AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci said Wednesday that his generation lost a great leader with the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and Maine and the nation will long feel the impact from his decades of service in the Senate.
He and other political leaders said they have lost a friend.
“My father was a Kennedy delegate in 1960 for President Jack Kennedy and I supported Ted in 1980,” Baldacci said in an interview. “We got to meet President Kennedy and Bobby [Sen. Robert F. Kennedy] and Ted very early in our lives, and they made an indelible impact on my family.”
He said the dedication of the wealthy Kennedy family to the issues of the poor and underprivileged had a huge impact on him and other members of his family and his decision to enter politics.
“Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, you have to admire the commitment to public service and public interest,” Baldacci said.
Former Gov. Joseph Brennan agreed and said much of his political life was framed by early support of President Kennedy and the rest of the Kennedy family.
“I was a Bobby Kennedy delegate to the national convention,” he said in an interview. “And I supported Ted in 1980 when it was not that popular to be challenging a sitting president. We have lost a great and good man.”
Brennan was the only Democratic governor to endorse Kennedy over incumbent President Jimmy Carter, and he spent a lot of time campaigning for him throughout the state in 1979 and 1980. Kennedy spent part of his first day on the campaign trail in November 1979 with Brennan at a campaign rally on Munjoy Hill in Portland, Brennan’s childhood neighborhood.
“That was quite a campaign,” Brennan recalled. “I think it was the first time John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline gave public speeches. I introduced them at so many places in the state.”
Carter won the Maine caucuses by a slim margin and went on to lose the general election to Ronald Reagan.
Baldacci said what always impressed him was the way Kennedy treated the “average guy” he would meet while campaigning or, in one case, the workers in Momma Baldacci’s restaurant in Bangor.
“He would go through the kitchen and grab a couple of breadsticks, and he would have a twinkle in his eye,” he said. “He would stop and say hello and talk with the cooks and the dishwashers, and they all just looked up to him.”
Public Utilities Commissioner Jack Cashman was mayor of Old Town and greeted Kennedy when he spent an entire day campaigning in the city during that campaign. He said Kennedy toured the paper mill and attended a rally with members of his family and two members of the Boston Bruins.
“Maine was an important state that year. We were, I think, the second caucus state,” Cashman said in an interview. “Everybody was here campaigning. The caucus that year in Old Town was the biggest there has ever been.”
Cashman said Kennedy’s devotion to public service is a model that has inspired a lot of politicians and that his thoughtfulness toward others was widely known.
“My son interned as a college student with Senator [George] Mitchell and dealt with Senator Kennedy on occasion and said he always took the time to talk with the interns, and that is something that has stuck with him about the senator,” Cashman said.
Baldacci said the Kennedy family connection with Maine has been long and still continues. He said Ted Kennedy often visited the state, and now the “next generation” of Kennedys is connected with Maine.
“Robert Kennedy Jr. comes up and has helped on some environmental issues, and Joe Kennedy has been up on energy and heating oil,” he said. “And Patrick and I served together in Congress. The family still comes up to Maine and there is a strong connection.”
Baldacci said last summer he visited with Kennedy in his Senate office and still remembers that meeting with emotion.
“He was larger than life,” he said. “He filled the room with his laugh, with his wit and charm. He took me over to the wall where President Kennedy’s dog tags from when he was in the military were framed on the wall. That just brings back such a well of emotion and feelings.”
Baldacci has ordered Maine flags to be flown at half-staff through sunset Sunday. President Obama has ordered the same for U.S. flags.