Capitol Notebook: Politicians and potato blossoms

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The locals said that last Saturday’s Potato Blossom Parade in Fort Fairfield had the largest turnout they’d seen in years.

On a warm, but not hot, Aroostook County day hundreds of families parked themselves in their chairs and trucks along the parade route. And while the town population has declined since its 1950s peak, the annual Potato Blossom Parade still draws people from all over the County to celebrate summer and the agricultural history of Aroostook.

With legislators out of session and scattered across the state, we decided to explore the political scene in the far-flung areas of Maine, and Fort Fairfield qualifies.

After traveling across a large swath of Maine that seems mostly unpopulated, you arrive in eastern Aroostook along the Canadian border, stepping back into a less prosperous version of the 1950s. The small towns are surrounded by rolling countryside now filled with white potato blossoms. A driver shares the road with the Amish farmers who have settled here in large numbers, driving their horse-and-buggy carriages.

Saturday’s parade stretched as far as the eye could see, and took an hour and a half to complete. It began with an endless stream of vehicles, aging muscle cars and pickup trucks that seemed to be of mid-1960s and ’70s vintage, but now qualify as antique.

Teenage beauty queens smiled from an endless parade of floats, seemingly all blonde and demonstrating a polished synchronized hand wave; hand upright, wrist turning. Other highlights included an Asian music dance performed by members of the Anah Shrine in Bangor, turned out in brightly colored dress with headgear, led by a dancer wielding a sword.

And then the politicians came marching, including 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who swept the sidelines looking for any outstretched hand. Also marching was Gov. Paul LePage, who later appeared at a sparsely attended forum.

The parade watchers seemed generally unimpressed by the politicians in the parade. The Republicans, sporting red-themed signs, still put on a strong showing in an area that often leans Republican.

Democrats also marched, including Troy Jackson of Allagash, who seeks a return to state Senate District 1, and hopes to mount a bid for Senate president. Marchers turned out for Congressional candidate Emily Cain, and Attorney General Janet Mills swayed her sign for the Democrats. (Disclosure: I have donated to Cain’s campaign for Congress.)

Jackson, a former state senator who has clashed with LePage, is opposed by Caribou City Councilor Timothy Guerette. While Jackson is favored, this race may be closer than anticipated.

In Senate District 2, which includes Houlton, Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield, Republicans are fielding a three-term state representative from Sherman, Ricky Long, who is known as a far-right conservative. Long has been described as a “fringe conservative” who has submitted a bill to divide Maine into two states. He decisively defeated the Presque Isle Town Council chairwoman, Emily Smith, who was was backed by Senate President Michael Thibodeau, who has clashed with LePage.

Long is running against former Attorney General Michael Carpenter of Houlton, who lost narrowly in 2014 to Michael Willette of Presque Isle, who did not seek re-election.

In a sign that the ultra-conservative wing of the Maine Republican party remains strong, candidates backed by Thibodeau did not do well. He backed a losing candidate in Sagadahoc County, where first-term Sen. Linda Baker was defeated by Guy Lebida of Bowdoinham, endorsed by LePage.

After the parade, LePage fielded questions at the Community Center and repeated his message of low taxes as a spur to economic growth, and took aim at the referendum questions that Maine voters will decide in November.

Among his targets was the proposed minimum wage increase, which he said would curtail compensation for servers as it brings them up to a regular minimum wage and limits their tips.

LePage also criticized the proposed tax surcharge on incomes over $200,000 a year to support education funding. He said that would raise the top tax rate to more than 10 percent in an already highly taxed state.

There were few questions, but at the end LePage was asked about the Black Lives Matter protest in Portland the night before, where 18 people were arrested.

“All lives matter,” he replied, repeating what should be an obvious statement, but what has become a rallying cry on one side of a division in this summer of protest and police shootings that can seem far away from the serenity of Aroostook.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.