Looking Back, Forward

Posted Dec. 30, 2009, at 7:01 p.m.

This waning year will not be remembered fondly by most, because it will mark – we hope – a low point in a very low economy. That global economic slow down affected Maine, though in some ways we fared better than some other states. California, Florida, Nevada and states that experienced housing booms were ground zero for the recession. So, too, was Michigan, which relies heavily on the struggling American auto manufacturers there.

As the saying goes, a recession is when your neighbor loses his or her job; a depression is when you lose yours. And too many Mainers lost jobs this year.

Beyond the recession, Maine saw its share of big news developments in 2009. Chief among them was the decision by voters to repeal the law allowing same-sex marriage. A close second is the final approval granted by the Land Use Regulation Commission to Plum Creek for its ambitious Moosehead Lake project.

Though these two stories have little in common, some shared themes that speak to Maine’s present and future can be teased from them. Both will remain continuing stories next year, and how each develops will serve as a barometer of sorts for the state.

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Same-sex marriage was legalized through the politically risky efforts of Democratic legislators and Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Observers speculated about bill sponsor Sen. Dennis Damon’s motives, wondering if he were banking on liberal support for a run for the Blaine House (no sign of that). And the governor actually reversed an earlier stand opposing same-sex marriage.

Regardless of one’s view, the law’s passage would not have been thinkable 10 years ago. It’s evidence that Maine’s demographics and social values have changed. Lawmakers may have outpaced their constituents on the issue. After all, traditional marriage has been central to society for centuries. And the law’s supporters may not have been effective countering the claims of opponents, who predicted a radical liberalization of public school curricula if it remained.

Some 53 percent of Maine voters supported repeal. They probably included large numbers of Democrats and independents, along with Republicans. Many were motivated by faith, but probably more were moved to vote yes by their beliefs about the role of marriage. They should not be dismissed as bigots or zealots.

But what is remarkable is that 47 percent of Maine voters agreed, in the privacy of the ballot booth, that same-sex couples – a small fraction of the population – should have the right to marriage. Again, that result was unthinkable 10 years ago, when 25 percent supporting same-sex marriage would have been considered a strong showing.

The geographic breakdown of the vote is telling. In Aroostook County, 73 percent favored repeal. About two-thirds of voters in Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington counties also favored repeal. But in Maine’s more populated, southern counties, the results were reversed. In Cumberland County, 60 percent opposed the repeal. Also telling is the demographic breakdown: A majority of those under the age of 40 support same-sex marriage.

What to make of that? Maine’s social values are changing, and soon a majority will share the values of southern New England. Both sides in the same-sex marriage fight are awaiting the start of the second half. There may be constitutional amendment proposals from one or both. The issue likely will be raised during 2010’s gubernatorial and legislative campaigns.

But again, without dismissing those who have strong moral or faith-fueled beliefs about marriage, time and the numbers are on the side of those supporting same-sex marriage.

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The year’s other big story is also, in some ways, the dramatic end of a first act. After years of review, the paper company that has morphed into a real estate development concern, Plum Creek, was granted approval to build 975 houses, two resorts and all the infrastructure that goes with them in the Moosehead Lake region. Appeals have been filed, guaranteeing protracted court battles, but a major precedent has been set with the approval.

The questions that will loom over the project, beyond the outcome of the appeals, are whether the house lots sell, how quickly they sell, and how heavily booked the resorts will be. If the house lots begin selling briskly in the spring of 2011 and they are being purchased as second or third homes by people from Boston, New York, California and elsewhere, Maine will see more large-scale housing development projects. Other large landowners are watching as keenly as are Plum Creek’s stockholders.

If Plum Creek succeeds, Maine may become Second Home Land, along with Vacationland.

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Both the same-sex marriage law and then the voter repeal and the Plum Creek development approval are stories about how Maine sees itself. Are we looking in the mirror and walking away, forgetting what we see? Is the image in the glass changing, and if so, are we willing to accept that and adapt? Time will tell, but it is likely both issues will be on the list of top stories at the end of 2010.

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