Old editor tries new venture

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This old chestnut, often attributed to Yogi Berra, has been around a lot longer than that, but seems apropos as we look back at a tumultuous 2017.

The “fork,” for me, grew out of research I’ve done for two books — the first, a biography of George Mitchell, published in 2016; the second a history of the Maine Democratic Party since 1954, and a recipe for its revival, called “Rise, Decline and Renewal,” coming out in March from Hamilton Books.

As I completed the second book, I realized that its ideas and prescriptions could be strengthened considerably if a career journalist and opinion writer tried practicing what he preached. And so it is that I am going to work for Mark Dion, a Democratic candidate for governor.

Mark Dion has been in public service all his adult life. He was a Portland police officer, rising to deputy chief, where he led changes that enabled a once-troubled department to become a model of community policing. As Cumberland County sheriff, he earned national recognition for pioneering policies emphasizing respectful treatment of immigrants, gay and transgendered inmates, and those with mental illness. He courageously called for the legalization of marijuana long before it became a mainstream position.

Toward the end of his 12 years as sheriff, he went to law school and then into private practice. He ran for, and won, three terms in the Maine House and, last year, won a hotly contested primary and joined the state Senate.

As a legislator, as throughout his career, he’s taken on challenges others shied away from, and helped produce meaningful compromises based on thoughtful discussion — always a rare commodity at the State House.

I believe him to be the best qualified candidate, and the most likely to grow into the office he seeks. He is intelligent, a good listener, and skeptical even of plausible-sounding arguments, including my own. He sees the big picture.

Having studied three full generations of Maine elections, I’m convinced 2018 is one of the most important of our lifetimes, and that the next governor will play a crucial role if we are to restore Maine’s public sector after long years of decline. This requires a steady, experienced hand who’s also willing to undertake bold experiments; this candidate is certainly that.

I have signed on to work on policy, but the reality of campaigns is that they are startup enterprises that require all hands on deck, all the time. That’s the fun, and the daunting challenge.

Though I did spend two years on the State House staff, I’ve never worked on a campaign before, so the learning curve is steep. My main consolation is that, as with journalism and newspaper work in general, my mistakes will be public and, hence, quickly corrected.

This change necessitates another. I will be leaving state political commentary behind, and, with the kind indulgence of my editors, starting another column every other week focusing on local issues in the Augusta-Waterville era.

Since I left my post at the Kennebec Journal way back in the King administration, I’ve wanted to find a new way to interpret and observe the communities for which 10 years of daily editorial writing was such a wonderful tutorial.

Over the years, participation and involvement by readers in what I write has become more and more important to me. Local newspapers are as vital to democracy, as Thomas Jefferson so memorably said, as governments themselves.

I will not hazard a guess as to my success in either new venture, but I do embark on them with a sense of adventure, and the assurance that they are well worth it, whatever the contribution I’m able to make.

And I also invite you, the reader, to stretch your boundaries, enlarge your comfort zone, and get involved in restoring, then expanding, our democracy. It is America’s unique contribution to the world, but also — as we have become all too aware — an idea that must be defended anew with each generation.

Consider, also, joining your municipal or county committee to work with others in a cause larger than a particular campaign or candidate. Encourage friends and family to shed their aversion to “partisan politics” — and help them realize that there really is no other kind.

For too long, we have allowed those well-endowed with money, power or both to dictate terms to the voters, to downsize what we think is “politically possible,” to pretend that there’s nothing we can do to change the system. It’s time to prove them wrong.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 33 years. His biography, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]


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