HERMON — It was November 1995, and under sad and unexpected circumstances, voters in this Bangor suburb were about to do something unusual.
Two months earlier, 42-year-old Rep. Robert E. Yackobitz had died suddenly, leaving vacant a seat in the Maine House of Representatives. Into the race stepped Ralph Carr, a guidance counselor at Hermon High School, whose candidacy had the trappings of most successful political bids. He had healthy name recognition, a track record of public service, and a deep knowledge of his community. Carr was also a Democrat, the last from the party to represent the town in nearly two decades.
“This has been a rock-ribbed conservative town for years,” said Carr, now 80, who remembers when rolling cow pastures, not freshly built subdivisions, dotted Hermon’s landscape. “To my knowledge, I’m the only Democrat to be elected to the Legislature from this area.”
Known for its low taxes, bustling trucking industry and business-friendly atmosphere, this community just west of Bangor remains a deep bastion of support for conservatives, including Gov. Paul LePage, who won big here in 2010.
Although LePage faced two opponents – independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell – to Hermon voters the gubernatorial contest four years ago was effectively a two-way race. Nine voters out of 10 chose a Republican or the independent.
From interviews with local officials, residents and business owners, it appears likely that the rapidly growing town of 5,600 will likely turn out again for LePage and other Republicans on Nov. 4.
“There isn’t anything that man does that I do not like,” said Sonya Palmer, 75, of Hermon, whose enthusiasm brims at the mention of LePage. “I think he’s one of the best, (most) truthful governors we’ve ever had.”
LANDMARK TRUCK STOP
When the earliest residents of Hermon met for the first town meeting one afternoon in March 1815, their agenda foreshadowed some of the same issues the town faces today: taxes, education and town leadership.
What has evolved, meanwhile, are the forces that have pushed the town forward and driven its economy.
Hermon’s forests were cleared in the early 19th century to make way for dairy, chicken and other farming operations.
When the effects of the baby boom took hold in America following the end of World War II and the demand for housing exploded across the country, Hermon was no exception. Dairy farmers began selling their pastures to developers, who instead of alfalfa planted reasonably priced single homes on modest, comfortable lots.
Water and sewer service, owned by the town but serviced by Bangor, helped pave the way for population growth, and with the influx of younger families the transition away from rural farming is now nearly complete, said Carr, the onetime legislator, retired teacher and public servant.
The most prominent town landmark is probably Dysart’s, a massive trucking hub and restaurant, where weary drivers find friendly service, a place to shower and comfort food served at all hours.
In the busy dining room, where waitresses know customers by their first names and pour seemingly endless cups of steaming coffee, mention of LePage brought statements of steadfast support.
Lianna Hayden, over a plate of crispy, crown-shaped potato bites, said she and her husband, Jimbo, have run a trailer park in nearby Eddington for years but have recently found it difficult to keep up with the demands on small-business owners.
“It isn’t worth it to own a small business,” said Lianna Hayden, 73. “There are so many permits and licenses you gotta get.”
Combined with rising property taxes in Eddington, located on the opposite side of Bangor, it continues to be difficult for the couple to make money, she said. This year, their tax bill jumped from about $7,000 to about $9,200, she said.
But Jimbo Hayden, looking up from his bowl of oatmeal, interjected, and drew a straight line between LePage’s proposed cuts to local aid in his biennial budget in 2012 with how some people will see him this November.
“If (the state) put more money into the town and the taxes went down, people would vote for him a lot quicker,” he said.
Still, his wife is impressed with Le- Page. As a landlord to people who live on the margins of poverty, she was disgusted with conduct by her tenants, some of whom flout the rules surrounding benefits programs that have become the focus of LePage’s re-election campaign.
“They sell those cards for cash because they’re not good for some things,” she said. “We have people come into the park and say, ‘We know how to work the system.’ They think it’s funny.”
In 2010, LePage won nearly 52 percent of the vote in Hermon, while independent Cutler took 34 percent. Mitchell, the Democrat, won only 9 percent.
In every presidential election since 2000, Hermon voters favored the Republican candidates: George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
One Democrat who bucked the Republican trend in town was John Baldacci, from nearby Bangor, who defeated Republican Peter Cianchette of South Portland in the election for governor in 2002.
While persuading folks here to talk about their political views on the record can prove difficult, Bobby Duran, who for the past 24 years has run C&K Variety on Route 2, was quick to jump into the fray.
Duran offers every manner of service he can cram into the cozy store, selling liquor, groceries, greeting cards and prepared food, and offering postal services and boxes. Between managing his store and 25 employees and looking after a few dozen apartments he owns in town, Duran sees and meets all types. He said he has been impressed by LePage’s ability to communicate where he stands on issues, and that sometimes a tough, guiding hand is the best way to steer forward.
