FORT KENT, Maine — John Martin’s office at the University of Maine at Fort Kent is crammed with books, files and photographs. On one side table, there is a thick stack of papers listing thousands of pieces of legislation he has sponsored or co-sponsored over his half-century in Maine politics.
“Some I don’t even remember,” he says with a laugh. “There are some that did not pass and it was probably a good idea they did not.”
Martin, 73, a Democrat from Eagle Lake, was first elected to the Legislature 50 years ago, when he was an idealistic 22-year-old, the youngest son of Republican parents. He rose to prominence and power as speaker of the House for an unprecedented two decades.
Over that time, his storied political career has survived a term limits referendum meant to oust him, two top aides convicted on criminal charges, a government shutdown, personal financial challenges intertwined with state government, the rise and fall of his party’s power and two election defeats.
After Martin was termed out of his House seat, he tried to run as a write-in candidate in 1996 but lost to Republican Duane Belanger Jr. In 2012, Republican Mike Nadeau became the only person to best him on the ballot for a seat in Augusta.
In November, Martin beat Nadeau in their rematch. On Wednesday, when the Legislature returns, he’ll again represent House District 151. He has been a lawmaker longer than anyone else in Maine history, and is arguably its most prominent powerbroker.
Now Martin’s again in prime position to parlay his State House experience and institutional knowledge to amass influence. Over his long career, he’s strategically used this power time and time again to benefit his constituents and Democrats who earn his favor.
For Martin, though, going to back to Augusta is just going back to work. “Really, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been gone at all,” he says. “I never thought I’d stay in politics as long as I have.”
‘Your poor mother’
Born to Republican parents in Eagle Lake, Martin was the youngest of seven children. His father worked as a lumberman and his mother for Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.
“After I ran and won as a Democrat and I’d see Sen. Chase Smith, she’d always look at me and say, ‘Your poor mother,’” Martin says. “But, back when I first became interested in politics … was when [John F.] Kennedy was in office and he had just come to the University of Maine in Orono, where I was a student.”
Martin remembers checking out the political scene on campus, first visiting with members of the Young Republicans.
“I asked them about running for office in Maine,” he remembers. “They told me to wait until I was at least 35 years old and had some experience. I told them, ‘By the time I’m 35, I will have been in office for a while.’”
Martin found a home with the Maine Democratic Party, which welcomed young members. But it was on a visit home to Eagle Lake that the spark to seek office fanned into flames.
“I was in a neighborhood store one day and one of the guys in there asked me what I’d be doing when I was done with school,” he says. “Someone else in the store said I’d probably leave the area and I said, ‘If I run for the Legislature, I’d stay.’ It was one of those things you just say, but it started to get me thinking and then I just did it.”
Martin won that race in 1964. A decade later, in 1975, the 33-year-old became the youngest House speaker in Maine history. He presided over the chamber for the next 20 years.
This record is likely to remain unbroken, given Maine’s term limits law, which was passed in 1993, largely in response to Martin’s lengthy tenure and the scandal involving his aides. The law restricts legislators to four consecutive two-year terms in office, but doesn’t prohibit them from switching chambers.
So, Martin remained in office switching — and winning — seats between the Maine House and the Maine Senate and outlasting seven governors — John Reed, Ken Curtis, James Longley, Joseph Brennan, John McKernan, Angus King and John Baldacci.
He will now be serving with Gov. Paul LePage, who believes term limits should be “thrown out the window.” This stance makes LePage, the state’s top Republican, an unlikely ally with the diehard Democrat Martin, who vows to introduce legislation this year to repeal term limits.
Term limits, he contends, translates into a Legislature in which members with long experience in governing are far outnumbered by those without it.
Another concern about term limits is they’re ineffective. The “revolving door” between the House and Senate through which Martin has passed is the major loophole of term limits, according to Douglas Hodgkin, political scientist and professor emeritus at Bates College.
“John Martin is the poster child for the unworkability of term limits,” Hodgkin says. “He comes back time and time again [and] he and others like him swap seats and gain additional power within the Legislature.”
