Feeling gravity’s pull

Justin Chenette/ Photo by Matthew Hayes

At first glance, the two men who represent the city of Saco in the Maine Legislature seem worlds apart.

One is 22 years old and openly gay; the other is 62 and married with children.

While Justin Chenette is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives, Barry Hobbins is serving his seventh term in the House and previously served five terms in the State Senate.

Over the years, Hobbins has become a steady fixture of pragmatic policy making. He is a successful attorney who knows how and when to pull strings to get things done. He has spent a lifetime building relationships, earning trust and observing the flow of subtle political currents that often shift without warning.

Hobbins is careful, patient and strategic: the hallmarks of a legislator who can deliver when it matters. Like Chenette, Hobbins was only 20 years old when he won a five-way primary race for the Democratic nomination to replace 84-year-old Camille Bedard as Saco’s representative in the House.

“Mr. Bedard gave me some great advice when I was starting out,” Hobbins recalled. “He told me: sit back and learn. He told me to pick my battles.”

Chenette took a different path, however, landing himself in hot water with the state party only hours after he announced that would be running in early 2012.

“I didn’t check in with anybody first,” Chenette said. “They didn’t know who I was or what I was all about. I sort of got scolded.”

Unlike Hobbins’ slow and steady start into Maine’s political machine, Chenette made national headlines earlier this year, when he was sworn into office as the nation’s youngest, openly gay lawmaker.

The issue of gay marriage was again on the ballot for Maine voters, but Chenette says he was not running to make a point about his sexuality. “I didn’t want that distinction,” he said. “I was running because I was frustrated about a lot of issues, so I had to thread the needle carefully.”

Chenette says some people judged him much more harshly about his sexuality rather than his political inexperience and youth. His campaign signs were vandalized with gay slurs. Undaunted, Chenette pressed on, working hard to earn voter respect.

“Some people told me I should get the police involved and do an investigation,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that. “I didn’t want to give people like that any power. They spray-painted my signs with all sorts of ugly things, but most people took the time to get to know me, to understand why I wanted to represent them in Augusta.

Chenette won his June 2012 primary with 78 percent of the vote and went on to defeat Republican Roland Wyman with 60 percent of the vote in November.

Who let the dogs out?

Barry Hobbins

Unlike Hobbins, Chenette did not wait to begin picking battles.

He pounced on Democratic and Republican legislative leaders during his first speech on the floor of the Maine House, only days after being sworn into office.

Chenette latched onto problems he saw in Maine’s political machine, specifically the way lawmakers were using Clean Election funds to form PACs that are used to determine who becomes a legislative leader.

“I said that Democratic and Republican leadership was doing little more than participating in legalized bribery,” he said. “I said it was completely wrong to channel this money for special interests.”

If Chenette wanted attention, he got it.

“It didn’t go over very well even in my own party,” he laughed. “I got called into the Speaker’s office and got my ass chewed. That process became a pattern. I was not playing by any set of unspoken rules.”

Chenette said his first term has been “challenging,” yet he refuses to back down or change his firebrand style.

“We’re not sent to Augusta to sit on our hands, and behave like well-trained dogs,” he said. “The people sent us there to do their work, but on Day One, I was disgusted by the fact that we spent so much time talking about how to get re-elected . . . on Day One.”

Not surprisingly, Hobbins admitted that his colleague makes some people uncomfortable.

“Justin certainly has a different style,” Hobbins said. “He is outspoken and very idealistic. He seems in a rush to make his mark.”

But Hobbins also says Maine’s term limits law has changed the dynamic of how the Legislature works.

“When I first got there, you didn’t feel a clock ticking against you,” Hobbins recalled. “Today, it’s different, younger people feel a sense of urgency, as if there isn’t much time to accomplish their goals.”

Hobbins describes Chenette as conscientious, but certainly not pragmatic.

“There is no denying that there is a generational gap,” Hobbins said. “Justin feels strongly about issues and causes, but that does not mean that others do not feel just as strongly, even if they have a different approach.”

