The Maine refrain: ‘I’m worried’

Posted Sept. 26, 2008, at 9:32 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:18 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine – For John Makridis, it’s a sobering thought knowing that politicians in Washington, D.C., are deciding how to address perhaps the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

“Why doesn’t the government bail out little people like me?” Makridis asked Friday in the doorway of Big Fred’s on Central Street, a variety store he has owned for the last seven years. “I’m in danger of going under, too. If I don’t do business, I close my doors, but they won’t let doors close on [Wall Street]?”

Richard Bellows, who owns a pair of businesses in Pittsfield, had similar concerns.

“Who knows what the credit situation is going to look like and how many of my customers will disappear,” he said.

Even as “don’t panic” reassurances have been made en masse, Mainers seem uneasy about putting their faith in an unpopular president and a Congress that hasn’t exactly inspired confidence.

“We voted these people into office to take care of these things, and so far they haven’t,” Stephen Iwaniszek, 47, said Friday outside the post office in Bangor. “I don’t blame one side; I blame them all.”

“To be in politics usually means you have to have some sort of money to get started,” added Melinda Whelan, 35, of Brewer outside Bank of America in downtown Bangor. “So how can they really know the middle class?”

In other words, she said, the same lawmakers who helped get the country into this economic mess are attempting to fix it.

“I think it is an injustice to the taxpayers to bail out these companies that have richly paid CEOs who didn’t run their companies properly,” David Roberts of Dover-Foxcroft said. “It’s bad business to have Big Brother sorting out the ineffectiveness of these individuals who are paid handsomely to run those businesses.”

Politicians and economic leaders spent most of the day Friday continuing their discussion of how to remedy the crisis, including a $700 billion financial recovery plan proposed by President George W. Bush. No deal had been reached as of Friday evening, but negotiators expressed optimism, if not urgency, that common ground could be found.

“It’s important for people to take a deep breath and recognize the seriousness of the situation,” Gov. John Baldacci said. “This is not just a Wall Street crisis; this is a Main Street crisis that affects everything from mortgages to student loans to business investments. We just had a $50 million revenue bond pulled from us [the State of Maine] because of this. It hurts all of us.”

State Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston, R-Montville, was confident that the federal government would find a solution but worried about the precedent the bailout could set.

“What I am hearing from my constituents is ‘I am struggling as it is now, and I am going to have to struggle even more to help people who were reckless?’” she said. “We do not want to reward people for bad behavior and we want to make sure that we send a message that if you’re going to be reckless, there will be consequences.”

Assistant Senate Majority Leader John L. Martin, D-Eagle Lake, was more critical.

“I think that clearly the [Bush] administration saw this coming a long time ago and never told anyone and then threw it at Congress at the last minute,” he said. “I have to have some confidence in the secretary of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank and I suspect [the bailout plan] is necessary. What I think is unfair is that the administration is incapable of doing anything to help the average citizen, but not afraid to come forward and help those with deep pockets.”

While many banks and other local financial institutions have spent the last week trying to downplay the crisis and offer suggestions, most Mainers are simply scared.

“I’m worried about my retirement,” said Stephanie Graves, 58, of Bangor. “This is a huge bailout, and it seems like it’s being rushed into.”

Graves also wondered whether the Bush administration is trying to scare America into supporting the bailout before considering all options.

Retiree Milton Kirk of Pittsfield said he had put away $20 every paycheck all his life for retirement and had expected his nest egg would last him into his 90s. Now, he’s not sure.

“This situation could very well ruin me … Frightening is a good word to describe the situation now,” he said. “I am scared. Who wouldn’t be?”

Rebecca Martin, 46, of Bangor recently went on disability and is worried her benefits might be cut to help ease the economic burden.

“You never know what they might have to start cutting,” she said.

Amid all the talk of a federal bailout, though, no one seems to have come up with a viable alternative.

“Clearly, people think the economy is in a pickle, and they see it overwhelmingly as the top issue facing the country,” said Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “The polls that are out there show that people want some action. They want some sort of oversight, even if they don’t want the amount of money that comes with it.”

John Colson, 39, a Rockland native who now lives in Orme, Utah, said the bailout would work if the politicians were willing to make everyone accountable and everything in the agreement transparent.

He deplored the idea that so much of the money could be used to bail out executives.

“Bailing out executives does not go down well with the American people,” he said. “A lot of people in the industry have lost their jobs. Who’s going to bail them out?”

Many are critical of the Bush administration, and by extension Republicans, for creating the mess, which Fried said is normal.

“Some of it is simply the party in power when there is an economic crisis that gets blamed, but Democrats have been viewed more positively on economic issues,” she said. “There is probably a strong majority that doesn’t want government to be involved in this at all, but they also have come to believe that it’s necessary.”

As much as people want to see a quick fix, most Mainers are realistic.

“If there is going to be any solution, it’s going to take a long time,” said Cory Gagnon of New Canada.

“We need to start concentrating on our own country and not so much on everybody else,” said Scott Robichaud of Fort Kent. “The [financial] situation is horrible, but it can be solved with the right leaders.”

Glenn Cummings, Maine’s Speaker of the House, agreed that now more than ever is a time for parties to unite.

“What I am seeing down in Washington right now is a phenomenal need for both parties to come together,” he said. “The implications for this are not just national but international. The government is moving in the right direction if they can get this agreement approved. I think that will help us here in Maine because the implications for credit are so important.”

BDN reporters Sharon Kiley Mack, George Chappell, Nick Sambides Jr., and Diana Bowley, and freelance writer Julia Bayly contributed to this story.

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