‘I am what I am’
While Martin’s longevity played a role in enacting term limits in Maine, there is little doubt the 1992 “Ballotgate” scandal propelled the cause.
“That was a tough one,” Martin says about the scandal, when one of his top aides, Ken Allen, pleaded guilty to breaking into a State House room and tampering with ballots in two closely contested House races.
Allen was sentenced to a three-year jail term, but was ultimately released after serving only 17 days. A second aide, Michael Flood, also pleaded guilty to the break-in and received a suspended sentence after cooperating with authorities.
Martin was cleared of wrongdoing by a joint state and federal investigation. “The questions came down to ‘What did I know?’ and ‘When did I know it?’” Martin says. “I knew about it when I got a phone call telling me what had happened.”
The scandal had little effect on his electability, as voters continued to support him despite the allegations. Today, political observers like former state Sen. Judy Paradis, a Democrat from Frenchville, believe Martin is the right man to represent Aroostook County in Augusta.
“I remember when I first went to Augusta in 1986, some people said I should stay away from John and others said they liked him, so I went down and just observed him and what I observed was a guy who knows his stuff and who gets the job done.”
It seemed everyone — representatives and senators from both parties — eventually found their way to Martin’s office at some point over the years, Paradis says.
“He was always in demand,” she says. “Even people who badmouthed him one day would be in his office the next day asking for help.”
Martin acknowledges his combative style, and not being shy about going after what he wants. He’s aware he’s made enemies over the years, and he’s fine with that, too.
“I am what I am and some people don’t like that,” he says. “I have never been one to sugar coat things and that is one of the reasons I get into trouble. If you are timid, politics is not the place for you.”
‘A historical figure’
This approach has shaped Martin’s legacy, according to his friends and opponents.
“John is a historical figure, certainly, given the span of years in office, the range of activities he’s been involved in and the number of people he’s helped and influenced over the years,” says former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, a Democrat. “I doubt it will be equalled by anyone.”
Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, gives Martin plaudits for his grasp of the parliamentary procedures that govern success, and failure, inside the Legislature.
“The rules are there for a reason and John Martin is a master of the rules,” says Bennett, who served in the Maine House from 1990 to 1994 when Martin was speaker. Their roles reversed when Martin served in the Maine Senate when Bennett was president from 2001 to 2002.
“For a presiding officer in the Legislature, the rules are there to facilitate debate, not to beat people over the head,” Bennett says. “John is the master of minutia and parliamentary detail; he pushes and pushes, sometimes to benefit the people of his district and sometimes it’s to feed power to himself.”
Martin’s procedural experience and skill should be on display during the upcoming legislative session, which features 66 new House members and 40 who were elected for the first time just two years ago.
For most of his legislative career, Martin has taught political science classes at UMFK. Now, to help ease the “newbies’” transition into Maine politics, Martin says he’s offering informal workshops he jokingly calls “John Martin 101” to introduce new members to the ins-and-outs of Augusta.
“If you don’t know the rules, you are going to fail,” he says. “Knowing the rules makes you a strong person.”
This experience makes Martin a formidable presence, observes Bennett.
“At the end of the day [John Martin] is a practical politician who has immense gifts, extraordinary capabilities and amazing amounts of institutional knowledge,” says Bennett. “When he puts all that to good use, he can be a tremendous force for good.”
After his half century in Maine politics, Martin likes to think he has made a difference. Looking ahead, he says he sees no reason to stop.
When the Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 7, Martin will serve on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, the Committee on Joint Rules and the all-powerful Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, where he served before losing to Nadeau in 2012.
His place on Appropriations — which controls the state government purse strings — in the new Legislature affirms that he remains one of the most powerful State House figures.
The post, Martin says, enables him to work on what he feels is the biggest challenge facing Maine — the budget. He’s also looking to tackle economic, transportation and electrical generation issues, as well as let others assume leadership in the House.
“I spent 26 out of 50 years in leadership and I’ve done my share of baby-sitting,” he says. “Besides, you don’t need to be in leadership to control things.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to include mention of Martin’s 1996 write-in campaign loss.