Maine small town politics

Sam Smith, 2003  I was reminded that I was in Maine when the lead story on the Portland radio station reported that “John Cole crossed over last night at his Brunswick home.” Mainers put their own cast on death. After my brother-in-law died, my sister was told without any disrespect by a friend, “I heard Chad won’t be coming down to breakfast any more.” And the morning our mother died at Maine Medical, the doctor gave us a full report and then added matter of factly, “Basically she’s shuttin’ down.”

John Cole shut down and crossed over after an extraordinary life that included commercial fishing, serving as a tail-gunner in World War II, and, in 1968 (along with Peter Cox), starting the Maine Times, a paper not only an alternative to the conventional media but strikingly different from either the underground press at the time or later publications more interested in alternative advertising demographics than alternative news. Said Cole once, “We kind of wanted to raise hell and people’s awareness about the fact that, in those days, Maine had no protection against being exploited.” The Maine Times treated ideas and issues as news, most importantly introducing people to the numerous facts and problems involved in something most had pretty much taken for granted: the environment.

That Maine today stands as one of the more ecologically conscious portions of the country is due at least in part to the fact that Cole, the editor, and Cox, the publisher, made the environment into news. The Maine Times also inspired younger journalists, including your editor, to keep seeking non-conventional ways to tell the stories around us.

In later years John wrote a weekly column for the Falmouth Forecaster, a lively community paper in southern Maine. Recently John quoted from one of my articles and I felt like the teacher had pinned my paper on the board. His last column appeared the day he died. But it was his penultimate piece about a controversy in the town of Freeport that better gives the flavor of the man.

The town had been in an uproar following the surprise victory of several candidates for council highly critical of the way business was being done. I decided to pay a visit to the town council meeting to get a better feel of the characters and the controversies. I got there ten minutes late and found myself standing with others in the doorway – but the lobbying and discussions in the hall made it impossible to hear the meeting so I left to go watch it on TV. I was still engrossed as midnight approached, in part because among those speaking were residents who had become so incensed by what they saw on cable that they had gotten dressed and driven in the night winter cold just to have their views heard.

I finally surrendered to Morpheus only to learn the next morning from a school board member that, after losing a key vote in their drive to fire the town manager, three of the newly elected councilors had resigned, literally leaving Freeport with no one in charge. Later that day, I paid a visit to Richard DeGrandpre of R & D Automotive, a former member of the “government in exile” that used to meet at a restaurant for breakfast until it suddenly found itself in power. Rich was the one member of the coup who hadn’t quit. He assured me that DVDs of the town meeting would soon be available. I offered him the advice of LBJ: “Just hunker down like a jack rabbit in a dust storm.” Then he gave me a copy of John Cole’s next-to-last column, written before the town council disintegrated. It read in part:

“Relax folks. In all my forty-something years of being paid to observe and report on municipal government in more than a dozen Maine communities, I have never seen a permanent damage done by the charging bulls in the china shops of their own home towns. But they sure are fun to watch.

“And you folks in Freeport ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. In an odd paradox, it’s Maine’s long, cold, dark winters that fuel the fires of municipal rampage. As January closes in and February breaks our hearts, our malice turns inward, conspiracy looms in every dark corner and by town meeting time the hearts of otherwise tepid citizens pulse with winter’s accumulated venom. Oh the tumults I have witnessed in the lengthening days of March in Maine.

“And then it all dribbles away. By June, all is forgotten and mostly forgiven as late sunsets tell every merchant, school child, every harassed mother that the wonders of summer are upon us. Light spills its bright wine into every evening, harbors throb with the sound of marine engines and all of us are much too busy to worry about where our town manager sits.”

It’s just too bad John never covered Congress or the White House.

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