Grim economy in Katahdin region divides political loyalties in governor’s race

Posted July 19, 2014, at 5:48 a.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — A banner on the road into town proclaims East Millinocket is “The town that paper made.” The grim reality, however, is with the closure of the two big paper mills in the area, it could soon be known as the town that paper left behind.

Few are more aware of this fact than U.S. Rep. and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, who grew up in neighboring Medway and worked at the Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket for 29 years.

“Generation after generation went to work in this mill and we never thought we had to worry about anything because Great Northern provided for the community,” said Michaud recently while overlooking the mill, which is currently shut down.

He was standing on a squeaky pedestrian bridge over railroad tracks that used to carry thousands of workers a day, but is now rust-covered and mostly unused.

“It was something we never thought would change and it has,” he said. “It just tears me apart.”

During his 12 years in Congress, Michaud has been a vocal opponent of what he calls unfair trade deals that have siphoned away Maine jobs to papermakers and other industries that enjoy government subsidies in Canada and beyond.

Though there are several other paper mills still running in Maine, efforts to keep the paper flowing out of Millinocket and East Millinocket have failed to date.

“It is extremely tough,” said Michaud, framed by now-silent smokestacks. “[The mill] was supposed to start up again in May, and as you can see, it’s not running.”

The mills closed for multiple reasons, all of which were beyond any one person’s ability to influence. The closures, however, could have a significant influence on the region’s politics, which historically have been solidly blue-collar and Democratic.

In 2010, the Democratic candidate for governor, Libby Mitchell, garnered less than 13 percent of the vote in the entirety of Penobscot County. Independent Eliot Cutler won Millinocket and East Millinocket, while Republican Gov. Paul LePage carried Michaud’s hometown of Medway.

Given this background, and the current economic troubles brought on by the mill closings, the 2014 question for many in the region is this: Who among the candidates is now best equipped to help us?

Split votes

For decades, the answer to that question has been Michaud, first as a state legislator and later as congressman. There are many who still say so today.

“Mike has always been a spokesman for the common man,” said Marlene Rudge of East Millinocket. “He’s done a lot for this area and if he gets in as governor he’s not going to forget his small-town people.”

Bonnie Gallant of Woodville said Michaud’s decades of advocacy for the mills, including his efforts to ensure that foreign trade agreements don’t undercut domestic manufacturers, have made him a force in a fight few are willing to take up.

“I don’t think very much is done for this area, period, but Mike himself has done quite a lot,” said Gallant.

So has LePage, others argue.

Clint Linscott, an East Millinocket selectman who owns a body shop downtown, said LePage showed his worth in his dealings with Cate Street Capital.

Great Northern Paper, which is managed by Cate Street, reopened the East Millinocket mill in September 2011, but shut it down again in January of this year. Great Northern now owes local governments about $2 million in back taxes.

“LePage all the way,” said Linscott. “He’s a businessman and this state is a business. He’s what we need. LePage is really trying to work with these people.”

Eric Buckingham Jr. of Millinocket, a paper mill retiree and Vietnam veteran who is commander of several local VFW posts, said Michaud has his respect for his work on behalf of veterans, but that he supports LePage. He said he wishes Michaud would stay in Congress where he could accomplish more — especially for veterans

“I think LePage can do a lot more for the area,” said Buckingham.

Cutler, who won the mill communities four years ago, has supporters as well. Larry MacArthur, vice president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce, said he supports Cutler because he’ll be able to stand up to political forces.

“Sometimes the independent doesn’t have a personal and party agenda like the Republicans and Democrats do,” said MacArthur, a registered Democrat who voted for Cutler four years ago.

“I don’t feel that anybody pays attention to much of anything in Maine north of Bangor, let alone north of Portland or Augusta. … To me it’s about who is the better person who can deal with the lobbyists and the representatives and the senators.”

