PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Twenty-five years ago, then-Speaker of the Maine House John Martin was the target of a roast to benefit a St. John Valley historical society. After the dust and barbs settled, he swore he’d never do it again.
But on Saturday night, the veteran of a half-century of Maine politics was back in the hot seat during a roast to benefit academic scholarships at Northern Maine Community College, and with 25 years’ worth of new material for the roasters to draw upon, a veritable who’s who of state players in the Democratic Party took their best shots.
“I was pretty sure I was here to roast [former Maine Senator] George Mitchell,” joked Maine humorist Gary Crocker. “But I’m here for John Martin, and he is a legend in Maine politics, he told me so himself tonight at dinner.”
First elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1964, the Eagle Lake Democrat was part of what was then the minority party in the House.
“You have to understand, 50 years ago almost no one outside of the St. John Valley knew what a Democrat was,” Gerard Conley Sr., former Cumberland County legislator, said. “But from day one, John was a leader.”
Once the Democrats became the majority party, Martin went on to serve an unprecedented 10 terms as Speaker of the House beginning in 1975. When term limits forced him out of the House, he ran for the state Senate, where he served from 2000 to 2008 before being elected again to the House.
Last fall he was ousted from his House seat by political newcomer Mike Nadeau, a Fort Kent Republican.
Among his legislative highlights was the designation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway as a federally protected wild river in 1966.
Martin was also responsible for developing the Legislature’s current system of having co-chairs from each party on legislative committees and was well known — and at times feared — for his grasp of parliamentary procedure and its uses for passing, or defeating, legislation.
He was also known for guiding the careers of younger Democrats during the 1980s as House Speaker — among them current U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, former Department of Conservation Commissioner Pat McGowan and former legislator John Lisnik, who became collectively known as “the Young Turks” around the State House.
“Most of them still kiss John’s ring, just like they did back in the ’80s when they were running all over the third floor of the State House begging him for committee assignments,” Conley said.
Martin, according to Conley, amassed power efficiently and used it for his home district.
“John redistributed wealth from my district to Aroostook County,” Conley said. “My constituents would say Eagle Lake’s roads are paved with gold and they were not far wrong — just look at Route 11, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the seven people who use it.”
Martin’s dedication to improving the 100-mile section of the road from Patten to Fort Kent was a major target Saturday night.
“You think it’s a mystery there is curbing on Route 11 where there are only moose to trip over it?” Crocker said. “Coincidence? I think not.”
Northern Maine residents did not only benefit from the better roads, according to Crocker.
“When push-button phones first came to Maine, the first city to get them was Portland, and that was understandable,” he said. “The second place to get them was Eagle Lake.”
Twenty-five years ago, Aroostook County Commissioner Norman Fournier was the first to roast Martin, and he was back at it Saturday night.
“In 1964 I was a freshman at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and one day sitting in the library minding my own business and up pops John,” Fournier said. “He told me he was running for the Legislature and asked me to work on his campaign.”
Fournier said he was more than happy to do so, and even more pleased when Martin won, beating out the incumbent.
“A couple of years later I started dating a girl from Eagle Lake and I started bragging about how I had helped John Martin get elected over that incumbent,” Fournier said. “It turned out that incumbent was her favorite uncle, so John was partly responsible for it taking seven years for her to agree to marry me.”
Among Martin’s lasting contributions to his hometown are the land and buildings currently housing Northern Maine General Hospital and related health care offices.
It all once belonged to the Catholic Church, but Martin decided it should revert to the town. When then-Bishop Daniel Feeney refused to see him, Martin and fellow Eagle Lake politician John St. Peter sat in Feeney’s office for a full day until the bishop agreed to see them for five minutes, and not a second more.
“Two hours later, they came out of that office with a handwritten letter from Bishop Feeney that gave them the land and buildings at no cost,” Fournier said. “John, that must have been one hell of a confession.”
During a visit to Augusta, Fournier was invited to accompany Martin to dinner at the Blaine House, where the conversation turned to how much of Route 11 should be repaired that year, 10 or 20 miles.
“When the governor asked me what I thought, before I could answer, John kicked my right shin under the table,” Fournier said. “A second later, he kicked my left shin. To this day, when I start driving on that extra 10 miles of Route 11, my shins start to hurt.”
Though poking fun at the Eagle Lake Democrat, the roasters were also quick to say that Maine has had no better friend than John Martin.
“He has helped anyone he could,” Fournier said. “From the logger in the wood to the elderly couple struggling with paperwork to local municipalities, John has opened doors for thousands of people.”
One after another, prominent Maine Democrats, including Michaud, former Gov. John Baldacci and former President of the Senate Charles Pray, commented they owed their political careers to Martin.
“You always fought for Aroostook County,” Michaud said. “You touched a lot of lives in your career.”
No one, said Conley, has done more for Maine than Martin.
“He is and always will be a leader,” Conley said. “And he will always be my friend.”
When the roasters were through with him, Martin took a few moments to get in some jabs of his own.
“I’ve got to be careful with Mike [Michaud], because he could be our next governor,” Martin said. “But if he doesn’t win, I have some stories I can tell.”
Martin recalled first going to the statehouse in 1964, one of only three legislators under 30 years old.
“I thought I had gone to a senior citizens’ home,” he said.
The only thing that got him to agree to the roast, Martin said, was the fact that it benefited student scholarships.
“If we don’t help our young people get an education, it is only going to come back and hit us in the face in the future,” Martin said.
According to event organizer Sue Bernard, NMCC director of development, the roast raised more than $14,000 for the John L. Martin Scholarship.