Candidate Edmund Muskie, right, gets ready to hit the road with Democratic State Committee Chairman Frank M. Coffin in Coffin’s Oldsmobile. Muskie’s successful 1954 insurgent campaign for governor is credited with making Maine a real two-party state after generations of Republican dominance. Photo by Donald E. Nicoll

July 11 marks the 100th birthday of Frank M. Coffin, one of Maine’s most distinguished citizens, who is now remembered chiefly for his four decades of service on the federal Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. Before that, however, he was twice elected as U.S. representative from what was then Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and served as a top foreign aid official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Truly a “man for all seasons,” Coffin was also a prolific author and a talented artist in print, pen, ink, paint, wood and stone.

Judge Coffin left behind many personal journals filled with eloquent observations about his life and times. When he reflected back on his many achievements, he was most proud of having partnered with Edmund S. Muskie in the early 1950s, launching Muskie’s storied political career, reviving the Democratic Party as a viable organization and converting Maine from a one-party bastion to a competitive – and, for the most part, civil – two-party state. It was the kind of transformation our nation could use today.

Coffin’s first venture in reforming Maine politics was the 1954 Democratic platform. He engaged citizens, regardless of party, through open meetings, civil debate and freely shared drafts, in developing a blueprint for change in the state’s economy, education, health and social services, the environment and investment in public resources. This “people’s platform” captured the imagination of voters and became the foundation for Ed Muskie’s two terms as governor.

His second task, as Democratic State Committee chairman, was attending to the nuts and bolts of party organization. Coffin developed strategies, enlisted volunteers, recruited candidates and built grassroots activity, even in communities where there were few registered Democrats. He did so in a world of primitive communications, with minimal staff and limited funds. The 1954 campaign cost $18,000 for governor, U.S. senator and three congressional candidates.

Coffin’s fundamental goal was to build a competitive political environment, which he saw as essential for responsive and responsible government. Although he identified strongly with the values of the mid-20th-century Democratic Party, he never suffered from an excess of partisanship. He never attacked his opponents personally. He did not see his party as having a monopoly on wisdom, and as a congressman he frequently reached across the aisle to find common ground with Republicans.

After taking the nonpartisan oath of a judge, Coffin stayed scrupulously clear of the political arena, but many of his journal entries reveal his continued concern for the health of America’s political institutions. He was particularly interested in the state of the political parties, which he described as the “midwives between the mass of citizen-voters and their elected leaders and the policies for which they stand.”

For Coffin, political campaigns were inseparable from governing. They should be positive, not negative, enterprises focused not on defeating your opponent, but on convincing voters that your proposals were deserving of their support. In Frank Coffin’s ideal world, each party would lay out its vision in a written platform that its candidates would embrace. Political debate would be spirited and serious, but always civil. Informed voters would choose the plan and candidates that they found more compelling, and the successful party would then do its best to make good on its promises.

Believing that healthy competition in the political marketplace is bound to produce periodic changes in government, Coffin was not troubled when a Republican friend told him that by breathing life into the Maine Democrats, he had helped revitalize the Republican Party as well. Years later, when Newt Gingrich organized the Republicans’ 1994 congressional campaign around the so-called “Contract with America,” Coffin – while finding most of its policy ideas “deeply disturbing” – still considered it “a brilliant idea” because it “effectively combined philosophy and concrete detail.” He thought it was exactly what a political platform ought to be, rather than “an encyclopedia of trivia or a general statement of principles akin to the Ten Commandments.”

In form if not in content, it reminded him of what he had done in Maine in the early 1950s. When the Contract resulted in a Republican takeover of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Coffin thought it was because the Democrats had offered no “cohesive concept of their own to put against it.”

By the time Frank Coffin died in 2009, the parties had become what he called an “endangered species.” In his journal he lamented that that big money, powerful special interests and candidate-centered campaigns had damaged the capacity of political parties to incubate ideas and translate them into policy. The media, which he thought “seldom take an interest in substantive presentations,” had contributed to the dumbing-down of political discourse. Such factors, Coffin believed, had discouraged many young people from joining and taking part in political parties – and, more tragically, from even voting.

Coffin was not very impressed by so-called “independent” voters, many of whom he considered simply uninformed and disengaged. In numerous high school and college graduation speeches, he advised young people to translate their idealism into action by becoming active in party politics, “even if they had to hold their noses on some issues.”

Frank Coffin died at the end of President Obama’s first year in office. He was spared the spectacle of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s stonewalling of court nominations and the cascading threats to responsible parties and democracy in the Trump era. He would have been encouraged by Gov. Mills’ leadership and the civil discourse in the Maine Legislature, but troubled nationally by the continued dominance of money, special interests, media manipulation and narrow partisanship.

On his 100th birthday anniversary, we think Frank Coffin’s story and his approach to public service are still relevant. But it will take a new generation of citizen activists, in both major and minor political parties, committed to making politics a responsive and responsible means toward the achievement of a civil and just society.


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