BELFAST, Maine — Thousands of Democrats gathered around the state Sunday to caucus and kick off the 2014 campaign season with speeches, plates of cookies and nomination papers to sign.
In Waldo County, the party meetings also featured one man who wore a plaid shirt and woolen vest and who told the small gathering at the Belfast Free Library that he had not prepared a stump speech yet. He also said that he’s definitely not a career politician, even though he’ll be running against incumbent Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, in Senate District 23.
“My mom actually burst into tears and begged me not to run,” said Jonathan Fulford of Monroe. “But I’m committed to my kids’ and to my grandkids’ lives. I want to run because I think maybe being involved in politics will help make the world a better place.”
Fulford, 52, who moved to Maine from suburban Pennsylvania as soon as he graduated from high school in the late 1970s, was part of the back-to-the-land movement that profoundly changed Maine’s demographic makeup. And although he started his life in Maine as an 18-year-old who just wanted to hunt, fish, canoe and live off the land, time and fatherhood have led to his desire to leave a lasting mark on the state.
That puts him in good company, according to Professor Richard Judd of the University of Maine, who said this weekend that the back-to-the-land movement is “very big” in the state, and the progressive politics that the newcomers often brought with them led to the growth of the organic farming and environmental advocacy movements. The historian said that new organizations such as the Waldo County-based Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association served as “a gathering for people with similar politics.”
Waldo County, once known as a red epicenter of rock-ribbed Republicans, has been turning blue in recent decades. Neal Harkness of Belfast, the Waldo County Democratic chairman, said that while the long-term trend among Waldo County voters is to support his party, it differs from community to community and from year to year.
In 2012, for example, the county had 7,967 registered Democrats and 8,587 registered Republicans, according to the Maine secretary of state’s office. That’s a change from 1996, when there were 6,635 registered Democrats and 8,437 registered Republicans. While Republicans still outnumber Democrats, the margin is shrinking, he said, and the effect of the back-to-the-landers on the county can’t be overstated.
“The ’60s and ’70s hippie people, they’re why we have the Belfast Co-op and MOFGA and WERU-FM,” Harkness said. “It is a big part of why the Democrats have done better here for recent years, although the number of people from Connecticut and New York retiring up here has a lot to do with it as well. And not only do we have a lot of Democrats, we have a lot of libertarians. The off-the-grid people. That has a lot to do with the back-to-the-land people, too.”
The race between Fulford, who talked on Sunday about his commitment to the environment, and Thibodeau is a particularly interesting one locally, Harkness said. Fulford’s stepson, Seth Yentes, ran against Thibodeau, then an incumbent representative, in 2008. The Republican beat the 22-year-old farmer by just 200 votes.
Thibodeau, 47, the owner and operator of T.B. Equipment, a heavy equipment dealer supplying new and used equipment to central and northern Maine, said Monday that it has been an honor to represent Waldo County residents over the last four years. He said that he is proud that he has helped to get state government to function “in a reasonable way” and hopes the voters will support him again.
It may be true that some of Thibodeau’s positions — including his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage — would not likely be all that popular in the tofu-and-granola-packed aisles of the Belfast Co-op.
However, Thibodeau said that Waldo County is “really emblematic of our state as a whole. We have a diverse population with very differing ideas. And at the end of the day, we all have to learn to live together and tolerate one another.”
Fulford said he thinks he has a good chance of beating the incumbent minority leader. If elected, he would like to make changes to the current tax laws that favor the wealthiest and simultaneously cut revenue sharing to municipalities and school districts. He also would focus on environmental issues.
He believes his consensus approach to leadership and his long career as a small-business owner and jack-of-all-trades — including stints as farm hand, apple picker, apple pruner and house painter — will help him succeed in Augusta.
“We don’t have the luxury to be bitter or divisive right now,” he said. “There are lots of challenges on every level of society, and solutions for those challenges are achievable.”