Former Maine Gov. John H. Reed, who died Oct. 31 at age 91, will be remembered as a kind man whose passion for public service transcended political party lines. The Fort Fairfield native’s legacy of working across political party lines for the betterment of people in Maine and the nation proves particularly poignant at a time when pre-election partisan sniping dominates political discourse.
We urge Democrats, Republicans and independents to devote a few minutes to studying Reed’s example of how political leaders can truly put people before party loyalty and adapt to change in ways that make government work.
Reed’s story offers an antidote to the cynicism that pervades political culture today. After graduating from the University of Maine and serving on active duty in the Naval Reserve during World War II, he returned to Aroostook County to work in his family’s potato business.
In 1954, he was elected to a seat in the Maine House of Representatives. Two years later, he won a seat in the state Senate. As Senate president in 1959, Reed, a Republican, was next in line to become governor when Gov. Clinton Clauson, a Democrat, died.
“I was very happy in Fort Fairfield, was in the potato business, and so I had no thought whatsoever of running for higher office, but I succeeded a governor who died in office, and once the opportunity opened up, then I proceeded to make the best of it,” Reed said in a 2009 interview with Maine Ahead magazine.
Reed made the best of being governor from 1959 through 1966 by working across party lines, especially after Democrats in 1964 gained majorities in both chambers of the Maine Legislature. His gentle demeanor and ability to convince disputants to compromise in the best interests of the common good minimized power struggles that might otherwise have arisen when he replaced a Democratic governor or when that party gained control of the Legislature for the first time in more than half a century.
“He really wasn’t a partisan the way that some people are,” said state Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who has served in the Legislature since 1964, including as speaker of the House from 1975 to 1994. “He worked collectively with us to get what we and he wanted.”
After losing his bid for re-election in 1966, Reed was appointed to the National Transportation Safety Board by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. The appointment resulted, in part, because Reed resisted pressure from Republican Party insiders to use his position as chairman of the National Governors Association as a launching pad for politically motivated assaults on Johnson’s Vietnam War policy.
Reflecting the enduring respect national political leaders from both parties held for Reed, Republican presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan later named him to serve as ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
It might seem trite and naive at a time when political parties and their surrogates wage multimillion dollar wars for power in Washington and Augusta, but Reed leaves an inspiring legacy because he never forgot that he worked for the people.
Reginald Bowden, who worked as an aide to Reed from 1961 to 1965, told the Bangor Daily News in 2008 that, as governor, Reed met with Maine people daily to stay in touch with the needs and perspectives of his constituents. He shaped his actions as governor by listening to everyday Mainers, not just the voices of his party’s inner circle.
“These are hard-working people, and I wanted to look after their interests,” Reed said in a 2008 interview with the BDN.
The candidates who win on Election Day should second that.