Hobbins said he is just as “progressive” in his political philosophy as Chenette.

“I know what it’s like to be young and full of passion,” Hobbins said. “I became the state party chair when I was 28, and I ran for Congress when I was 32.”

Hobbins said the Legislature is no longer dominated by a bunch of stuffy, old white men. “The president of the senate (Justin Alfond) is 36, and the Speaker of the House (Mark Eves) is also 36. Age is not so much of an issue as a difference of approach.”

Hobbins said a shift of legislative demographics is representative of generational shifts in other parts of society.

“Look, I don’t post pictures of myself every day on Facebook or use Twitter, but a lot of people do, and those can be good tools to keep your constituents updated,” he said. “I think it’s a significant compliment to the citizens of Saco that they choose people who have vastly different styles to represent them.”

Republican Joyce Maker represents the city of Calais in the Maine House. She is old enough to be Chenette’s mother, and concedes that she has taken him under her wing.

DSCN2402“I love Justin,” Maker said. “He is a wonderful young man, and he works very hard, but I do think he has some growing up to do.”

Maker describes herself as a moderate. She says she has been able to find a lot of common ground with Chenette, a Democrat who describes himself as further left of center.

“He comes across as strong and opinionated sometimes, but he is also a really good listener,” Maker said. “I think in time, he will catch on and learn the benefits of being a bit more pragmatic.”

Maker says she sees the value of Maine’s Clean Election Law, but agrees with Chenette about the inherent problems of leadership PACs.

“Justin would like to do away with Clean Elections,” she said. “I see some value to the program because it allows more people the opportunity to participate. But despite our differences, we have been able to work through that issue, and I think he is genuinely interested in hearing other points of view.”

Chenette says he is more than happy to work with his colleagues on the other side of the political aisle.

“I love having lunch with Republicans,” he laughed. “It’s always a good opportunity to learn about the people beyond their particular labels. You can find a common connection, and that helps make the process work better.”

Is Chenette becoming more pragmatic?

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “But I know that I will always stay true to values and core beliefs. Barry’s style has a place. We just have different approaches. I think we make a good tag team for Saco.”

Next installment: Justin Chenette: A rising political star?


Who do you love?

me and the manThere is only one subject I find more fascinating than politics: psychology.

Some of us spend so much of our time focused on the candidates or those elected to public office, yet we barely scratch the surface when it comes to examining the people beyond the headlines and the hype.

Who are those people? You and me, the people in the streets.

At the risk of being redundant to the extreme, I find myself falling back again to the words of Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

My rather loose, modern-day translation?

The masses (you and me) tend to operate on a day-to-day hamster wheel of human obligations: family commitments, jobs and financial security, concerns about the future and the occasional circus: The Red Sox, rock n’ roll or watching Honey Boo-Boo.

The masses crave bread and circuses. And abundance of both typically leads to a sense of apathy when it comes to politics.

This dynamic was true in the days of Caesar, and it has changed little today.

An abundance of bread and circuses allows us the luxury of ignoring the machinations of the political class. But take away the bread or the circuses, and all hell can break loose pretty quickly.

You’re dumb, I’m smart

I spent the better part of this weekend representing one of my clients at the annual Maine Snowmobile Show in Augusta.

As it is every year, statewide political candidates attend the show to press flesh and talk to prospective voters. In about a year, Maine voters will choose the state’s next governor. Today, there are three leading candidates: Republican Paul LePage, the incumbent seeking a second term; Democrat Mike Michaud, a member of Congress; and Independent Candidate Eliot Cutler, who is making a second attempt to live in the Blaine House.

I had the opportunity to speak with all three candidates this weekend. These were brief, perfunctory interactions. Like them, I was there in a professional capacity so — of course — those conversations were limited, professional and cordial.

Because I was working, I did not have the opportunity to follow any of the candidates through the show or to observe all of their interactions with other exhibitors and attendees.

Thus, my observations were anecdotal and certainly limited; but I was able to observe the candidates from a decent vantage point and had the luxury of hearing public reactions long after each of the candidates left the civic center.

