying to provide some background and analysis of local issues and “get to know the city intimately.”
“Bloggers often have a stupid animosity towards newspapers,” said Morgan, who makes sure to pay for subscriptions to the newspapers he links to and is friendly with local reporters. “We need newspapers. I wouldn't have much to write about without them.”
Unlike most Maine towns, party affiliations are noted on Westbrook's municipal ballots, making city elections a partisan affair.
Despite this ideological division, Morgan doesn't seem to have a dog in the fight. Morgan himself is a registered independent whose favorite magazine is the left-leaning New Republic and who volunteered for Republican Peter Mills in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. His blog posts are mostly neutral and informative.
One of the Diarist's more fascinating forays into local politics was his June, 2009 ranking of “Westbrook's most influential people.” Morgan canvassed local elected officials and prominent citizens and came up with a list of ten city power brokers, which included politicians, businessmen and city officials. Interestingly, the chief of policy and the city administrator beat out mayor, Bruce Chuluda for the top two spots.
Even more interestingly, School Committee Vice-Chair Colleen Hilton came in fourth, right behind the mayor. Hilton, a Democrat, beat Republican incumbent Chuluda in the mayoral race later that year.
During the election itself, Morgan published detailed interviews with the candidates that I personally, as a first-time Westbrook voter, found incredibly helpful.
Morgan next hopes to transition the sense of community spirit that he has attempted to foster with his blog back into the off-line world. He's working with other interested locals to plan a new local civic group that he hopes will be “something like a cross between the League of Women Voters and the Westbrook Rec. Department” offering networking and entertainment opportunities for Westbrook residents, especially younger professionals. The working title for his organization is The Paper City Junto, where “Junto” is apparently the name of a club established by Benjamin Franklin and not, as I feared, a reference to a “junta,” a military cabal intent on seizing power.
Speaking of seizing power, Morgan says that he plans to run for local office himself some day and hopes that other local bloggers will be around to chronicle his campaign.