Political observers say the former city councilor’s laid-back personality and his friendly demeanor often calmed severe storms during especially contentious Biddeford City Council meetings.
He is a self-described man of the street, and he is widely perceived as a champion of those without friends or power. He is soft-spoken, but commands attention and respect when he speaks. He is a lover of history, politics and art.
He is a simple, courageous man with an extraordinary reputation, and he loves his hometown of Biddeford.
We caught up with Pete in the lobby of the North Dam Mill building, formerly the home of the Biddeford Textile Company, where both Lamongtagne and his father worked. As always, he was gracious, understated and relaxed.
With the exception of a two-year hiatus, Lamontagne served as a member of the Biddeford City Council for more than a decade, first elected as a Ward 5 Councilor in 1997. He returned to the council in 2001 and remained there, serving as both an at-large representative and council preident, until stepping down last year.
You and several other members of the last city council were roundly criticized because of the infamous executive session meeting held with the owners of Scarborough Downs before the city announced its intention to put out a racino referendum. Do you regret that decision?
“In hindisght, sure. We found out after the meeting that it wasn’t right. (Sighs) It doesn’t matter much now, it’s water under the bridge. I can’t speak for anyone else, we just wanted to do something for our community to help bring back jobs…it didn’t work out, and now the city will have to look at other things, but I don’t think we’ll ever see anything that big, anything that could have brought so many jobs here.”
You were a big supporter of the proposed Biddeford Downs project.
“Oh absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time in both Bangor (Hollywood Slots) and Foxwoods, which are both about 180 miles either way of here. When West Point closed its doors, it was a like a stake in the heart of hope for those of us who worked there.
“I see these unemployed people every day. These are good people, hard-working people; they looked at this proposal and said, you know…maybe I can get a job there. It was something to hope for, and I was relentless. Today, those people are still unemployed.”
You were the president of the UNITE union and you worked in that mill for more than three decades. The closure hit you hard.
“Oh yes…. (Pauses) You know, I never thought it [West Point] was going to close. I never planned to retire. It was tough. It was devastating for a lot of families, my friends… A lot of us started taking retraining classes at the Community Center, but jobs are tough to find right now.”
You know a lot about hard times.
(Laughs) “I sure do, but I also know something about good times, and strangely enough, they often overlap.
“I grew up on Water Street, and back then it was a very poor neighborhood, mostly bars. But it was a also a close-knit neighborhood. It was where Raymond Gaudette and [former mayor] Gilbert Boucher grew up. I had lots of friends.
“Two of my aunts and one of my uncles lived with us; back then it was how families did things. Every store had a back room with warm beer, because that’s what people liked. Warm Schmidts …it was their beer of choice (Laughs).”
You were named after your dad.
(Laughs) “Well, sort of, . . . his name was Pete. He was a big guy. He worked at the mill as a mason in the late ’50s and early ’60s. People called me Little Pete or Pete junior. Actually, my middle name is Alphonse, but don’t print that.” (Laughs)
Did you get the political bug from your father?
“Well, you know, he ran for the council as a Republican, and he got trounced. I mean, he was a French Republican.”
Did he live long enough to see his son get elected?
“Yes, he passed away just after I won my first election. I think he was very proud.”
You served under three mayors: Dion, Nutting and Twomey. Is Biddeford’s political landscape as tough as its reputation?
“Oh yes, Biddeford politics can be very tough. You have to have a thick skin. I got to serve with [Jim] Grattelo and [Marc] Lessard. Those were my best days. (Smiles)
“There were times when I had to break up physical fights; and there were many times when Mayor Twomey and I found ourselves in very heated disagreements, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye.”
So how did you broker the peace?
“I don’t look at the oyster shell, I’m always looking for the pearl inside the shell.”
“She was a pretty, little blonde girl. When I was a young boy, my family spent a lot of time out at Hills Beach. She used to visit, and we would sit on the beach together and talk. I guess you could say she was my first girlfriend.” (Smiles).
You also befriended Rory Holland, a former mayoral candidate who is now in jail for murdering two young men.
“A lot of people didn’t like him. He was not well, but I think he understood where I was coming from. I would let him visit my house, but I was always firm with him, and told him I would not hesitate to throw him out. I think he respected me, but I also think he needed a friend.
“I woke up to the news about the shootings, and I was in shock. It took me more than three days to get my head around it, what a terrible tragedy. It still hurts to think about it.”
Your service in the Army didn’t get much respect from former mayor Wallace Nutting.
“His four stars had a big impact on me. I wasn’t intimidated by them, but I had a high degree of respect for his military service and accomplishments.
“I was a mail clerk in the Army, a desk jockey, serving with the Adjuntant General’s staff. But still, here was this 19-year-old Biddeford boy in France.
“Mayor Nutting had a different way of doing things. He would always ask for your input or opinions, but you always knew what the answer was supposed to be.” (Laughs)
Who did you vote for during the last election, Casavant or Twomey?
“No answer.” (Laughs)
You wanted to serve as a citizen member on the council’s Policy Committee, but you were never appointed. What happened?
I don’t know. Alan and I met shortly after the election, and I told him I wanted to be on the policy committee. We were in his office at City Hall, and I saw him write it down. Then, the council agenda didn’t include my name as an appointment.
“At first, I was mad….Bastard!, I thought, until I saw the two names of people who got appointed to that committee, Laura (Seaver) and Renee (O’Neil). Those were perfect choices, so I decided not to say anything. It could not have worked out better. I think those two will do a wonderful job. I was very pleased with the mayor’s picks.”