“I think (LePage) is trying his darnedest to get the state back to where it should be,” said Duran, a former Hermon selectman and school committee member. “I think Democrats want to be nice to people, and Republicans do too, but there has to be a line.”
As for the chance of Democratic candidate Mike Michaud winning his vote, Duran did not equivocate.
“I’m not in favor of a gay running my state,” he said. “From where I’m concerned, (Michaud) is the most useless individual who weaseled into areas he shouldn’t have been in and made promises he couldn’t keep.”
CORE CONSERVATIVE IDEALS
In 2013, Hermon won a designation as a “Business Friendly Community” by the state Department of Economic and Community Development, one of only three in Penobscot County. The plaudit in many ways caps nearly two decades of hard-fought economic gains that speak directly to how residents think government, and their officials, should operate.
Guiding Hermon’s explosive growth have been the core conservative ideals of low taxes, minimal municipal debt and a government eager to help businesses grow.
So when Town Manager Roger Raymond was hired in 2012, town residents and some officials were wary of what fiscal bent he would bring. Raymond previously spent 40 years in town management, mostly in Eagle Lake and in Bucksport, a mill town. The two communities are historically more willing to incur debt and spend money, he said, and the conservative members of the Hermon Town Council knew it.
When town councilors were asked to set goals for the town, Raymond heard their desire loud and clear.
“The first is that they said they want to provide an affordable mill rate,” he said, referring to how towns measure property taxes. “It’s hard. That’s what kept me here. That’s what brought me out of retirement.”
So far on the taxation front, Raymond has largely succeeded. Taxes remain considerably lower than in the towns that surround it. This year, the mill rate is $11.91 for every $1,000 of valuation for both businesses and residents. In Bangor, only a few miles away, property is taxed at $19.65 per $1,000 of valuation.
“Here in Hermon they don’t like big government,” Raymond said. “They want government to leave them be, and I think that’s kind of the image that (LePage) expressed.”
Welfare reform, the other of LePage’s major issues from 2010, resonated with residents then, and continues to resonate today.
John and Sonya Palmer, who have lived in Hermon for most of their lives, said LePage’s aggressive tone is exactly what the state needs.
John Palmer, 76, said he likes how the governor is “shaking ’em up” in Augusta, saying what needs to be said, although it is not always what people want to hear. The couple, leaving Dysart’s after breakfast, said they both appreciate his targeting of welfare cheats, who ought to be working instead of collecting government checks.
“I like how he’s getting after people who live off of us,” said Sonya Palmer, 76, who cleaned toilets at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor for 15 years to help make ends meet. While not ideal, “it was a job,” she said.
“I think he’s one of the best, truthful governors we’ve ever had,” she said. “He’s no different than you and I.”
In the past 15 years, Hermon has quietly transformed itself into a business-friendly hub. While keeping local government debt low, the town has used every economic mechanism at its disposal to lure businesses large and small.
The town’s industrial sector, once dominated by railroad traffic, trade in livestock and cheese production, has tilted toward trucking and light industrial and commercial uses, giving the town a strong base of business and excise tax revenue. As a result of the town’s efforts, four business parks are brimming with activity, and more economic growth is on the way.
For voters in town who have benefited from the local development, LePage’s message in 2010 was a logical extension of what worked locally. Why couldn’t the entire state enjoy what Hermon has?
Jeanne Savoy, 69, co-owner of DaVinci Signs in Hermon’s Pinewood Business Park, said she voted for LePage in 2010 and plans to do so again. She said she was impressed with his push to pay roughly $750 million in Medicaid debt owed to Maine hospitals, some of which are DaVinci clients. When LePage cut taxes after taking office, the dividends helped her hire an extra employee.
“Sometimes I think he’s great because he’s always thinking about the businessman, the little man,” Savoy said. “You have to run government like a business.”
Savoy shares the governor’s concern about Maine’s brain drain. Both of her daughters grew up in Maine, earned college degrees and promptly moved out of state. Her two sons took the local route. One is a schoolteacher in Hermon, and the other runs a growing power equipment business in town.
Her business partner, Ande Binan, on the other hand, said he voted for Cutler in 2010, and since then has not been impressed with the governor’s public statements.
“I will give Paul LePage a chance,” he said. “Some people like that he shoots off the cuff and speaks his mind. That’s OK, I respect it, but it doesn’t make good politics.”
At Dysart’s Truck Stop, one of Hermon’s business institutions and a considerable employer in town, folks who stopped in for breakfast or a slice of pie almost universally said they support the governor.
Danny Farnham, a Dysart’s maintenance worker, said he enjoys how outspoken LePage has been, and said the governor has done a good job despite “all that’s been thrown at him” by political opponents.
“If he’s got something on his mind, he says it,” Farnham said. “Good or bad.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: