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?


Mark Johnston: Rocket Man

Mark JohnstonSomething 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.”