MADAWASKA –– Many people refer to Maine’s northernmost town and Aroostook County as God’s Country.
But this mill town on the St. John River, a six-hour drive north of Portland, the state’s largest and most liberal city, could just as easily be called Mike Michaud country.
In the last two elections, the six-term Democratic congressman captured three-quarters or more of the vote here – 75 percent in 2010 and 77 percent in 2012.
Support for the 59-year-old Michaud, a former millworker himself, from East Millinocket, and one of the least affluent members of Congress, is not surprising. The median age here is 50. Although the median income is only about $33,500 a year, most older men have made a decent living working at union jobs in the mill. More than 60 percent of voters are registered as Democrats.
Yet it’s unclear whether the landslide results Michaud has enjoyed as a congressional candidate will carry over to the governor’s race, which pits him against Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth. Many residents here are socially conservative Catholics who don’t support same-sex marriage. Some have embraced the fact that Michaud, a Franco-American Catholic, is gay, but others have not.
Meanwhile, recent polls show that LePage is the preferred candidate of rural voters in towns like Madawaska, and his blunt speaking style and messages of welfare reform and job development resonate with many residents here.
Anxiety about the future of the Twin Rivers Paper Co. mill and the paper industry is common, according to the Rev. Jim Plourde, who leads the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church on St. Thomas Street.
The mill employs about 500 people, and it would be “disastrous” if it closed, Plourde said. At the same time, he said, people in Madawaska are a close-knit, hardworking and hospitable group that possesses the type of Yankee ingenuity for which Maine is known.
“On the one hand, there is this culturally seeded optimism,” Plourde said. “And on the other hand, the economy has not been that great.”
He added: “We’re realizing we’re on the other part of the state of Maine – the one that gets less attention, politically and economically.”
Downtown Madawaska runs along a half-mile stretch of Main Street, dominated by old, weather-beaten buildings, empty storefronts and a few first-floor businesses, including one bar. Just across the river lies Edmundston, New Brunswick – a city with strong ties to Madawaska and about four times as many residents.
French is still spoken in many homes in this small U.S. town, which was settled by Acadians. Welcome signs are written in both English and French. Canadian accents color the English language, and the Acadian flag is still flown proudly here.
In early May, a cold wind scatters the sweet smoke of papermaking up the hillside above the mill.
Michaud’s 29 years working a union job in the former Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket offers a sense of kinship to many voters here.
Robert Cyr is a retired millworker. He sits among a group of seniors chitchatting at the local McDonald’s, wearing a baseball cap and bright red jacket with a Steelworkers Local 4-1247 emblem on his chest.
Cyr, who is married with three kids and six grandchildren, doesn’t care much for politics, or politicians for that matter. They occasionally come to town to campaign, walk in a parade, shake hands and ask for votes, he said.
In the 2010 governor’s race, Cyr, a Democrat, voted for independent Eliot Cutler rather than the Democratic candidate, Libby Mitchell.
This year will be different. Cyr plans to vote for Michaud, mainly because of his union background.
“I worked at the mill for 36 years,” Cyr said. “(Michaud) has worked with the union people. Some people want to take away the union.”
At a nearby table sat 73-year-old Adrien LaVoie, another mill retiree.
In 2010, LaVoie also chose Cutler over LePage and Mitchell. But this year, he’s planning to vote for Michaud.
“I know Mike Michaud will do a good job,” said LaVoie, a Democrat who also supports Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. “He’s for the working man. He’s for the veterans.”
Despite Michaud’s union background, however, some residents said LePage’s message of welfare reform makes him the working-class candidate. LePage’s campaign often refers to taxpayers as “the underdog,” pitting them against big government, liberal politicians and special interest groups.
“(Michaud) goes with the flow and we’re tired of that,” said resident Earl Pelletier, 64. “(LePage) might have his problems, but at least he’s for the working man.”
Roger Corbin, a retired U.S. Customs official, said he likes LePage’s efforts to crack down on out-of-state use of food stamps, but that doesn’t mean he will vote for him.
In 2010, the 67-year-old voted for Cutler for governor. He has voted for Michaud in the past, but being governor is different from being a congressman, he said.
Corbin is keeping an open mind about all three candidates. “I’ll see more when they start debating,” he said.
Patricia Boucher owns a small business on Main Street called The Other Place, which prints custom T-shirts for a local retail store and for special occasions, such as the upcoming Acadian Festival, happening in August.
