August 26, 2019
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Activism flourishes at Common Ground Country Fair

Richard Charette of Morrill, a volunteer for Faithful Venture Farm, chose an unorthodox but probably comfortable place for a nap Saturday at the Common Ground Fair in Unity. (Bangor Daily News/Christopher Cousins)

UNITY, Maine — The Common Ground Country Fair is full of people seeking common ground with others.

Among all the farmers, crafters, food vendors, artists and musicians who spent the last three days entertaining, educating and peddling to a total of more than 51,000 visitors at a sprawling field in Unity were representatives from at least 64 political or social activism organizations. All of them were there because they survived a screening process led by Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard, volunteers for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who this year said they accepted 64 of 85 applications.

“Every year we have to turn people down,” said Lawless. “You have to tell us how your social or political involvement is in tune with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s philosophies.”

With a debate raging in Congress about national health care, several organizations this year focused their efforts on promoting it. At least one, the Socialist Equality Party, is confident that no matter how sweeping health care reform ends up, it won’t be sweeping enough.

“The two old parties are owned by the corporations,” said Carl Cooley, a Mainer who ran for Congress on the Socialist Equality ticket in 2004. “They call Obama a socialist. All we can do is laugh. Health care should be a fundamental human right.”

Rep. Sean Flaherty, D-Scarborough, helped staff a booth for Planned Parenthood on Sunday. His goal was to persuade as many people as possible that any health care reform should include full coverage for a range of women’s health issues. Asked about the response to his message, Flaherty said the Common Ground Country Fair offers a sympathetic crowd.

“The people who come here tend to be more progressive,” said Flaherty. “They understand the need.”

If there were any groups at the fair voicing the other side of the health care debate, it wasn’t evident.

Rep. Jonathan McKane, D-Newcastle, is one of the Legislature’s most outspoken critics of socialized health care. He also was part of an effort this summer to gather enough signatures to initiate a people’s veto of tax reform legislation passed mostly by Democrats in June. That effort included booths at several fairs, but McKane said the Republican Party is usually not interested in promoting its philosophies at fairs.

“We visited a lot of fairs, but we didn’t like it,” said McKane. “I don’t think the fair is the place to lobby. Come to Augusta if you want to lobby.”

Asked whether conservative groups such as the Maine Republican Party would be welcome at the Common Ground Country Fair, Lawless said they would be if they applied, but for the most part they don’t.

“I would love to have the Maine Republican Party here, but they would take a huge amount of abuse,” said Lawless. “This is not a fair they would want to be at.”

Fair director Jim Ahearne said the fair seeks to provide a forum, not to push a political agenda.

“There’s no political litmus test to be here,” he said. “We just try to give Maine people a voice to reach out and meet each other.”

Attendance at the fair was heavy, with 16,000 visitors Friday, 26,000 Saturday and about 10,000 Sunday.

“We had a record-breaking Friday and Saturday,” said Ahearne. “To have 51,000 people come to a fair in Unity, Maine, particularly if that includes a day of inclement weather, is an incredibly successful weekend.”

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