As Election Day nears, negative campaign ads increasingly depict Maine and the United States as angry, fractured societies, burdened by broken governments. Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell recently offered a timely and important reminder about a positive alternative vision for America that can guide politicians and voters in making decisions that will shape the nation’s future.

While receiving the Maine Irish Heritage Center’s fifth annual Claddagh Award on Oct. 10 for his work leading peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, Mitchell shared an anecdote from his days as a federal judge, when one of his favorite duties was to swear in new American citizens.

After administering the naturalization oath, Mitchell would ask the new U.S. citizens why they had come to America. A young Asian man told Mitchell, in halting English, that he “came because in America, everybody has a chance.”

Inspired by that optimism and faith in what the United States continues to represent in the world community, Mitchell said, “Our task as Americans is to see to it that every child, no matter who they are, has the same chance in life as Joe Brennan, John Baldacci, Chellie Pingree and I have. We should conduct ourselves so that in 100 years, he will still be able to say that he came to America because everybody in America has a chance.”

Throughout this year’s political campaign, candidates for president, Congress and the Maine Legislature have talked about opportunity. Republicans, Democrats and independents differ on the role government should play in providing opportunities to more Americans, but they share a common goal of preserving the United States’ reputation as a place where people receive a fair chance to succeed.

Amid the campaign clatter, Mitchell offers a standard by which to measure the nation’s ability to make that goal attainable for all Americans. Rejecting the notion that the determining question should be, “Am I better off today?”, the former U.S. Senate majority leader suggests that Americans need to look beyond their personal circumstances and recommit to helping others. The nation will pull itself out of hard times if more Americans help others fulfill their aspirations, according to Mitchell.

“If this boy gets a benefit, then we all benefit,” he said of the new American citizen in his story.

Applied to this year’s campaigns — which play out with the unspoken objective of breaking partisan gridlock by winning and grabbing more power — it means “putting the best interests of not just the people of Maine, but all people in this country” ahead of party loyalty.

The concept isn’t new, but it bears repeating during a time in the campaign season when a focus on the contests too easily can obscure the responsibility that comes with the prize.