Inaugurations are rare in Maine, as contrasted to its northern New England peers, Vermont and New Hampshire, which are now unique in retaining a two-year term for governor. And since the 1957 constitutional amendment creating Maine’s four-year term — and two-term limit — was ratified, governors have usually been granted a second term as well.

So this long cycle brings a moment of newness to the state’s capital city, beyond this week’s celebrations we may not see the like of for another eight years. The city’s fortunes are tied, perhaps more than ever, to the leadership decisions we count on governors to provide.

In the first century of statehood, it was the physical monuments of governors that left the largest traces. The landmark Governor Hill mansion on State Street, for instance, was the home of John Fremont Hill, who served from 1901-05.

Other governors from Augusta left their marks, including Samuel Cony, from the same family that endowed Cony High School, and Burton Cross, at whose insistence the gray pile originally known as the State Office Building was built in 1954; Cross’s name was attached only after major renovations a half century later.

Ironically, the most famous Augusta building of all, the Blaine House, was not initially occupied by a governor. James G. Blaine did everything else: serving as a legislative leader, newspaper editor, speaker of the U.S. House, and the Mainer who came closest to being elected president, losing narrowly to Grover Cleveland in 1884. It was his family who later donated the mansion to serve as the official residence of Maine governors.

In the second century of statehood, it is state government itself, rather than just its leader, which has put the largest stamp on life in the capital. That the state employs thousands of employees, rather than just hundreds, is due to events in the mid-20th century that are still unfolding, despite attempts to beat them back in recent years.

And no one embodied that change more than Ken Curtis, inaugurated 52 years ago, in 1966.

Curtis was from the hamlet of that name — Curtis Corners — in the farming town of Leeds, but he had Augusta ties from early on, graduating from Cony, where he played on the football team and chaired Chizzle Wizzle, the long-running annual variety show.

Along with a Republican Legislature, Gov. Curtis took full advantage of the federal government’s dramatic expansion of aid to state and local governments. He introduced many reforms that explain why Maine acquired a state government that was, for a time, a model for rural states to thrive and prosper.

There were growing pains for Augusta, as the state physically began using more space and occupying a larger place in the capital’s economy than it had before. The city, however, also benefitted from a critical nucleus of well-trained, educated workers it had never before.

That legacy is now in some doubt, depending on how the Mills administration, now taking shape, develops. Janet Mills, like Ken Curtis, comes from rural Maine and knows firsthand how the engines of private enterprise that fuel prosperity in more densely populated states are unlikely to be the whole answer here.

The ideology that government is “the problem” and best serves by getting out of the way has been particularly harmful to states like Maine, where the joint efforts of public agencies and home-grown businesses have been a far more effective formula in assuring that growth occurs beyond a handful of metropolitan centers.

In that sense, the fortunes of the capital area will be a bellwether over the next decade for whether Maine becomes mostly a tourism and retirement state, or a place where small towns and cities can rebuild themselves into broad-based, well-functioning local economies. No one sector in Maine — private, non-profit and public — can truly thrive without the others.

None of this will happen without substantial new public investment, especially following the disinvestment of the past decade, based on the opposite theory of government. Other issues may get bigger headlines, but the reality is that it’s spending, investment and regulatory decisions made in Augusta that in substantial measure determine where growth, and decline, will occur — and what the future holds.

Inaugurations bring opportunity. The new governor is assembling a veteran team, capable of recovering at least some of the lost ground. What their marching orders are, and whether the Legislature, counties, town and cities — and private interests — can be recognized and engaged will make all the difference both to the capital, and to Maine.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. He is the author of “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and welcomes comment at: [email protected]


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.