Several weeks ago, I wrote about Governor Paul Le Page’s vulgar and even pornographic blast at a Democratic State Senator. More recently, I was to hear from one of my sons-in-law, married to my oldest daughter and on a visit to Maine from their home in California, that he was shocked to read in a California paper what our Maine Chief Executive said. My son-in-law, born and raised in Utah, is an Evangelical Christian and although we never talk politics, I presume a Republican. The bad press that Maine has received from our Governor travels far and wide, it seems, and does us no good.
So what does this have to do with another of our Governors, Ken Curtis – a much, much different person and Chief Executive than the ex-Mayor of Waterville who presently holds the position.
It’s no secret that I worked for Ken for six years before being elected to the Maine Legislature from York. Well, recently I received an invitation to join Ken and his wife Polly at a reunion of ex-staffers and also a request to prepare some personal reminiscences that would be presented to the former Governor and First Lady.
So here goes, along with some remarks as a Maine historian reserved for later on.
I first met Ken Curtis during the election campaign of 1964. Lyndon Johnson was running for re-election against Barry Goldwater, Ed Muskie was running for re-election as U.S. Senator, and Ken Curtis was running against Stan Tupper, the incumbent Republican Congressman in the First District.
The Democratic campaign in those days in the solid Republican stronghold of York consisted of a brief stop on Route 1 at York Corner by major State candidates to shake hands with a small knot of Democrats brave enough to appear in public. Muskie and Curtis were traveling in a “caravan” of cars, covered with banners and flags. I had just moved to Maine two years earlier and knew nothing or very little about the State’s politics, although I was very anti-Goldwater. I recognized Ed Muskie and was proud to shake his hand and promise him my vote. I had no idea who else was running for the Maine Democrats. Then after Muskie moved on to meet others, a nice young man with a crew cut about my own age came over and introduced himself as Ken Curtis, running for Congress. We had a few moments to chat before the caravan sped on to finish its traditional run from Fort Kent to Kittery.
What I couldn’t tell Ken was that I had already pledged my vote, along with those of several other like-minded young people in York, to Stan Tupper because this Republican office holder had courageously come out against Goldwater. Ken lost that election by a few hundred votes
Perhaps I had made a mistake, I thought. So inwardly I promised that if I ever had a chance to help Ken Curtis in the future, I would.
To make a long story short, Ken two years later, as Secretary of State, won a hard-fought Democratic primary and went on to unseat the incumbent Republican Governor John Reed. I worked as a volunteer in both campaigns and he won both of them and in the finale of Reed campaign, I went to work full-time as an assistant to him during the caravan ride down from Fort Kent to Kittery. My first experience as a full-time paid worker coincided with an extraordinary visit by Bobby Kennedy to Portland, which I attended before flying to Aroostook County. Kennedy had come to give a boost to Ken and the streets of Portland were lined with crowds such as I have never seen since. But the most impressive memory I have is of the surprise if not astonishment of the substantial national press contingent at the warmth and praise in the speech that Kennedy gave for Ken. Some of them told me he just usually said a few canned words for whatever candidate he was endorsing and moved on.
Ken’s victory over Reed, a seven year occupier of the Blaine House, was by 20,000 votes.
Here, indeed, was a revolution in Maine politics. We were heading into the end of the Republican hegemony in the Pine Tree State. They had come to power at the end of the 1850’s over the twin issues of slavery and prohibition and with a few small interruptions had kept solid control right up into the 1960’s.
By 1966, when Ken assumed office, Maine was ready for a change. Ed Muskie had already broken their string in 1954 by surprisingly getting elected Governor. But the GOP kept its grip on the Legislature.
The stories of Ken Curtis’s accomplishments are truly a profile in courage. He not only raised taxes when they were needed but instituted an entirely new tax – the State income tax – the fairest tax of all because it’s based on ability to pay, proposed and had passed ground-breaking environmental laws, some of which were the first of their kind in the nation, building on the base of the clean-up of pollution that had been laid down by Ed Muskie. He gave vital support, long delayed, to education, both higher and lower, he sought and attracted new industries and brought favorable attention to the State. He modernized State government and, no small feat, he worked on an extraordinary bipartisan basis with the opposition Republicans, many of whom respected him highly and some of whom even secretly voted for him when he sought re-election.
In that race in 1970, he was in another squeaker, winning by a less than 500 votes, due to the unpopular measures he had supported, including gun control, and when we staffers strongly urged him not to do it, he told us “not to be so political.”
As a historian, then, I can say that he put Maine on a new footing and a road to prosperity that if still eluding many Maine people certainly raised our standard of living here without sacrificing our values of beauty and kindness and humor and respect for other people.
The contrast in the Blaine House is now stark in the light of the behavior of our present highest elected official.
Unfortunately, I cannot be at the reunion to welcome Ken and Polly but I can say in retrospect that those were golden years for Maine that I lived through.