June 25, 2018
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In free-for-all vote, Bangor council shifts toward youth

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Benjamin Sprague
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Two years ago, when he was first elected to the Bangor City Council, Cary Weston was the youngest of nine members by a good margin.

After Tuesday, he’s in the middle of the pack.

The election of 31-year-old James Gallant and 28-year-old Ben Sprague, both political newcomers, brings youth to a council that has been dominated in recent years by older, established names in Bangor.

But the shift actually started with Weston in 2009 and continued last year, when then-21-year-old Charles Longo won a seat ahead of Hal Wheeler, an incumbent and a longtime name in city politics. That year, councilors were criticized for their lack of vision after ending the contract of longtime City Manager Ed Barrett.

“I think that what you’re seeing on the council level is reflective of the community as a whole,” Weston said Wednesday. “What we’re seeing over the last three elections is not a surprise and it’s not by chance. Younger residents are feeling a greater sense of empowerment to serve their community and that’s good for Bangor.”

Councilor Pat Blanchette, whose term expires next November, said she was a little surprised.

“You could sense the mood of the voting public; there really is a vote-the-cockroaches-out mentality,” said Blanchette, who has been involved in city government for many years. “People are unhappy for any number of reasons and they need someone to blame. I understand their anger.”

Interestingly, voters stayed with the established names on the school committee. All three incumbents, Chairwoman Phyllis Guerette, Vice Chairwoman Christine Szal and Warren Caruso, were reelected.

Sprague got the most votes of the eight council candidates and his relentless campaigning was likely the main reason. The Bangor High and Harvard University graduate went door-to-door on multiple occasions. Gallant campaigned aggressively as well.

“They were really paying attention to issues and they understood the value of communicating directly with voters,” Weston said.

Both Sprague and Gallant said Tuesday after the election that the people of Bangor are looking for change, which they represent.

Along with Joe Baldacci, who got the second-most votes, all three councilors elected Tuesday are newcomers, although Baldacci is a known figure in the community and has served on the council before.

The three will be sworn in during a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 14. Councilors also will elect a new chairperson. Weston is likely the leading candidate to replace outgoing Chairwoman Susan Hawes, but Blanchette and Nelson Durgin also have expressed interest.

Incumbents David Nealley and Rick Bronson, both well-known names with deep Bangor roots, were on the losing end Tuesday. Both said their connection to the approved arena construction and a council decision to consolidate emergency dispatch — which voters rejected Tuesday — ultimately hurt them.

In addition to the two incumbents who lost, longtime city councilor Gerry Palmer decided not to run again.

This raises the question of whether Bronson and Nealley ran more on their names than on time-intensive campaigning. Did they take their challengers as seriously as they should have? Did Palmer see the writing on the wall and leave the council on his own terms?

Blanchette said she didn’t blame her former colleague, Palmer, for not seeking reelection. She may well do the same when the time comes.

Young councilors serving in Bangor is not a new phenomenon. Former Gov. John Baldacci started his political career on the City Council when he was in his 20s. Former U.S. Sen. William Cohen also served on the Bangor council as a young man.

Weston said the latest newcomers will realize soon what he did: The learning curve is steep.

“What I would tell them, is this: The election that you just went through is the price of admission,” he said. “Now, the work starts.”

Blanchette agreed that the newcomers will have their work cut out. She said she has reached out to all three.

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