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Maine at a glance

Maine is a state with a distinctive personality—ornery, contrary-minded, almost bullheaded, rough-hewn. It is the state closest geographically to Europe.
/ Source: National Journal

Maine is a state with a distinctive personality—ornery, contrary-minded, almost bullheaded, rough-hewn. It is the state closest geographically to Europe, but it was not heavily settled until the mid-19th century, and then by people coming from the south and west—the opposite of America’s usual pattern. In an urbanizing and rapidly changing country, Maine was famous for its pointed firs and steady habits, with a few dozen small factory and paper mill towns but nothing like a major metropolis. Maine grew in a rush and then mostly stopped: There were 600,000 people here in 1860 but its population did not top 1 million until the 1970s. Then the tremors of the New England high-tech booms of the 1980s and 1990s reverberated up I-95 and shook Maine. The simple, back-to-nature Yankee style came into vogue. The antique dockside buildings on Portland’s waterfront were restored and an old-style Public Market was constructed; the Maine Mall expanded and saw office parks spring up nearby, a miniature edge city; real estate prices rose by hundreds of percents, not just in vacation coves, but in Portland and small towns that had never considered themselves picturesque. The L.L. Bean headquarters in Freeport, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, symbolized the boom: The two chaste initials and the Anglo-Saxon monosyllable suggesting the dry understatement of Down East Yankees; the 24-hour-a-day schedule recalling the hard work needed to eke out a living from the cold waters of the North Atlantic to the pine-covered North Woods; the commercial success of the enterprise a prime example of Maine’s unexpected boom. Something like the Maine slogan: “The way life should be.”

Over these years, Maine’s economy was transformed. It lost jobs in shoes, chicken processing, papermaking and timber, but gained in tourism, call centers and high-tech. The Grand Banks have been overfished and fishing seasons shortened, but there’s a new market among northern Europeans for Maine shrimp. The lobster industry has been thriving, with prices at an all-time high, even as lumber mills close down. Scratching small Maine boiling potatoes out of the soil of Aroostook County has become harder; the nation’s top potato producer 50 years ago, Maine fell to eighth place in the 1990s: small potatoes. And Georgia-Pacific closed its paper mill in Old Town, near Bangor. But Loring Air Force Base, closed in 1994, has been developed and has generated jobs in food manufacturing, aircraft disassembly and storage, telemarketing and state government. Biotech has sprung up on southern Maine soil and Maine exports not just paper and lumber and seafood, but also computer and aircraft parts. Tourism continues to be the biggest business here, and Bath Iron Works, long the state’s largest private employer, has a long-term contract to build 21 Arleigh Burke Class Naval destroyers. Maine politicians rallied when the Pentagon in May 2005 recommended closing down the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which repairs submarines; the base closing commission took it off its list and doubled the employment in an accounting office in Aroostook County, but ordered the shutdown of Brunswick Naval Air Station, the state’s second largest employer. But Maine, its economic development director insists, has “the best work force on the planet,” and Governor John Baldacci’s Pine Tree Zones have generated 3,000 new jobs.