Boucher, 61, understands why welfare reform is a hot topic in town. There is a sense among locals, she said, that young, lower-income women have children to get more state assistance. Because there is a lack of economic opportunity here, young men also live off the state benefits, she said.
But Boucher is turned off by LePage’s “political bluster” about welfare reform. LePage should change complicated rules and regulations that make it hard to become independent, she said, and focus on stabilizing the economy.
“That’s the kind of thing we should be looking at, not all this hoopla,” Boucher said, throwing her hands in the air. “His Republican heart is in the right spot, but he’s more concerned with making a lot of noise than sitting down and doing what needs to be done.”
Boucher, a Democrat, said she used state assistance when she was widowed many years ago. She picked herself up by the bootstraps, earned several degrees and now owns her own business. But making that transition from welfare to work wasn’t easy, she said.
This fall she plans to support Michaud, because of his 22 years of experience as a state legislator and 12 years as a congressman.
“He’s got inside information. He knows how the process works. And he has relationships built up” that can help the state, she said.
Many residents here regard themselves as social and fiscal conservatives. In 2012, the town voted 1,407 to 663 against the same-sex marriage referendum, and there are signs that Michaud, who supports same-sex marriage and could become the nation’s first openly gay candidate to be elected governor, could be losing support.
Joe LaChance, a Democrat and former millworker, seems to fit the profile of a Michaud supporter, but the 68-year-old said he will be voting for LePage. He said he won’t vote for Michaud because of “personal reasons” that he wouldn’t explain.
“I think (LePage) is doing a fantastic job. He set up a plan and he’s following it,” LaChance said. “People don’t like the way he talks, but he’s like me, he tells it like it is.”
Ray Campagna, 81, said that, as a Catholic, he opposes same-sex marriage. He “never will” vote for Michaud, who announced he was gay last fall.
Jim Michaud, 55, who is not related to the candidate, has worked at the mill for more than three decades. Speaking to a reporter in a dirt parking lot on Main Street while waiting for a heaping plate of pulled pork and beans from the Rib Truck, he said he has been a registered Republican since 1976.
Over the past 25 years, however, he has voted for Democrats and Republicans alike, including LePage, Michaud and even former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. His political views are complex and don’t fit neatly into a party platform. He’s a fiscal and social conservative, but he believes in universal health care. He supports free enterprise, but not at the expense of middle-class union labor.
This year, he won’t be voting for LePage. Other than that, he’s undecided.
One moment he sounds like a Cutler supporter, berating the political parties for extreme partisanship, and at other times he seems to lean toward Michaud, voicing concern about efforts to undermine labor unions.
“Labor for the last decade has been getting the short end of the stick,” he said. “I am not into the ruthless exploitation” of labor.
Ronald Schmidt Jr., an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said the strength of Michaud’s campaign is the prospect that he can maintain his support among rural voters like those in Madawaska.
“I think the promise of the campaign, and certainly the message of the campaign, is that it’s possible for Democrats to win without just being really good at getting out the vote in Portland,” Schmidt said.
He said Michaud could lose support in rural towns and still win the election, but if he does it could affect his ability to govern. Maine’s political landscape is becoming more reflective of the national landscape, which Schmidt describes as “two hunkered-down parties and some disaffected independents between them.”
In that regard, losing votes to Cutler, an independent, could be more damaging than losing rural votes, he said.
People who are not enrolled in a political party make up the second largest voting bloc in Madawaska.
“I think if he does win towns like (Madawaska), it says something not only about him as a candidate but potentially about him as a governor,” Schmidt said.
As the November election inches closer, residents like Jeff Corbin, the son of the retired customs officer, want to hear the candidates’ ideas about economic development in northern Maine.
The workforce at the Twin Rivers mill has been shrinking, and rumors are swirling about the possible outsourcing of administrative jobs there. That would only add to the economic woes facing downtown, where empty spaces mark the former locations of the Blue Sky Hotel, Burt’s Lunch Stand and the Madawaska House of Pizza. Next in line for closure is Jackie’s gift and craft shop, which is promoting a going-out-of-business sale with five large, bright red signs.
“People want to stay in this area and raise kids,” said Corbin, a 40-year-old mill employee and father of two children. “You can’t always rely on the mill. Let’s give them more options.”
He voted for LePage in 2010 and said there are things he likes about Cutler. But for now, Corbin is leaning toward Michaud.
“Mike’s always been good for us,” he said. “It would be nice to have a candidate that takes the best of both (Cutler and Michaud).”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: