Capitol Notebook: Remembering the Abromsons

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In its early years, The Forecaster sponsored debates with candidates for local office and the Legislature. At one memorable session, Joel Abromson was seeking his first term in the state Senate.

During the debate, it became clear that this Republican candidate stood out in personal integrity and a willingness to challenge his party to do what he felt was right. I was impressed by his answer on the contentious issue of gay rights (he was definitely in favor, and he later was the prime sponsor of a civil rights bill). At that time, early in the fight for civil rights, it was not a usual Republican position. The Forecaster ended up endorsing him and he won the seat.

When Abromson died too young in 2002, 700 people crowded into Temple Beth El in Portland for his funeral. They were described in the Portland Press Herald as “Democrats, Republicans and independents. There were old people and young, black people and white, gay people and straight.”

The recent death of his widow, Linda Abromson, who was a former Portland mayor and a mover and shaker behind Portland’s renaissance in the 1980s, brought to mind the Abromson’s shared accomplishments, and renewed a longing for an era when politics in Augusta, although always fraught with tension, seemed less poisonous.

Linda Abromson’s accomplishments were myriad, including securing federal grants for the revitalization of Portland’s Old Port, the restoration of Merrill Auditorium, and landing the Portland Sea Dogs, among others. After serving on the Portland School Board and City Council, she served for nine years on the Maine Human Rights Commission. Her family were leaders in the Jewish community, stretching back to a time when Jews were excluded from local clubs. Her daughter told the Press Herald that one of her mother’s most important achievements was a visit to the Poland concentration camps, an experience she made sure to share with others.

The contributions of the Abromsons to their city and state were enormous. And to reflect on their service recalls a time when Maine politics was fueled by people who got involved because of an ideal of service to city and state, and not because their ambitions fueled a career bent on higher office.

Of course, there are still many people like that, serving in challenging and often thankless positions, on local school boards and councils, and in the Legislature –jobs which have only grown harder in the new world of anonymous online bashing.

And in a political climate that is increasingly tribal and polarized, it’s a reminder that we all need to step up, to run for office when possible, or volunteer for local nonprofits.

The Abromsons’ service (he was Republican, she a Democrat) also provides a contrast between a model of bipartisanship, and the current partisan paralysis in Augusta that has stymied progress on Maine’s serious economic and social problems. Joel and Linda Abromson demonstrated in their marriage the art of working together. Despite the party affiliations, they had moderate and thoughtful positions and would reach agreement on many issues, their daughter said.

More than 35 years after Linda Abromson was first elected to the School Board, a cynicism abounds in a world that feels much more complicated and scary, with a president who is unmoored and uncaring.

As we pause and say goodbye and good riddance to 2017, the most disastrous year on the national front in my memory, we need to muster our hope and our efforts to see that our Maine elections brighten our prospects for 2018. But that will require legislators to get out of their party corners and work together to solve problems. Voters should demand that of candidates.

The Abromsons were united in the belief that the actions of one person could make a difference. Let 2018 be a year that we all try to get involved, whether it’s calling representatives, writing letters to the editor, or in supporting candidates in next year’s elections.

That would honor the memory of the Abromsons, whose contributions should not be forgotten.

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

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