Hard realities, hard times

The economy couldn’t be much worse for the Katahdin region. The Maine Center for Workforce Research pegged the unemployment rate in the Millinocket labor market area at nearly 15 percent in June, which is easily the highest in the state.

The Lincoln and Rumford labor market areas — which are also paper mill towns — rank second and third with unemployment rates of less than 10 percent in June. (It should be noted that labor statistics are less reliable when focused so locally, however.)

But locals don’t need statistics to know life is hard and becoming harder. There are shuttered downtown businesses, homes that cost less than a nice pickup truck, and talk in local government of more drastic cuts if the mills don’t pay their back taxes.

“We’ve got nothing here,” said Rudge during the town’s recent Summerfest celebration at Opal Myrick Park. Rudge’s husband, like so many others, spent decades working at the paper mill. Now trips to local food banks are the new normal for them.

“We’re all just trying to do the best we can do.” said Rudge.

MacArthur, a retired 31-year Millinocket municipal worker, is one of the most optimistic people you’ll find when it comes to the area’s economy, though he doesn’t always sound like it. MacArthur learned recently that the town would stop its contributions toward his retiree health insurance because of revenue problems.

He said many people have left the area and more would if they could.

“I’m sitting on a $150,000 home I built 12 years ago, which is now worth about $100,000 but which I probably couldn’t sell for $60,000,” he said. “I’m a lifer. I can’t afford to go anywhere else so I’ve got to be a little positive and do all these little things to try to make a change for the area.”

If it weren’t for Millinocket’s proximity to Baxter State Park, said MacArthur and others, there probably would be no hope at all. He put the future of his area on tourism and maybe becoming more of a retirement village for people looking for a place with not much going on.

That’s why he is among what he said is a growing number of people who think creating a national park in the region might be its best shot.

National park, redux

A proposal to create a massive 3.2 million-acre national park, backed by millionaire landowner Roxanne Quimby and a group called RESTORE: The North Woods, encountered so much resistance that it is essentially a dead issue.

But Quimby’s son, Lucas St. Clair, is now trying to build regional support for a much smaller national park and recreational area of about 75,000 acres.

With hopes for restarting the paper mills fading, the idea of a national park could sway voters convinced it’s the region’s last and best alternative. Cutler has expressed support for St. Clair’s idea, and Michaud has indicated he’s open to it. LePage opposes a national park in the region.

“These proposals, it seems to me, are potentially very positive aspects of a plan to reinvigorate the economy of that entire region,” said Cutler, who said he also believes that the area is ripe for a new wood products industry, albeit not papermaking. “This is an amazing tourism and recreation resource. We already know that in Maine but people around the world don’t know it yet or they don’t know it well enough.”

Alexander Willette, a spokesman for LePage’s campaign, said public opinion is against creating a park and so is the governor.

“Generations of Mainers have enjoyed the beautiful outdoors of northern Maine by hunting, snowmobiling or riding four-wheelers in the great outdoors,” offered Willette, in a written statement. “Turning northern Maine into a national park is an agenda coming from out of state that would severely restrict the ability of Mainers to enjoy our outdoor heritage.”

Michaud said he is against the original 3.2 million-acre proposal but is intrigued by St. Clair’s plans — as long as Mainers’ access to the woods is protected.

“I am absolutely committed to protecting sporting opportunity in the woods of Maine and I am open to discussing any opportunity that allows such traditional uses as hunting, trapping, snowmobiling and ATV use, provided there is local support from the community and an economic impact study is completed first,” said Michaud.

Parks and politics aside, there is widespread respect for Michaud in these communities. Local after local talked about his responsiveness to constituent requests, no matter how small, and how he has the area’s best interests at heart.

Yet Michaud’s future, locked in a competitive gubernatorial election, is uncertain — just like the Katahdin region’s.

One thing for Michaud is certain, however: Someday, he’ll retire in Medway to live in a log cabin he plans to build on his woodlot overlooking the Penobscot River, a couple of miles from the riverside home where he was raised.

“This will always be my home,” he said.