On Nov. 8, 2011, the people of East Millinocket spoke with as close to one voice as you usually see in Maine politics.
By a 4-to-1 margin, the voters of that community expressed opposition to a non-binding ballot question that asked, “Are you in favor of supporting a feasibility study on a proposed 70,000-acre national park as presented by Roxanne Quimby?” The only thing more unusual than the strength of the opposition was that the ballot question actually linked Quimby to the project by name.
Turning a deaf ear to the 80 percent of East Millinocket voters who opposed merely the study of a park in 2011, Eliot Cutler told Katahdin-area business leaders last week that he would personally lead an effort to revitalize the northern Maine economy as governor. That effort, according to Cutler, could include a national park in the region.
What is he thinking?
Early public opinion polls in the governor’s race have pegged Cutler at or below 20 percent. Taking positions favored by just 1 in 5 rural Maine voters should be a sure way of keeping Cutler in the basement of Blaine House politics. In this case, however, Cutler is right about the policy and right about the politics.
First consider the policy. Maine’s forests are a vast and renewable resource that continues to provide our forest products industry with the fiber it takes to manufacture paper, lumber and other wood-based products. But mechanization in the forests and in factories has reduced the labor it takes to harvest timber and manufacture value-added products. Advancements in technology have had similar impacts on our farm-based industries.
The same or even more production sustains far fewer jobs than it did a generation or two ago. And that is the good news. The light manufacturing that occurred in woolen mills and shoe shops across our state has largely been exported to low-wage countries, save for a few Maine-based success stories such as New Balance.
We need a different approach to economic development in rural Maine that plays to our sustainable and commercially viable competitive advantages. Maine is the most forested and one of the most rural state in the country. When it comes to tourism and outdoor recreation, those traits set us apart, and it is smart to at least consider how an appropriately scaled national park could be part of what attracts people to Maine and adds value to the Pine Tree State brand.
I am not talking about the 3.2 million-acre proposal supported by Restore Maine. That monstrosity would be bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, taking far too much of our working forest out of production to make sense for our state. The kind of park the Quimby family is talking about today is far smaller in scale.
Expanding for a moment on competitive advantage, I believe Maine needs to go further than just making the most of the opportunities that present themselves today. We should strategically create competitive advantage in job-creating industries through a wholesale alignment of our laws, land use policy, education system and investments.
In other words, we should pick a growth industry and make Maine the easiest and most economical place in the world to conduct business in that emerging sector. Look for more on the Demeritt Plan for Maine Prosperity in a future column or political campaign.
Now for the politics of Cutler’s visit to the Katahdin region.
Jobs and the economy are one in the same and ultimately will decide the winner of the campaign for the Blaine House. Cutler needs to differentiate himself as a candidate on jobs issues and find ways to make inroads with rural Maine voters who like Gov. Paul LePage’s brash style and the earnest congressional service of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud.
LePage and Michaud both oppose the park idea.
Cutler’s willingness to consider a park and pledge to actually lead the discussion sets him apart from his opponents in that region of Maine. Progress also is being made on the park issue, thanks to the work Quimby’s family, led by her son Lucas St. Clair, is doing to educate community leaders and build bridges throughout the region. St. Clair is a sincere and approachable advocate, and his work is making a difference.
The Cutler campaign can make the argument that Michaud and LePage both have had their opportunity to deliver for rural Maine through their elected service. A willingness to consider nontraditional alternatives could help Cutler connect with rural Maine voters who have to accept eventually that the way it has always been is no longer the only way forward.
Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at: [email protected] Twitter: @demerittda.