I began to wonder about the motivations of those who support LePage, Michaud or Cutler. What makes those people tick? What drives their political preferences? Why do they react positively to one candidate and not the other?

I got some answers to those questions only a few moments after I posted a photo of me and Governor LePage. The reaction from my “friends” was equally swift and clear.

Posting that photo on my Facebook page caused a visceral reaction that brutally revealed a harsh reality.

The angels want to wear my red shoes

One man who I consider to be a close friend made his assessment of the photo with just a pithy comment: “Maybe 100 total IQ points right there.”

Honestly, that comment stung. Without any other context offered, my friend was speculating that Maine’s governor and I had a combined IQ of 100 points, literally translated: on average, the governor and I have a respective IQ of 50 points, meaning that neither of us would be able to function at even the most basic level.

My friend’s comment was endorsed by a couple other Facebook “friends.”

These very same people will be among the first to bemoan a sorry state of political discourse or to champion “civility” and a bi-partisan approach.

Take this to its obvious conclusion: Governor LePage is stupid and so are the people who support him or even those who have the temerity to be photographed standing next to him.

Further commentary on this photo ranged from those who said they would “vomit” if they were within a few feet of the governor to another friend’s description of LePage as a “useless turd.”

What causes such a visceral reaction? Why do people react with such emotion? I suspect it is motivated by fear.

Make no mistake. We see this same dynamic on the political right. Just mentioning President Obama’s name in the wrong crowd can ignite a bonfire of emotion and even asinine comparisons to Adolph Hitler.

A while back I wrote a piece about Sarah Palin and her appeal to so many of my fellow Americans.

When we dismiss Sarah Palin, especially when we run off the rails and make fun of her penchant for shopping at Wal-Mart, her religious beliefs or her love of hunting, NASCAR or her limited education, we are subconsciously pointing the same critical finger at the millions of those who are undeniably loyal to her.

Democrats bemoan the loss of moderate Republicans (code: Republicans who tend to support Democrats).

John McCain was described by the left as an honest, independent maverick who exemplified the proud, glorious and bygone days of a better GOP – – – right up until the day he was selected as the GOP’s nominee to take on Barack Obama in 2008.

Hands down, Governor LePage received the warmest reception at this weekend’s snowmobile show. It was not universal, but it was clear and undeniable. People flocked to him, offering hugs and encouragement.

Whether you like it or can admit it, the 2014 gubernatorial race will be a battle for the political center.

Democrats are at a disadvantage, just as they were in 2010, because their own party is divided between two candidates. The Maine Democratic Party needs a major win in 2014, especially since they were crushed by an “independent” candidate in last year’s senate race.

Democrats would be well-served to better understand LePage’s appeal to those who they routinely dismiss. There are plenty of reasons to vote against LePage, but they also need some even better reasons to vote for Michaud. Otherwise, they can expect the same results we saw three years ago.

Automatic for the People

Note: Please see edits below.

Maine Democrats are celebrating tonight, but I think they have a serious problem.

Let me back up.

State Sen. (Elect) Eloise Vitelli
State Sen. (Elect) Eloise Vitelli

Politics is fascinating.

Don’t puke just yet, at least not until you consider that observing politics offers the best of everything: intense drama, fierce competition and hilarious moments of human folly, all wrapped in a package of somber significance driven by human pathology.

It’s like a sporting event, a comedy show, and a night at the Met, all wrapped into a neat little package of 30-second installments.

Okay, so go ahead and puke now if you must. But for the rest of you consider this scenario.

It’s the middle of an all-too-short summer in Maine, where a state senator lands a sweet federal gig and must vacate his seat halfway through his two-year term.

He is a solid Democrat, a progressive, even…respected in his party (a former majority leader in the senate) and handily supported each election cycle by his constituents.

His district (State Senate District 19) is a reliable haven for his party: Mid Coast Maine, the home turf of Senator Angus King, Bowdoin College… not a hotbed of right-leaning conservatism, by any stretch.  Not really true, see edits below.

