Politicians, particularly those who work in Washington, D.C., are frequently accused of being out of touch with the people they represent.

The Washington ones are generally well-to-do. They hobnob with people the rest of us couldn’t imagine ever even seeing in our lifetime.

They make a big effort, though, to let us know they’re one of us. They get us, understand us, have our best interests in mind.

Under those expensive suits and haircuts, they’re regular folks, just like us.

The best ones manage to pull that off. The rest just wish they could.

Nowhere was this more painfully evident than the recent annual Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce awards dinner in Augusta.

There is no better display of the “us” of the central Maine community than this awards dinner, which instead of celebrating corporations or big business, focuses on the people who make our community work.

There were a lot of good stories at this year’s, held Jan. 25 on a bitingly cold night.

Award winners ranged from J.S. McCarthy Printers, a business run by two generations of the Tardiff family, to the Family Violence Project, which handles 4,000 calls from our friends and neighbors a year.

Great stories told at the dinner also included Business Person of the Year Scott Bolduc, the Waterville native who helped develop vehicle technology for a friend left paralyzed from an accident, and eventually built a world-recognized business developing that and other technology. He recently brought his business back to the Kennebec Valley.

Then there was Andy and Sheree Wess, who bought a ramshackle motel on Cobbossee Lake in Winthrop for themselves and their four kids and turned it into a destination lodge for tourists and fishermen that also annually raises thousands of dollars for the Special Olympics.

Not a politician in the bunch.

One expectation of politicians who come to these things is that they’ll come late, leave early and give a canned speech in between.

Our new U.S. senator, Angus King, didn’t disappoint on that front.

Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to show up right before Laura Benedict spoke.

Benedict, owner of the Red Barn restaurant, was being presented a President’s Award. She gave King a big hug, then told the audience of about 900 that she was gong to speak without notes, because she does better speaking from the heart.

Benedict told her story. How she bought an ice cream stand at the age of 19 in 1986 not knowing anything about running a business. How she messed up, then messed up again. How she wanted to give up, but her mother, who was dying at the time, talked her out of it.

And how after 30 years of working at it, she finally turned to the community and got it right.

Despite the bad economy of recent years, Benedict’s new business strategy — reaching out to the community and letting it reach back — has raised more than $400,000 for charity.

It would be a mistake to recreate her words here — it wouldn’t do her justice.

But the fact that at the end of her speech those 900 people were on their feet, many wiping away tears, gives you an idea of how it went.

Angus King deserves a little bit of a break here. When he put together his canned speech for the night, he’d had no clue what he’d have to follow.

His speech — apparently off the cuff, just like Benedict’s — was humorous. Mr. King Goes to Washington-type stuff about accidentally hanging up on the president and other tales from inside the beltway.

A good politician knows it’s important to be funny. It makes people like you and think you’re a regular guy.

A great politician, particularly one who came late and didn’t plan on sticking around long, would have seized the moment.

He would have seen those 900 people on their feet and realized this wasn’t just another group of voters who wanted to hear how easy it is to get lost in the Capitol building. He would have figured out what had just happened and thrown out the script of his spontaneous Mr. King Goes to Washington shtick.

Even if he was too used to breathing the rarefied air of Washington to feel the surge of communal love that had been building all night and bloomed with Benedict’s speech, a smart politician would have realized something was going on.

King didn’t. Not only didn’t he toss out his script, but with the thundering applause for Benedict still echoing through the Augusta Civic Center, he didn’t even give a passing reference to the folks who shared the spotlight with him that night.

His loss.

Benedict stood up in front of 900 fellow central Mainers on a bitter cold January night and reminded them how important everyone in that room is to each other.

Those 900 people wiped their tears on the tiramisu-stained napkins, got to their feet and let her know that, yeah, we’re right here with you.

Shortly after King spoke, another award winner referenced the senator, then turned to acknowledge him.

King wasn’t there. He’d left for the night.

Maureen Milliken is the news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected] Kennebec Tales runs the first and third Thursday of the month.

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