Now in effect there are two Maines—booming coastal Maine and declining interior Maine, one symbolized by the lobster and the other by the moose. Growth is greatest in York County and along the coast east of Portland to the Penobscot River; population is stable in the North Woods and declining in the northern and eastern edges of the state. Demographically, Maine is like Western Europe, with an aging population and the lowest birth rate in the United States; the U.S. as a whole grew by 18% from 1990 to 2004, but Maine grew by just 7%, as young people in their early 20s continue to leave the state. An aging population has its advantages (Maine has one of the nation’s lowest crime rates) and disadvantages (health care costs are high and the percentage with employer-provided health insurance low). Maine has the highest high school graduation rate in the country, but its high schools and colleges have not been providing enough graduates to fill its job openings. There has been little immigration here (in 2004 Maine tourist businesses couldn’t get enough visas for summer employees): Maine is the whitest state in the nation, 1% Hispanic and less than 1% black or Asian. But it treasures what diversity it has. French-Canadian immigrant children were once chided when they spoke French; now the legislature has a French-American day each year, with business conducted and the Pledge of Allegiance recited in French, with French and English verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In politics, Maine is contrary-minded. Until 1958, Maine held state elections in September, a date originally chosen because it followed the state’s early harvest; in the days before polls, the results here were taken as a gauge of national partisan movement—hence the saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” However, in September 1936, Maine voted 56% for Republican Governor Lewis Barrows and in November only Maine and Vermont voted for Alf Landon over Franklin D. Roosevelt, prompting Roosevelt’s campaign manager to observe, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” Maine’s adherence to flinty Yankee Republicanism and Prohibition was echoed almost nowhere else in the nation. Since then, it has voted for the loser in the close presidential elections of 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000 and 2004—a record equaled by no other state. Maine cast the nation’s highest percentages for Ross Perot, 30% in 1992 and 14% in 1996. In 1994 and 1998 it elected Angus King, an Independent and former Democrat, as governor, as it had elected Independent and former Republican James Longley in 1974. Thus in the past eight gubernatorial elections Maine voted twice for Republicans, four times for Democrats and twice for Independents.

If Maine’s tradition-minded Yankees kept the state Republican long after the nation embraced the New Deal, the sons and daughters of its ethnics—Irish, French Canadian, Greek and Arab immigrants have come to equal the numbers of pure WASPs (though these new Mainers in many ways share traditional Yankee traits and values)—made the Democrats competitive, perhaps even dominant, here in the 1980s as they were losing ground in the rest of the nation. Now, ticket-splitting is very much the norm here. In 2000 Maine voted 49%-44% for Al Gore, 69%-31% for Republican Senator Olympia Snowe and 66%-32% Democratic in its two House races. In 2002 Maine reelected Republican Senator Susan Collins 58%-42% and elected Democrat John Baldacci as governor by 47%-41%. In 2004 Maine voted 54%-45% for John Kerry but Republicans made gains in the state House. In 2006 Maine reelected Baldacci by 38%-30% over a Republican, with 22% for an Independent Maine Course candidate and 10% for the Green party nominee. Maine has more partisan turnover in state legislative seats than just about any other state; in its small seats (average population of a state House seat is 8,724) Mainers vote for the person, not the party. In 2004 Protestants voted 55%-43% for Bush and Catholics 58%-40% for Kerry—which looks like Maine’s politics of the past and is out of line with results elsewhere, and was good news for Democrats. But Bush also carried Mainers under 30—again contrary to the national trend, a good sign for Republicans.

As the economy changed, Maine moved toward a consensus on how to balance economic growth and preserve the environment. But there is disagreement raging about the North Woods. The big paper companies, long the biggest landowners in Maine, have been selling off huge acreage—7 million acres between 1998 and 2004. As Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan put it, “For generations the paper companies sort of managed everything for us up here. They gave sportsmen pretty much free rein, and in turn people up here helped out as stewards of the land. But with all of these new buyers, nobody quite knows what will happen now, and people are getting nervous.” Local Mainers want to keep using the land for hunting, trapping and snowmobiling. But a Concord, Massachusetts, group called Restore: The North Woods, with backing from Hollywood stars, wanted to create a huge national park, bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Environmental-minded rich people are buying up land with a view toward donating it for a national park; Roxanne Quimby, a beeswax lip balm millionaire who spends much of the year in Palm Beach, bought 70,000 acres and has banned hunting and snowmobiling. Mainers reacted angrily to these folks “from away,” as they say, and Governor John Baldacci called the national park proposal a “nonstarter,” and has promoted alternatives. The Nature Conservancy in 2006 donated easements on 195,000 acres, with space for recreation and land available for sustainable timber harvests; Plum Creek Timber wants to build the state’s largest subdivision on Moosehead Lake. To preserve salmon, one dam on the Kennebec River was dismantled in 1999 and in 2003 the power company agreed to dismantle two others on the Penobscot, while regulators voted down a wind farm near Rangeley.