Vote or Quit Bitchin’ 2006
Local election coverage
Voters’ Guide: State House District 120
Zen and the art of Munjoy Hill politics
By Chris Busby and Erik Eisele
Conventional wisdom says Democrat Anne Rand is unbeatable on Munjoy Hill.
Between 1986 and 2002, Rand served four consecutive terms in the state House of Representatives, followed by four in a row as a state senator (it was term limits, not voters, that ended each run). She’s socially progressive and appeals to her district’s working-class base. A married mother of four and grandmother of three, Rand is smart, responsive to her constituents, and firm in her beliefs. Plus, no matter how hard the wind blows, she’ll never run out of lawn signs – she and her husband own Dale Rand Printing, where a lot of local candidates get their propaganda.
But there’s a problem with conventional wisdom. It’s conventional, usual, based on past experience. And when Green Independent “Zen” Ben Meiklejohn threw his hat in the ring in this race, conventional wisdom took a flying leap off the Munjoy Hill Observatory.
The demographics of the Hill have been steadily shifting for the past 15 years or so. The neighborhood’s post-war base of blue-collar, home-owning families has been receding before an influx of unmarried singles, childless couples, and new Portlanders from out-of-state and out-of-country – most of whom rent, and many of whom pursue what the old timers call a “bohemian” lifestyle.
With the emergence of a viable Green party in Portland five years ago – an emergence led, in large part, by Meiklejohn himself – the Hill ripened for the political plucking. “Zen” Ben is well positioned to do just that, this year, and it’s giving the Democrats fits.
Picture the scene on the Hill three weeks ago. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has come to Portland, and where does the Maine Donkey Party send him for a staged “door-to-door campaigning” photo-op: Munjoy Hill, where he’s joined by Rand, Gov. John Baldacci and other party stars.
True to nature, the Greens are there, too, holding signs for Meiklejohn behind Dean as he walks the streets giving TV news interviews.
As reported for posterity by Gregory Kesich of the Portland Press Herald, this behavior prompted a snide remark from Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Dudley, who told Meiklejohn, “Nice to have Greens at Democratic events. It’s nice that you know who’s actually getting stuff done.”
To which Meiklejohn replied, “It’s great to see you guys doing the doors, finally.” Meiklejohn had been ringing bells, alone and unannounced, beginning months before.
Dudley’s remark betrays the Dems’ real fear of the Greens. With the balance of power in the Legislature literally “in the balance” this year, Democrats can ill afford to lose seats in Portland, seats long considered sure things.
Dudley’s seen the Hill’s political transformation first-hand. He won the House seat representing the Hill in 1998, beating an early Green candidate named Elizabeth Marsano with over 70 percent of the vote. In 2000, he ran unopposed; in ’02, he crushed Republican James K. Spinney.
But in 2004, with Dudley’s star rising within his party, a political unknown with limited campaign skills took 1,503 votes to Dudley’s 2,130. Green Independent Pamela Cragin even managed to win one of two voting precincts in this three-way race. Republican Craig Belanger got 585 votes that year – enough, had he not been in the race, to bring Cragin close to victory.
This year there was also going to be a Republican on the ballot, Jeff Ferland. But last week, Ferland formerly withdrew from the race and endorsed – you guessed it – Meiklejohn.
Unlike Cragin, Meiklejohn is a seasoned politician with local political experience. He ran for a West End state House seat in 1998, finishing second to former House Speaker Mike Saxl, and earning over 25 percent of the vote. After three failed attempts to get on the Portland School Committee (twice running as a write-in candidate), Meiklejohn won in 2001, finishing second in a three-way race for two at-large seats representing the entire city. He was re-elected in similar fashion in 2004.
Meiklejohn and Rand agree on most major issues. Both oppose TABOR, back a local-option sales tax and a state ban on assault weapons, and are pro-choice, pro–gay rights, and against the death penalty. Both like Dirigo Health and want to expand it into a single-payer, state-sponsored health insurance program for all.
Rand is opposed to allowing Peaks Island to secede from the city, but Meiklejohn thinks Islanders should be allowed to form their own town in Casco Bay. Meiklejohn opposes the creation of “drug-free safe zones” around parks and playgrounds; Rand supports this silly notion.
House District 120 includes Portland’s “working waterfront,” but neither candidate has any solid ideas to keep groundfish harvesters working there. Rand spoke of “continuing the dialogue” between harvesters, conservationists and government officials. Meiklejohn spoke of keeping pollution and commercial salmon farming in check. There’s a good chance Portland’s fishing fleet will disappear entirely on either Rand’s or Meiklejohn’s watch.
Next to the Eder-Hinck House match-up across town, the Meiklejohn-Rand contest will be the state race to watch this Nov. 7. You can be sure the rest of the state Legislature will have their eyes peeled on Portland’s results, too, scanning the screen for signs of a Green leak beneath the two-party electoral curtain.