EASTPORT, Maine — Tiny Eastport is famous for drawing big crowds and big names to its massive Fourth of July celebration on Maine’s eastern edge. Proving this year was no exception, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King were among the marchers who paraded past some 10,000 revelers.
“I come here because it means a lot to the people of Washington County and because it’s been a tradition to the Maine congressional delegation,” Collins said after marching through the island city with the Maine Army National Guard Band, naval officers, veterans, emergency personnel, Shriners, cartoon characters and many locals.
“It is a great way to reconnect with people from Down East Maine,” she added.
Even when hosting the state’s biggest Fourth of July parade, Eastport — population 1,300, give or take a few people — seems a world away from the nation’s capital. Yet the Republican Collins’ high-profile opposition to the Senate GOP’s health care bill meant that, even here, she was dogged by reporters from the national news organizations, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN.
During an interview with the Bangor Daily News immediately after the parade, she re-emphasized her view that bill’s Medicaid cuts would be devastating, especially in rural areas.
“People in this county are particularly attuned to the cuts in Medicaid,” Collins said. “The new Congressional Budget Office analysis — that says that over the next 20 years the Medicaid program would be cut by a third under the Senate bill — is frightening to people because they know that our rural hospitals are barely holding on as it is now.”
Collins and King, an independent, both said that people along the parade route thanked them for fighting the GOP health care bill as currently drafted.
“A significant number of people in the parade today said, ‘Please save our health care,’ which I wasn’t expecting,” King said. “They came up and gave me a hug. That was the predominant message.”
Collins, who said she was participating in Eastport’s parade for the 15th time, said she has marched over the years alongside then-Sens. Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell and Bill Cohen.
She recalled that for years she and other Maine politicians would march in Bangor’s Independence Day parade, then hop a charter flight to Eastport. That tradition ended for her after a run of years when bad weather kept them from reaching Eastport.
The small city’s Fourth of July parade is part of a weeklong festival that includes fireworks that are shot off from Deer Island across the Passamaquoddy Bay on Canada Day, which celebrates the birth of the country just a stone’s throw away.
Eastport’s Fourth of July festival started more than a century ago and down through the generations has become a destination for Maine politicians and for naval ships, according to George “Bud” Finch, who is from Eastport but is now city manager of Harrison.
Many people travel to the parade from out of state. Graduates of the city’s high school often hold class reunions during the week. Midshipmen who have docked at the island and locals who have moved away often make a point of returning for the festivities, Finch said.
“When it’s the Fourth of July, it’s the kid in you that brings you back,” Finch added.
He noted that even though the city’s parade is a magnet for Maine politicians of all stripes, the event is not overtly political. “Typically, the congressional people will go marching together, so they will bury the hatchet for a day,” he said.
A few hours after the parade, the state’s smallest incorporated city celebrated completion of nearly $15 million in repairs to its breakwater, which partially collapsed in December 2014, injuring one man, sinking a boat and damaging others. The repairs were partially funded by a $6 million federal grant. The breakwater ribbon-cutting ceremony was what prompted King to attend Eastport’s the parade for the first time, the senator said. Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, whose district includes Eastport, also attended that ceremony.