By Rob Linke
As appeared on page A1
He’s a politician’s son who assumed high office having charmed voters with a personality that works better one-on-one than from a stage, and now he’s reaching across the border to a small, striving, somewhat remote jurisdiction like his own in the search for prosperity.
That describes Premier Shawn Graham, son of Alan Graham, New Brunswick’s long-serving MLA. It also describes the man Graham hosted in Fredericton Wednesday, Maine Gov. John Baldacci. The Democratic governor of Maine since 2002 is the son of a popular city councillor remembered for pushing to clean up the Penobscot River.
But Robert Baldacci Sr. also ran an Italian family restaurant, Momma Baldacci’s, a fixture in downtown Bangor where political debate and gossip was always on the menu. Maine’s most famous resident, novelist Stephen King, is a customer.
Baldacci and his seven siblings all worked there, and “even as a Congressman or now as governor, John sometimes goes back and buses tables and greets customers and cleans up in the kitchen,” said his older brother, Robert Jr.
Baldacci’s father ran the John F. Kennedy campaign for president in the state in 1960, and brought the dashing young senator to Bangor. John Baldacci was six, Robert Jr. eight. It was a beautiful summer’s day in a crowded city park.
“John was young, but he remembers it,” said Robert, a developer. “He was pounding on Kennedy’s car.”
All the Baldacci’s have been involved in public life in some way, said Robert, who headed the Bangor Region Development Alliance, and has spoken in Saint John about closer co-operation between Maine and New Brunswick. Another brother, Joe, was mayor of Bangor. Former U.S. Senate majority leader George Mitchell is a first cousin.
Baldacci is the kind of “people person” who comes naturally to grassroots politics. He has a reputation throughout the state for his uncanny memory for ordinary people’s names, who they’re related to, and when he last met them.
“He’s a very genuine person,” said Robert Jr. “My father taught us to treat everybody the same no matter what their walk of life.”
Now in his second and final term as governor, Baldacci has had an enviable record at the polls. He won his first election, at 23, to Bangor city council. In 30 years of running for office at the local, state senate, U.S. House of Representatives and then governor, he’s lost just one election (in 1980, for state senate).
As a moderate Democrat in Congress, “Baldacci was focused on constituent service and the job of bringing federal resources back to his district almost to a fault,” the Bangor Daily News opined in an editorial endorsing him for governor in 2002.
In Congress, he voted against the Iraq war, knowing “some flag-waving voters” would punish him, said Robert Jr. As a congressman, his frugality saved taxpayers $300,000 over six years because he didn’t avail himself of the self-promoting mass mailings he could have.
Baldacci is not a lawyer, but has a bachelor’s degree. He and his wife Karen have a 14-year-old son, Jack, and live in the historic Blaine House, the official residence of Maine governors.
Maine’s economic outlook for 2007 is iffy, according to the state’s non-partisan economic forecasting panel. At best, there will be modest job growth, similar to 2006. But even that is better than 2005, when Baldacci took a political pounding for leading one of only two states to have economies that didn’t grow. The other was Louisiana, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.
University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said during the campaign last year that Baldacci had to overcome “a sense of malaise” that had overtaken Maine.
Yet Maine has begun to rebound in one significant way New Brunswick desperately wants to emulate.
The state’s population has grown by 46,000 since 2000. That’s more than in the entire decade of the 1990’s.
Last year, former president Bill Clinton, speaking at a Baldacci fundraiser in Portland, praised the governor for eliminating a $1-billion shortfall he inherited, extending a health insurance plan for workers in companies with fewer than 50 employees, and reversing out-migration (a huge challenge for the Graham government in New Brunswick.)
“There are very few people in America who have a record like this,” Clinton said.
Baldacci is turning to education reform and innovation to turn around the economy. He’s not cut from the “great communicator” mould of his predecessor, former broadcaster Gov. Angus King, but he’s arguably bolder.
King’s claim to political fame was giving every 7th grader a laptop.
Baldacci is slashing administration jobs in the school system in order to save $250 million and he’s created a community college system that’s grown 40 per cent in three years. The state lags the rest of New England in how many workers have a college degree, but has set targets to change that. He’s reforming property tax, too, to protect long-time residents from the crushing bills that come with rising values.
Closer links with the Maritimes and Quebec are part of his economic plan – but it’s one among many other focuses, listed on the state economic department’s website right after “Indian Tribe Development.”
Still, said state Sen. Beth Edmonds, who was in Quebec last weekend for talks on tourism and trade, “Gov. Baldacci is more interested in the potential of those links than any governor I’ve known for 20 years.”
Baldacci, she said, “understands that in reality, Maine is not like we’ve been taught – it’s not at the end of the map.
“And we’re starting to see more Mainers appreciate that.”