John Clark on the day following the election, feeling like a winner even though I only received 35% of the votes cast in Maine House District 105. How can that be? Read on.
It started with a message on my answering machine back in February…No that’s not exactly correct. It started 8 years ago when two guys walked into the Hartland Library and introduced themselves as Randy Huber and Daniel Swain. Daniel was running as the Democratic candidate for the house and was looking for a PR person. Getting involved in politics again wasn’t on my radar, not after that infamous night when Brownie Carson lost the Democratic primary to Peter Kyros back in the early 1970s and I told the mayor of Portland to go bleep himself after Brownie lost. That was well before I sobered up and decided that such behavior wasn’t in my best interests.
In any event, I agreed and during both of Daniel’s campaigns, I did promo work as well as driving him around. Somerset County isn’t very friendly to Democrats, particularly progressive ones. He lost both times as did Josh Hartford when he ran in 2016. By that point, Beth and I had come out of our respective comfort zones thanks to the Orange Haired Idiot and were making phone calls, marching for progressive causes, and attending protests around the state.
Back to the message. Craig Heavey announced that nobody was willing to run as a Democrat in District 105. There was a long pause before he asked if I would consider doing so. My first inclination was ‘No way in hell!’ I’d been retired for three years, had developed a comfortable routine and the idea of going door to door trying to sell myself as a viable politician scared me silly…But…I kept coming back to one thought. If I said no, I’d wonder about that decision forever, so three days later, I called Craig back and said I’d run.
There’s a pretty interesting learning curve once you start the process for the first time. I had to get at least 36 signatures from Democratic voters in the district to get on the ballot. Each town’s voters had to be on a separate sheet, all sheets needed to be notarized and the respective town clerks had to verify those who signed were registered to vote in that town. Once that was done, I had to drive to Augusta and turn them in at the Secretary of State’s office.
As soon as that was done, I had to decide whether to run as a traditional or clean election candidate. I went clean and immediately faced another set of hoops. I had to declare how I was going to run, open a separate checking account, scrounge up what was called seed money (funds to get up and going, but no more than $1,000) and start getting 60 clean election contributions of $5.00 each from registered voters in the six towns comprising the district. People could contribute online at the Maine Clean Elections site, cut me a check, or make out a money order. Cash was a no-no. I quickly learned from another candidate that buying a bunch of $5.00 money orders and eating the cost, worked well in rural Maine where cash remains king. It too three weeks to get them which allowed the Maine Ethics Commission to transfer $5500 to my campaign account. I eventually got 15 more contributions that released another $1250. In all, I ran my campaign on about $7200 in an era where the suggestion is to have at least $10,000.
All candidates must file regular finance reports, 5 in all by the time the process is complete. What does $7200 buy? Quite a bit once you realize what’s effective. T-shirts and bumper stickers are pretty much a waste. Palm cards, the promo piece you hand to potential voters are probably the best investment, signs not so much. By the time you’ve hit the last month of the campaign, everyone is what I’d call sign blind and big signs just annoy people. Besides, you have to retrieve every sign on public property or get fined, so knowing where the heck volunteers put them is important. I decided to place a different issue-oriented ad the last seven weeks of the campaign in our local free newspaper The Rolling Thunder because almost everyone reads it. I heard from plenty of people who noticed them.
Nothing, however, beats doing what I wasn’t thrilled about doing-knocking on doors, but I soon started looking forward to it. Not only did I discover plenty of new roads in Cambridge, Ripley, Palmyra, etc., but I met many interesting people and heard parts of a lot of life stories. 95% of folks I got a chance to talk with were sincere and interested in telling me what concerned them. I’d knock, introduce myself and ask them “What’s important to you?” Some conversations lasted as long as an hour and I probably solved one dilemma per day for a fellow Somerset County Resident.
I was offered a hybrid melon, a purebred English bulldog, a pregnant Pomeranian and three horses. Each animal had been rescued by the person who offered them to me, but they already were overburdened with their own pets. I saw folks living in conditions that were horrible, but their finances left them no choice. My fellow Democrat, Sue Mackey Andrews, made 25 referrals to agencies of people she met who were living in unsafe conditions. Poverty is a sad way of life for many here in Somerset County.
I also involved kids in the conversation when they came to the door with parents and took time to answer any questions as well as encouraging them to express their opinions. One six year old girl in Canaan was intrigued by my melon story and asked if I would give her some of the seeds. The next time I went past her home, I left a box of ‘Magic Melon Seeds’ on her doorstep.
Was it worth all the hours invested? Yes. Would I run again, No, but I’ll drive and campaign for others next time around because I believe in the process and am a much wiser and humbler person for having run. I also came away with a sense of cameraderie thanks to all the amazing people I met who were running themselves or supporting our efforts to get elected.