The Dems want to keep this seat. They still feel the sting of 2010 when they lost the Blaine House and both houses of the Legislature. Another gubernatorial campaign is already underway, and the Dems are absolutely committed to dumping Republican Paul LePage, who has repeatedly embarrassed his own party with ill-advised remarks and a stunning inability to control his temper and message.

Now, back to this sleepy senate district.

Two smart, savvy women lace up their gloves, representing their respective parties. A Green candidate also gets into the race.

Republican Paula Benoit
Republican Paula Benoit

More than $150,000 is spent on the campaigns during just a few weeks. It will likely top $200,000 when all the final campaign reports are turned over for public inspection next month.

It is, according to several political observers — including former State Senator Ethan Strimling — a record-breaking race for campaign funding in a state senate race.

The result?

A turnout of slightly more than 30 percent of the district’s registered voters, and a narrow victory for the Dems. Eloise Vitelli beats Republican Paula Benoit, who previously held the seat from 2006-2008.

Of the 8960 votes cast, the Democrats hold onto their seat by a margin of slightly more than 3  percent, 282 votes.

The Democrats are cheering and drinking bubbly tonight. They deserve the celebration. They worked hard.

But I think they will have a big hangover tomorrow morning.

How do you spend more than $100,000 and win by a little more than 3 percent when the Republican governor is trailing in the polls and you are running a campaign on your home turf?

Conventional wisdom says that the Maine GOP is in trouble and eating their own. Maybe.

But it seems pretty clear that Maine Dems have plenty to worry about between now and next November.


Edited to include Benoit’s prior election to the Dist. 19 seat in 2006.

Editor’s note: There is a peril to blog posting when you are a political junkie jacked up on Twitter, caffeine and cigarettes. Some glaring mistakes need to be corrected: 1.) Bowdoin College is not within Senate District 19. In fact, the town of Brunswick is not in Senate District 19, so you can also scratch my reference to Senator Angus King. I was consumed with the Brunswick Times Record’s endorsement of Benoit, thus thinking about Brunswick, instead of focusing on silly things like facts. Not smart.

District 19 may not be a Democratic stronghold, but it’s not a Tea Party demographic either. Like much of Maine, it is shifting and best described as purple instead of red or blue (Props to Gina Hamilton at the New Maine Times for that analysis). Republican Art Mayo who served in the seat from 2002 to 2006 switched parties and became a Democrat in 2004. Gina is much better at facts. Dan Demeritt (@DemerittDan) also pointed out that I did not include the tallies for the Green candidate in the race. Daniel Stromgren garnered 357 votes (4 percent), and Demeritt opines that of every four votes for a Green, one stays home, one goes GOP and two go Dem. So, you tell me: was Stromgren a factor?

In the end, I stand by my original analysis, despite my rush to publish and all of its associated pitfalls. Why?

1.) In 2012 (just last year) Goodall crushed his GOP opponent, Jeffrey Pierce (64-36 percent). Two years earlier, he trounced Republican David Kaler, 52-45 percent.

2.) Republican Gov. LePage is trailing in polls and getting widespread media attention for his gaffes, helping the Dems.

3.) The Dems had the seat and spent more than 100 grand to keep it. They got a 3 percent return for their money and a 30 percent turnout. What “message” are they sending to Gov. LePage? Do they really feel good about that? Really? They are not on easy street. Case closed.

Update: the long and winding road

I am pleased to report that State Sen. David Dutremble (D-Biddeford) has gone where few politicians go.

Just a short while ago, Dutremble commented on my Facebook page to concede his faux pas.

Randy, I don’t say this often but you are right!  I should have spoke with Rep. Casavant on my position first before answering any questions.  I have since done that and spoke and apologized to Rep. Casavant today for not calling him first!  Lessons Learned!

This, dear readers, is what we should expect from our leaders; the ability to stand up publicly and admit our errors. It’s called integrity, and Dutremble’s humility ought to be a benchmark for everyone who decides to serve in public office.

Somewhere, Babe Dutremble is smiling, knowing that his nephew is not perfect but has the courage and conviction necessary to hold the public trust.

