North by East
Everyone's running for governor, the incredible shrinking state, and more.
This year’s crop of gubernatorial hopefuls seems particularly abundant.
Hey, everybody else is doing it, why not you? This year it seems practically everyone is running for governor of Maine. A whopping twenty-three people declared their candidacy for the seventy-thousand-dollars-per-year position. From the general manager of Marden’s (Paul LePage) to a former minority owner of the Red Sox (Les Otten), anyone with enough ink to fill out the required paperwork — and at least a few dollars to launch a Web site and print some bumper stickers — has seemingly gotten into the game to fill the seat soon to be vacated by term-limited Governor John Baldacci.
“I’ve never seen so many candidates, and seen them getting started in so many different ways so early,” remarks Bowdoin College professor Christian Potholm, who has written several books on Maine politics and campaigns. “It’s particularly strange in that the state has so many problems, and to be the next governor is to take on a tremendous burden. Plus, this is the lowest paid governorship in the country, by quite a bit.”
Potholm cites the 1994 election, with nine Republican candidates, one Democrat, and a handful of other contenders as the most recent high-point in terms of candidates. He believes the enticement of public financing — qualified candidates receive up to six hundred thousand for a primary campaign and a million for the general election — is responsible for this year’s rash of candidates. “The public financing has turned out to be some kind of Frankenstein’s monster,” he says. “At a time when the state is cutting health and human services, we get twenty-three people running around possibly going to get one million apiece? It’s the law of unintended consequences, I think.”
Such a large field of candidates provides plenty of fodder for Mainers who love to have an opinion, chief among them Al Diamon, DownEast.com blogger and political columnist. “I wish I could answer simply why people do this, when they have no experience and no clue how to run a campaign,” Diamon says. “They want to go to Augusta and fix things, but they have no idea what that entails.”
The first thing it entails is money, and Diamon notes that the field will decrease dramatically as each campaign-filing deadline passes. “Whenever there’s an open seat, people start early, and while a lot of them start, not many of them finish,” he says. “You’ll see the lower-end candidates drop out by early March, and I really don’t think you’ll see more than four or five candidates from each party going to the state conventions.”
Despite the plethora of candidates to choose from, Diamon remains unimpressed by most of them. “I have large pieces of living room furniture that are more functioning than some of these people,” he declares.
Warmer weather can reveal some nasty surprises along Maine’s byways.
Winter, in all its mess and slipperiness, has a wonderful way of concealing humanity’s sins. Nowhere is this more evident than on Maine’s highways and byways, where a passing plow serves the dual purpose of removing both snow and the less fortunate creatures who meet their demise under the wheels of passing vehicles. As spring arrives, however, coming upon these fetid carcasses can prove to be a nasty surprise for drivers, bicyclists, and joggers.
In decades past, crews from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) have hauled small roadkill carcasses away and disposed of them (zoos and trappers sometimes accept fresh meat from larger animals like deer and moose), but in recent years the department has turned to a more local solution, according to Brian Burne, MDOT’s highway maintenance engineer. “In the old days you’d take roadkill away and just fling it out back of the maintenance lot, but that could really stack up and start to stink,” Burne says. “In the past decade or so we’ve gone to a policy of disposing of the roadkill in the closest spot. So that means if we can move a carcass into the woods in the right of way nearby where it was killed, we’ll do that.”
Burne says MDOT road crews usually try to inspect busy roads for roadkill as often as once or twice a week, but with some 8,500 miles of pavement to search they can get behind schedule. In cases where crews can’t get to the scene of a reported roadkill right away, he says dispatchers will often ask local police or even drivers themselves to help find an appropriate spot for the animal to decompose, unless it’s a large creature like a deer or moose. “It’s not a glamour job for anybody,” he says. “We try to ask people, when they call in roadkill, if they can move it out of the road. And, of course, we’re always careful not to move it to someone’s property where the smell will be too strong.”
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING STATE
So now we’re smaller than — gulp! — New Hampshire?
There’s no disputing Maine’s friendly rivalry with the Granite State, whether it’s flaunting our miles of coastline (3,500, versus thirteen in New Hampshire), our percentage of land covered by woods (90 percent, compared to 87 percent for our neighbors to the west), or battling over who has the best outlet shopping. Granted, they can claim Portsmouth, but we’ve always secretly held out hope that someday the people of that delightful city will decide to secede and join up with their friends across the Piscataqua.
Maine could use such a population boost, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The latest estimate puts the population of the Pine Tree State below that of New Hampshire by some 6,274 people for the first time since Maine achieved statehood. Instead of gaining population last year, just as it has every year since 1790, Maine lost 1,390 residents in 2009 while New Hampshire gained 2,700.
So how can the Pine Tree State regain its former glory?
“We could start by not closing the Brunswick Naval Air Station, but that cat’s out of the bag,” remarks Charlie Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the Muskie School of Public Service. “That’s really one of the major reasons we showed negative growth in this estimate.” Colgan notes that while not all of the four thousand military personnel and three thousand dependents at the air station have left Maine yet, enough have migrated to skew the Census numbers. In addition, he points out that although he had predicted New Hampshire would pass Maine two years ago, Census estimates in the past have been off by up to forty thousand people.
Far more important than bragging rights, of course, is the status of Maine’s representation in Congress, but Colgan says representatives don’t have anything to fear in the short-term, at least. “I’ve seen projections that say if the trends of the past thirty or forty years were to continue in the next decade, we could be at risk of a loss of a seat in the 2020 Census,” he says. “But the recession has really shuffled the population shifting trends.
All of those assumptions that the next decade will be like the last two or three are proving all wrong.”
What we need, it seems, is a Maine baby boom.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Might just be the safer option.
Driving in Maine in the winter involves a lot of decision making. If I start braking here, will I have enough time to stop before the intersection? Is it worth heading out in a blizzard to pick up some wings from Binga’s?
But one decision that affects tens of thousands of drivers every day puts one in mind of a Robert Frost poem: Interstate 95 or Interstate 295?
In other words, two roads diverge in the city of Portland, and they both lead to Augusta.
For commuters desiring to get from Portland or points south to Augusta or points north (or vice versa), both roads will aptly do the job. And each has its perks. The stretch of 95, aka the Maine State Turnpike, is eight miles longer, and it will cost a little under five dollars in tolls to get from here to there. But 295 is busier. The Tukey’s Bridge section in Portland is the most heavily traveled road in the state, seeing 88,000 vehicles a day.
It is true that the roads can lead to very different experiences en route. Pick 295 and suddenly the outlets of Freeport beckon. “That’s a heck of a draw. It’s a tremendous traffic generator,” says John Dority, the former chief engineer of the Maine Department of Transportation for fifty-six years. From 95, however, the slopes of Sunday River and Sugarloaf seduce skiers from afar.
But in weighing this way or that, at least in a month like March, one consideration is paramount: snow removal. In this, the Turnpike has a distinct advantage. “There are a lot of people that will take the Turnpike during the winter when there’s a snowstorm,” explains Maine Turnpike Authority spokesman Dan Paradee. “Because we’re funded by tolls, we’re able to put more trucks on the road. People pay a little extra to get a little extra.”
Perhaps Frost was onto something — pick the road that is indeed less traveled, just so long as it’s better plowed.