BREWER, Maine — Bill Beardsley stepped to the lectern during a recent Penobscot County Republicans meeting in Brewer and did something unusual: He unfolded a piece of paper.
In many of his campaign stops — whether stumping from town to town or arriving for a debate with all the other candidates — Beardsley shuffles in with his hands in his pockets, and when it’s time to talk, he usually does it from the hip.
But with an audience that grew from eight people to 20 during his recent speech with the county committee, Beardsley needed notes to recite the closing stanzas of “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
He concluded: “In the hour of darkness and peril and need/ The people will waken and listen and hear/ the hurrying hoof-beats of that steed/ and the midnight message of Paul Revere.”
To Beardsley, one of seven Republicans seeking the party’s nomination during the June 8 primary, Maine’s economic situation is defined by Longfellow’s darkness, peril and need — and he hopes voters hear his call for a revolution.
“When you look at Longfellow’s words compared to Maine, it takes on some interesting meaning,” Beardsley told the group, folding the paper and putting it back in his pocket. “It’s relevant. I sense a cry of alarm.”
Maine’s heavy tax burden, the high cost of energy and a regulatory environment that is hostile toward businesses are propelling the state into what Beardsley has called a death spiral.
“Nobody will invest in Maine because our electrical costs are too high, our taxes are too high and we have an unstable regulatory climate,” he said, echoing talking points used by most of the Republican gubernatorial field. “As Republicans we need to change that attitude. This is our best opportunity in decades to take over the Blaine House.”
On issues ranging from energy to economic development to the state budget, Beardsley proposes a virtual 180-degree turnaround from Maine’s current course. In short, he wants Maine to stop becoming a “state of no,” especially when it comes to energy, which is Beardsley’s marquee issue on the campaign trail.
“Our socialistic, left-wing liberal government in Augusta has passed legislation that has driven electric costs to 50 percent above the national average,” he said during a recent interview. “Instead of banning everything, I would put everything on the table. Instead of being the dead end where we’re not producing anything anymore, let us be the energy producer for all of New England.”
Buying hydro power from Canada, building nuclear power plants and liquefied natural gas terminals and allowing Maine’s two electric utility companies to generate power are just a few of the possible solutions for Maine’s energy problem in Beardsley’s plan. Putting Maine in line with other states on energy costs, he said, will go a long way toward making business and industry come to Maine.
Though he has spent the past 22 years as president of Husson University in Bangor, Beardsley’s involvement in energy stretches back nearly 40 years.
He has served in the upper echelons of Vermont’s Green Mountain Power Corp. and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. In the early 1980s, he oversaw the Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development’s offices of energy and power development, finance and economics and forest products.
With aspirations such as siting LNG terminals, preserving or creating hydroelectric dams and building as many as three nuclear power plants in Maine, Beardsley knows his proposals are at odds with powerful environmental interests and a culture that in many ways has favored keeping Maine the way it is.
“I’ll never sway the people who want to give everything away and take from the rich and give to poor, or those who want to soak Maine in formaldehyde and put a sign over it saying ‘look but don’t touch, this is a reserve’” said Beardsley. “But I think those people are only 5 or 10 percent of the population.”
On the state budget, Beardsley’s ideas are in line with those of several other candidates. In his first days in office, he would propose a two-year budget of no more than $5 billion, which would be a decrease of some $500 million from current spending.
To accomplish the reduction, Beardsley said he would focus on the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education. By reducing eligibility standards for social services so they’re in line with national averages, Beardsley estimates the state can save $200 million per year, “and that’s before we even talk about reform,” he said.
In education, Beardsley would target special education standards, which he said are looser than the national average in Maine, meaning the state designates too many students as having special needs. He also would increase the average class size in Maine, a ratio he claims is out of line with other rural states.
Beardsley also believes that no Maine municipality should have more than one publicly funded higher-education institution and would merge university and community college campuses in Bangor, Presque Isle, Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. He acknowledges that many of his initiatives might be “unpopular,” but said Maine has no other choice.
“We need to build our budget based on what the lower-income small-business owner in Maine can afford,” he said. “It doesn’t seem unreasonable. It doesn’t seem to be a bad case to present to the Maine people, that we should be lowering our standards to national averages. We’ve got to get off this idea that everybody gets something for free.”
Indeed, Beardsley has positioned himself as one of the most conservative candidates — both socially and economically — in the race for the GOP nod.
Douglas Hodgkin, a professor emeritus of political science at Bates College, said should Beardsley win the nomination — which he counted as unlikely — Democrats could use that conservatism against him in the general election.
“He would be very easy for the Democrats to paint as an extremist,” said Hodgkin, although describing Beardsley as an “extremely articulate speaker who has sophisticated answers to the issues.”
Even among conservative primary voters, Hodgkin said, Beardsley — based on his showing at the recent GOP convention — doesn’t appear to have the same level of support as the other staunch conservative in the race, such as Waterville Mayor Paul LePage.
During a recent campaign stop in Dover-Foxcroft, Beardsley faced a decidedly conservative audience when he spoke to the Piscataquis County Republican Committee, which has fashioned itself into the “Red County Caucus.” Piscataquis County was the only county in New England to favor John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. That’s part of the reason Beardsley announced his candidacy at a Dover-Foxcroft lumberyard.
Beardsley sat patiently through some of the committee’s business before standing to address the committee in a conference room at Mayo Regional Hospital. He adhered to talking points he has used throughout the campaign, aligning himself as much as possible with social and financial conservatism. A committee member asked how Beardsley would accomplish anything if the Legislature remains controlled by Democrats, as it currently is.
Beardsley said he would operate much as he did at Husson University.
“Instead of Bill Beardsley versus a bureaucracy, we formed a team,” he said. “I worked well enough with the faculty that they voted out tenure and the union. I’d use those same principles to lead the state of Maine. Somebody’s got to make the tough decisions.”
Name: William “Bill” Beardsley
Age: 67, born on July 4, 1942
Education: Degree in economics Earlham College; Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University from the College of Geography and Environmental Engineering.
Career: President of Husson University 1987-2009; Bar Harbor Banking & Trust Co. real estate investments and branch manager 1985-86; state of Alaska, Department of Commerce and Economic Development 1982-85; executive director Center for Entrepreneurship Development and associate professor of Natural Resources Management, Alaska Pacific University 1981-82; vice president Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. 1976-81; assistant to the president, Green Mountain Power Co. 1973-76; aide to Gov. Deane Davis of Vermont 1970-73; assistant to dean of agriculture and assistant professor, University of Vermont 1969-70.
Family: Lives in Ellsworth with his wife, Betsy. They have three children, Michael, James and Laura.
Quote: “My vision for Maine is a Maine built on a world-class economy, founded in our natural resources and people, our strategic location, a competitive advantage in energy and business climate, unleashed entrepreneurial spirit, and quality communities for growing up and growing old, for excellent education opportunities, for personal independence.”