Bravo, Senator Dutremble. Let’s put this one behind us and move forward to make Maine a better place to live, work and play.

Just around midnight

Within 24 hours the family feud will be over but political tensions in Biddeford will likely remain high long after the ballots from the June 12 Primary Elections are counted.

For the first time in more than 25 years, incumbents in each of the city’s three legislative districts are facing primary challenges.

Joanne Twomey

Now for a few predictions about tomorrow’s outcomes. (these are not necessarily my choices, just my predictions)

District 135 House Seat (Paulette Beaudoin v. Joanne Twomey)

Beaudoin, the incumbent, has never faced a primary challenge, and she has her work cut out for her with a challenge by former Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey. Twomey held the House seat and previously recruited Beaudoin to fill her shoes. Joanne took her loss for a third term as mayor hard, but this campaign has been relatively quiet, despite a last-minute dump of cash from a pro-casino PAC. If signs are any indicator, Beaudoin will do well….but political signs are little more than psychological warfare and Twomey is a savvy campaigner. In this race, I predict a razor-thin victory for Beaudoin. (less than 5%)

District 136 House Seat (Megan Rochelo v. Bobby Mills)

Bobby Mills
Bobby Mills

This is a rematch between incumbent Rochelo and perennial political candidate Bobby Mills, a city councilor who often runs for elected office). Rochelo is hoping for a second term in the district that is bubbling over with Democrats. Mills is hoping to settle a score, but screwed up significantly a couple of weeks ago by posting callous and stupid remarks about his opponent and her husband’s funeral on his campaign’s Facebook page. Mills attempted to edit his stupidity, but it was too late for his revisionist tactics. Several of his supporters backed away; and despite his open and forceful support for a casino in Biddeford, even the boys from Vegas took a few steps back and Mills did not receive any of the support that other local legislative candidates received from a pro-casino PAC. Rochelo by 10 points or better in this race.

District 137 House Seat (Alan Casavant v. Nancy Sullivan)

Nancy Sullivan
Nancy Sullivan

Casavant, serving his first term as the city’s mayor, is being challenged for his House seat by outgoing State Senator Nancy Sullivan. Sullivan really does not want to leave Augusta, and she is running a tight and competitive campaign with plenty of help from the boys in Vegas. Although she approached Casavant late last year, suggesting he should run for her termed-out senate seat, she is now campaigning on the premise that Casavant cannot effectively serve two masters. The problem here, is that she may be right, especially when considering some of the things Casavant repeatedly writes on his Facebook page. This will be a close race. Despite a contentious municipal budget, Casavant is still very popular and downright likable. Sullivan, however is a fierce competitor and better financed. Despite the intent of term limits, I predict Nancy will recapture her old House seat in what will be one of the state’s tightest Primary elections. Sullivan by less than 2 percent.

In other races, expect Linda Valentino to roll past Don Pilon in Senate District 5; Jon Courtney will blow Patrick Calder out of the water for the GOP’s chance to take on Democrat Chellie Pingree in November for Maine’s First District Congressional seat. In a crowded race, Republicans will almost evenly split between Rick Bennett and Bruce Poliquin for the chance to hold Olympia Snowe’s US senate seat for the GOP. (Charlie Summers looks tired, and not enough people know any of the other candidates.) Meanwhile Cynthia Dill will do well with Democrats in southern and coastal Maine, and expect her to dominate college campus towns and maybe Blue Hill; Jon Hinck will do well in Portland’s West End neighborhood, but Matt Dunlap, a more moderate candidate from Old Town, will ultimately win the ticket to a suicide bid against former governor and independent candidate Angus King in November.

Burnin’ down the house

If you don’t know anything else about Biddeford politics, you ought to know about the Dutremble family, one of the city’s most prolific, political families.

For more than 50 years, the Dutremble family has been — in one way or another —  deeply entrenched in local political circles.

