Eric Brakey was in downtown Norway on Wednesday during day one of his “11 County Free Maine Tour.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Growing up in a liberal suburban neighborhood outside of Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Brakey said he felt like an outsider.

“I was always marching to my own drummer,” said Brakey, a bookish kid who had to work hard to become a lifeguard, an actor and, ultimately, a politician.

The 31-year-old congressional hopeful in Maine’s 2nd District said he “didn’t fit in” back in Shaker Heights,” but loves living in the Pine Tree State where he spent his summers as a child, where people are “real,” and where his family has roots that stretch back to the Revolutionary War.

Brakey, who manages financial records for his family’s company, said he always thought of himself “as a Mainer in exile.”

The former state senator from Auburn is one of three Republicans seeking his party’s backing in a July 14 primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a first-term Democrat from Lewiston.

Brakey, who got married last month, faces Adrienne Bennett of Bangor and Dale Crafts of Lisbon in a ranked-choice voting race where early voting is already well underway.

He may be the best known of the trio after two high-profile terms in the state Legislature and a long-shot bid two years ago to unseat U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent.

Eric Brakey and the former Kaitlin Waterhouse were married on June 6 in New Gloucester. Submitted photo

For all his interest in politics, though, Brakey nearly took an entirely different course in life.

Initially, he eyed a career in business.

By middle school, he said, he plowed through texts he thought would help him succeed, developing a keen appreciation for the free market along the way.

When he reached Shaker Heights High School, Brakey suddenly took a keen interest in theater.

“I wanted to do it. I loved it,” he said. One hitch, though, was that “I started off not very good at it.”

He tried out for shows time and again, but lacked the self-confidence that stage success requires.

Each time, he got left on the sidelines, handing out programs while others shared the spotlight.

But every time he had the chance, he auditioned again. And each time, he said, he got a little better.

Finally, in his senior year, Brakey tried out for a spot in the cast of William Shakespeare’s often overlooked “Twelfth Night.”

He said he stopped putting so much pressure on himself, relaxed and “just put myself out there” and next thing he knew he’d snagged the part of honest, pragmatic Sebastian, a lead character who ultimately looks around and asks, “Are all the people mad?”

“Everything just kind of clicked after that,” Brakey said.

It led him to make “the really impulsive decision” to give up on business school and head instead to the theater department of Ohio University.

That 2006 choice to pursue theater in college, though, may never have happened without the lesson Brakey learned in sixth grade when he came home from school to find his father unexpectedly in the living room.

That day, Brakey said, his father, Michael, had been laid off from the rubber manufacturing company where he’d long been an engineer.

Brakey recalled that his father sat his four sons down and told them the pink slip wasn’t a setback. It was actually an opportunity, he remembered hearing.

“So we were never afraid or uncertain,” Brakey said, as his father formed a new company, Brakey Energy, and gradually built a consulting business for firms looking for ways to save on their utility bills.

The new family enterprise, which has regularly employed Brakey, proved a success.

The lesson Brakey took away from it is that “you can never just settle for what people give to you.”

Instead, he said, you have to create the future you want, just like his folks had done.

His parents, who met in second grade in New Gloucester, forged a life for themselves and their sons after the couple graduated from the University of Maine and found they had to go far afield to find employment.

When they retired a few years ago, they moved back to New Gloucester, not far from a family place on Sabbathday Lake where Brakey spent long childhood summers swimming.

As a new graduate, Brakey had his eye on a very different career than his parents, one that would land him on the stage.

In college, he acted in some productions and then wound up producing, writing and directing his own.

Even a quick glance at his 130-page, 2010 senior thesis, Orpheus: The Adaptation of Myth for the Theatre, provides some idea how serious Brakey was at the time about theater.

After he graduated, Brakey went to New York City and spent a couple of years trying to break into a tough field and turn his Orpheus play into reality.

During his time in New York, Eric Brakey acted as “Average Joe 2” in a comedy skit called “Even Worse FDA Cigarette Warnings,” where he was shown briefly buying a pack of cigarettes at a bodega. College Humor photo

To earn a living as he labored among the hordes of thinly employed actors, Brakey held many temporary jobs and got roles in a couple of commercials, including one where he dances around in a bedroom swiveling his hips in nothing but an orange Speedo to tout Vita CoCo Coconut Water.

Then along came Ron Paul, a libertarian-minded Republican running for president whose agenda matched the politics that Brakey had never quite abandoned, especially when the Tea Party began stirring the pot.

After he started volunteering for Paul’s campaign in 2011, Brakey wound up getting a job with it as field coordinator in Maine, where he soon became Paul’s state director.

“That wasn’t my plan,” Brakey said, but he couldn’t pass up the chance to make a difference and to advance a cause much bigger than even the Big Apple offered.

After Paul lost to Mitt Romney, Brakey opted to stay in Maine and give politics a shot himself, knocking on 8,000 doors in a successful state Senate bid to defeat a Democrat in 2014.

He held it until he gave up the seat in an unsuccessful bid to defeat U.S. Sen. Angus King in 2018.

The loss didn’t faze him.

“Failure is just an opportunity to learn something,” Brakey said.

Republican voters will decide soon who gets the chance for that education this year.

This is the last of three profiles on each of the Republican candidates in the July 14 congressional primary in Maine’s 2nd District.

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