In two years, Wallace Nutting will be able to do what no other Biddeford mayor has done. By way of tradition, the mayor’s portrait will be hung next to the photographs of all the former mayors in City Hall.
But no other Biddeford mayor’s picture now hangs in Saco’s City Hall.
Nutting’s portrait, however, now graces the walls of the Saco City Council’s chamber. Born and raised in Saco, Nutting was honored two years ago by Saco Mayor Bill Johnson as an “outstanding and distinguished citizen” because of his extensive military career and accomplishments.
There was no way then for the retired, four-star general to know that he would soon be leading the neighboring city of Biddeford.
Nutting, 75, was in many ways an unlikely candidate in Biddeford’s traditional political structure. A Republican who lives in Biddeford Pool, Nutting was considered by many people as an “outsider,” when he tossed his hat into the mayoral ring, less than three months before the election.
But Nutting proved his detractors wrong on Election Day. Once the votes had been tallied, Nutting beat-out his two more well-known Democratic opponents with 41 percent of the vote, earning the top spot in six of the city’s seven voting wards and leaving City Council President Marc Lessard, an early favorite, in last place.
It was a much different result than Nutting’s first bid for political office in 1994, when he ran for the State Senate. He lost the Republican primary to John Hathaway of Kennebunk, who later went on to win the seat.
One political observer said Nutting’s mayoral win was the result of a “perfect political storm,” in which several key issues converged into a mass of voter resentment about politics as usual.
Last year, Nutting was an outspoken critic of a proposal that would have allowed the city council to negotiate for the placement of a casino gambling resort. His two opponents supported the measure, but voters overwhelmingly rejected it by more than a 2-1 margin.
The council was also hammered because of a recent property tax revaluation and for problems associated with a middle school construction referendum, not to mention their controversial decision last year to shut down the city’s public access television studio.
And while Lessard sparred with Daniel Boucher, a member of the school committee, on several of those issues, Nutting seemed to rise above the fray and focused his campaign message upon basic issues of opening up communications and restoring respect to City Hall.
The mayor doesn’t have a lot of political power in Biddeford. Will that be difficult for you?
“Listening to people has always been a part of who I am, and it’s my basic strategy in most every situation. Human beings and organizations work best when they openly communicate. I’m a patient listener, and I find that leadership through persuasion is most effective.”
Last week, you found yourself for the first time on the other side of the council desk. What was it like?
“Let me tell you, it was a very humbling experience. The voters spoke very clearly during the election. Trying to accomplish their will should prove to be a daunting task.”
But in a letter to the editor last week, Richard Rhames pointed out that only one of the 37 candidates in Biddeford received a majority of the votes.
“Mr. Rhames plays a very important role in this town, and I respect that. He is correct with his math, but you also have to look at the number of candidates. So, no — I wouldn’t call it a mandate, but if you look how they voted for the mayor and nine councilors, it becomes pretty clear that people wanted change.”
You have criticized the council’s decision regarding public access. Are there any big changes on the horizon for that issue?
“The big fear that I hear being voice now is all about pornography being shown on the channel. There are guidelines for other television stations, so I don’t see why we can’t impose some of those same guidelines to protect the public without being overbearing.
“Other than that, there ought to be a free and open discussion of ideas and viewpoints. We live in a nation that honors free speech. Let me just say that I will not be offended if someone opts to criticize me on television or otherwise. If there is a political criticism, so be it.
But as Councilor Raymond Cote says, the mayor proposes and the council disposes.
(Smiles) “Personally, I believe that there can be five votes to move the issue forward. It’s a challenge to lead through persuasion. Sure, I have issued orders in the past, but I know that I can’t issue orders here.
“[Generals] Marshall and Bradley are my heroes. They both accomplished a lot through persuasion.”
You’re the first Republican in nearly 40 years to win the mayor’s seat in Biddeford.
“Being a Republican or a Democrat really doesn’t make much difference. Republicans and Democrats both pick up trash and shovel snow the same way.”
Have you spoken with Gen. Wesley Clark since the election?
“I can’t remember the last time I saw him. Why? Do you think I should give him some campaign advice? (Laughs).
Growing up in Saco, did you ever think you would be the mayor of Biddeford?
“You know, I’m a local boy, too. I went sledding in Clifford Park and jumped into the river with the kids from Biddeford, and flew model airplanes off the runway at the Biddeford Airport.”
You say Biddeford doesn’t get enough credit.
“I think Biddeford is a great place. Some good things have happened here, but we don’t get credit for it and that bothers me.”
What do you attribute to your win?
“People have told me that they feel as if I speak with sincerity, truth . . . I articulated my message positively. You have to radiate integrity. You don’t lead soldiers into battle in a half-assed manner.”
What are your immediate goals?
“My thinking in this regard has not changed since the campaign. Our first priority must be education.
“From there, the job of the council is to wrestle with current problems, but to also lay the foundation for a better future — and that future is through education.
“I believe that this community can become a prototype for the rest of the state when it comes to Gov. Baldacci’s call for regionalized cooperation and cost sharing. A lot of people are still concerned about taxes, and I’m one of them.
“The structure of government that has served us well for the last 200 years is no longer affordable. If I had my way, I would like to see this area become a model for what the governor is proposing. It can be done without losing the identity of our city or our football team.
“Through healthy economic development, we should be able to take our proper place as the principal city of York County.”
Is your wife going to take an active role in your administration?
“Jane has been my best friend for 62 years, and we just celebrated 53 years of marriage. It’s not clear yet what role she will play. She wasn’t too happy when I told her that I wanted to run. But she became an excellent campaigner.
“She stood with me in the cold on Election Day, and she has always been a positive factor in my life, so in that way she has already played a major role.”