Biddeford Firefighter David Dutremble will make a bid for the state senate seat that was previously held by his cousin, Dennis “Duke” Dutremble

Lucien “Babe” Dutremble, one of 13 children, never lost an election during a political career that included several terms on the city council, six terms in the Maine House of Representatives, the mayor’s office and serving as a York County Commissioner. Babe’s brother, Richard, was a York County Sheriff. Babe’s son, Richard, today serves as a York County commissioner.

Just as Babe’s political career was winding down, his second eldest son was making a name for himself. Dennis “Duke” Dutremble served several terms in the Maine Senate before being tapped as the senate president. But he retreated from the public spotlight after losing his bid to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Flash forward nearly two decades, and yet another Dutremble is making a foray into the city’s political establishment, banking on his family’s legacy and his “outsider” perspective.

David Dutremble is a lieutenant in the Biddeford Fire Department, the youngest of Babe Dutremble’s nephews, and is now a candidate for the District 4 State Senate seat.

Despite his legacy name and strong local connections, David is facing some challenges on the road to Augusta.

1.) A crowded primary field could split the city’s Democratic base and allow someone like businessman James Booth of Arundel to take the seat as a unenrolled candidate. Booth, a native of the neighboring city of Saco, is the son of former Saco Mayor Haley Booth and served on the Saco City Council.

2.) Expect his primary opponents (which could include former State Rep. Stephen Beaudette and former city councilor James Emerson) to question whether Dutremble can effectively balance his city job as a firefighter while serving in the State Senate.

A chart that outlines the Dutremble family’s political influence

Furthermore, we were stunned that David has yet to seek the counsel of his cousins, Duke Dutremble and County Commissioner Richard Dutremble.


David Dutremble graduated from Biddeford High School in 1985. Since 1988, he has been a Biddeford firefighter. He and his wife, Charlene, have five children.

Why jump into the fray for a state senate seat without any prior political experience?

“Honestly, I would have gone into local politics a long time ago, but the city’s charter prevents city employees from holding municipal offices.  Initially, I was thinking about running for the House until I talked to Alan [Casavant] and found out he is hoping to keep his seat.”

You have all the political muscle you need, given your last name.

(Laughs) “It’s an intimidating last name, you know in local politics…absolutely, but it also carries a lot of expectations.”

Aren’t you busy enough. Why run for public office?

“I think we need more people in Augusta who can reach across the political divides. I think government has a responsibility to do good things for the people. Government should be creating an atmosphere that promotes economic development.”

You sound a little like a Republican.

(Laughs) “I’m a life-long Democrat, but I think both parties want to see Maine succeed. It’s time to stop all the political bickering and blame. It’s time to think about the people we serve. I don’t care who gets credit, as long as we do good things for the people.

“When my kids grow up, I want them to have the same opportunities I had. My step son had to move out west to find a good job. I think that’s really sad. It bothers me to see local kids miss out on the same opportunities we had growing up here.”

How can you be a firefighter and a state senator at the same time?

“I’ll use vacation time, and swap time. I’ve already run it past the guys in the department. I know I have support and we can swap shifts to accommodate my schedule.”

You haven’t talked to Duke about your decision to seek his old senate seat?

(Laughs) “He’s in Florida for the winter. I sent him an e-mail on Facebook, but I haven’t heard back. Maybe he doesn’t check his Facebook.

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rank Governor LePage’s performance?

(Pauses) “I’d probably give him a four. I just think his priorities are out of whack…like going after the labor mural.”

Same scale for President Obama?

“I’d say a 7. No matter who won in 2008, it was a no-win situation for our economy, whether we elected a Republican or Democrat. I don’t think we would be any better off if John McCain had won. I think President Obama has done a decent job.”

Do you really think you can change the political dynamic of partisan bickering?

“Yes, but you have to start small. People used to say that women would never be able to vote. We used to say that a black man would never drive the bus. I believe things can change for the better. I think elected leaders just need to focus on working in collaboration to solve problems.

Original or extra crispy?

(Laughs) “Extra Crispy.”

Coke or Pepsi?

“Pepsi…Diet Pepsi.”

Ginger or Mary Anne?

“Mary Anne, for sure.. (Laughs)