Something strange is about to happen on the other side of the Saco River. It’s as rare as a blue moon and perhaps more difficult to understand.
Mark Johnston will not be running for mayor in Saco.
Johnston, 61, says he has spent nearly 40 years in service to his community. Now, he says, it’s time to let someone else take the reins.
“I’m tired. I’m going to be 62, and now it’s time for Mark,” he said during a recent interview at his Main Street delicatessen, which is often mistaken as City Hall with an amazing selection of wines and good sandwiches.
Johnston came into the world of politics in the usual way: He was a malcontent, a young man worried about a used car lot that was planned near his home.
That was nearly 40 years ago, when he was appointed to the Saco Zoning Board of Appeals. His political career would extend over the next four decades and he served under five different mayors, including Sam Zaitlin, Paul Jansen, Haley Booth, Fred Clark and Eric Cote. He also served on the planning board and the city council.
Of course, Johnston also served as the city’s mayor for the better part of two decades, beginning in 1989 with four consecutive terms that ended in 1997. Six years later, in 2003 he was again elected as the city’s mayor and served another three terms, 2003-2007; and 2011-2013.
Every time his name was on the ballot he easily won his election . . . except the first time.
Despite the fact that he was unopposed and his name was the only one on the ballot, Johnston was forced to sue the city in order to become its mayor because he did not get enough votes to meet the criteria of a provision in the city’s charter.
A superior court judge sided with the politician over the city, but Johnston did not escape unscathed. He was mocked on national television by David Letterman and Jay Leno.
Round and round
Johnston runs Vic & Whit’s with his ex-wife, Beth. They have been divorced 25 years but seem to have a successful working relationship.
Two years ago, I named Johnston as the single-most politically influential person in the Biddeford-Saco area, describing him this way:
Mark Johnston is the consummate politician….
He’s Bugsy Seigel, Charlie Lucianno and Meyer Lansky all rolled into one affable, near-sighted man with an uncanny resemblance to Sir Elton John.
This is not the first time you announced that you were stepping down from politics. You always seem to come back for more?
(Laughs) “I really meant it the last time, but I had to come back to correct some very serious mistakes that were made during the Ron Michaud Administration. My intent (in 2011) was to correct those mistakes: our bond rating was lowered, the city had blown through its reserve balances. It was a lot of smoke and mirrors because no one had the courage to raise taxes slightly in order to keep up with very basic infrastructure.”
Are you leaving now because people are angry about significant tax hikes?
“No. I think most people understand the position we were facing. It’s not easy to raise taxes, even a little bit. But leaders are not elected to do easy things. Leaders are elected to lead.”
What was your proudest moment as mayor?
“The train station, hands down. We were entering a new century and thinking about new transportation. Passenger rail had long been abandoned, but having it come back has paid huge dividends for Saco. It really redefined this community. We have people who live here because of the train and such easy access to their jobs in Boston.”
You told residents it would not cost ‘one red cent’ in taxes. That didn’t quite work out, did it?
(Laughs) “People misunderstood me. I said not one red cent, it ended up being a whole lot of red cents. But seriously, this has become a huge asset for our community. We wanted to embrace it. A lot of things changed in midstream. None of us knew then that Guilford Rail was going to require us to have a $250 million liability policy. But we were able to use the Saco Island TIF and revenues from the MERC settlement and rental fees from the Chamber of Commerce.
“I am very proud of that station. It was the first green station built in the United States. It has geo-thermal heating; and the roof was made with a composite material from recyclables. It meets every standard of LEED certification. It was built by all Maine contractors, with wood beams from Maine forests.”
And the wind turbine
“I’ll take all the fault for that. It’s not the one I wanted, but I couldn’t get the council to approve the one I wanted. What we have is basically a kit that cost us $250,000. I wanted the million dollar one, which would have been much taller and as a result much more efficient.
“The council didn’t want to spend $10,000 for a wind survey study. But what we have is iconic, and it sends a message about our community: we are embracing the future, we are recognizing that we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels.”
What was the worst moment of your time as mayor?
(Pauses) “It happened roughly three minutes after I was sworn in for my very first term, when I publicly fired the city attorney (Mary Kahl). She was a good attorney, but I thought she was interfering too much in the city’s day-to-day business. She ended up going to work for the city of South Portland. I don’t regret what I did, but I deeply regret the way I did it.
“I humiliated her in public, and that’s not leadership. That’s not how you should treat people. We were able to be civil, but the wounds never healed. Unfortunately, she passed away a while ago, and I don’t know if she ever forgave me. I was young and brash, but I learned a valuable lesson: always be willing to talk to those with whom you disagree. Never embarrass or humiliate someone in the public arena.”
Who do you think will be Saco’s next mayor?
(Smiles) “All I can say is that I will have to work with whoever becomes the next mayor.”
Ok, so who do you think will be Biddeford’s next mayor?
“Alan Casavant. He is an outstanding leader; a leader for the future. He is helping Biddeford make huge strides forward. He is also professional, calm and always a gentleman; all those tiny words that define character.”
Who was your favorite Biddeford mayor?
“Roger Normand. He was a man of integrity. He was a normal, average guy who never let the power of being mayor go to his head.”
Do you think there should be term limits for mayors and city councilors?
“Yes. Absolutely. After four terms, it’s time for a change. It’s too easy to get cocky.”
What are your thoughts about the RSU 23 issue, considering some in Saco are advocating for leaving the regional school district?
“I’m a little disappointed by the way some members of our community have acted during this debate. I think it’s a disgrace that some folks have called Old Orchard Beach residents “free-loaders.” RSU 23 has failed because of Saco’s penchant for elitism. We never talked about test scores, we never talked about how to bring teachers up through the ranks. We never talked about the important stuff. I want Thornton Academy to have the test scores that Scarborough is getting, and stop hiding behind the façade of a beautiful campus.”
Elitism in Saco?
“Yes, without a doubt. I grew up on Middle Street, a neighborhood that was known as Little Greece. Many of those people from that neighborhood became important and respected members of our community, civic leaders. It’s like we never got beyond the days of the “Battle of the Bridge.” Why do we still use that name? We never used it when Thornton played St. Louis. There has always been a false air of superiority in Saco. It’s been here a long time.”
What advice would you give to the city’s next mayor?
“Talk less and listen more.”
What will be your legacy?
“The elimination of Maine Energy. It took a long time, but I helped (and so did a lot of other people) keep the pressure on. Joanne Twomey and others never let up the pressure. I honestly never thought I would see the day. I am so proud of what Mayor Casavant and the Biddeford City Council did. That took leadership and vision, but they were not alone. A lot of people helped set the stage for finally getting MERC gone.”
So, will you be back as mayor?
“No, I really don’t think so. I have a new woman in my life, and it’s turning into something special. I was mayor when I got divorced, when I had a granddaughter, when one of my sons went to the battlefield. I’ve given a lot to this city. It’s time for me to take some time for myself and my family.”