(This story was originally published December 21, 2008)

 

Ask a dozen Mainers what they want as a holiday gift, and you’ll get a dozen different answers, right?

Well, not this year.

In this season of hope, we asked a wide variety of Mainers – a sheep farmer, a museum director, a member of Congress and others – what they would put at the top of their wish list in an open letter to Santa Claus.

And what we heard were people of diverse backgrounds echoing common themes of restored prosperity and confidence and a deeper understanding between people. Their wishes also reflect the desire to connect to those things that transcend the times we live in, such as art and nature.

Peace and love for all, as always, are high on Maine’s collective wish list. But, this Christmas, unease about the economy is having a big influence on holiday hopes.

“I’d like essentially all the bad news in the economy to be done in this quarter, and the first quarter to be mostly positive news about things stabilizing and turning around,” said Charles Colgan, chairman of the state’s economic forecasting committee and an economist at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Colgan realizes his wish is a long shot, given the current economic forecast that Maine could lose between 10,000 to 20,000 jobs, or 3 percent of its employment base, next year. Economic recovery isn’t expected to begin until 2010.

Nevertheless, if Colgan gets his wish, we’ll draw hope from a decline in national job losses, a climbing stock market and stabilizing oil prices.

Mark Swann’s wish, while also a reflection of economic fears, would bring dignity to people on the outskirts of the economy.

Swann is executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, where about 50 homeless women have been spending their nights on cots and floor mats in a room over the soup kitchen since the YWCA closed two years ago.

His top wish is that Portland finally opens a new housing project for homeless women in 2009. “If that happens,” he said, “homeless women will celebrate Christmas in their own homes next year.”

Construction is expected to begin soon on the project, called Florence House, and it has strong support from Gov. John Baldacci and others. But there is still a huge need for funds to cover the $850,000-a-year operating costs, Swann said. And given the state of the economy and the state budget, he said, “we would be naive not to be worried.”

If Swann gets his wish, he said, “the change will be dramatic. We’re going to go from a refugee camp setup for homeless women to dignified, respectful housing.”

Kim Block, a news anchor at Portland TV station WGME (Ch. 13), said delivering good news – especially about the economy – tops her list, too.

“If I could have my wish for news coverage for the new year, it would certainly be that the stories of economic prosperity outweigh the endless stream of pieces on economic failure,” she said. “I also hope and wish that there is always room in a newscast to tell stories that touch people’s hearts and cause us to care about each other.”

A POLICY WISH

Maine’s commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, David Littell, said economic health will be key if he gets his top wish: environmental and energy policies that are “green, sustainable and clean.”

Littell said he has hope for real progress against global warming in 2009, both in the U.S. and globally.

“We are quite hopeful that we’ll see strong climate change legislation from Congress with President Obama’s support,” Littell said. The incoming administration appears “poised to move us away from fossil fuels … to sustainable and renewable forms of energy.”

If Littell gets his wish, Maine and other states would be permitted to move forward with clean car standards rejected by the Bush administration. And, he said, the U.S. and other nations would agree to a new global climate treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark, next year.

Like Littell, others Mainers are pinning their hopes and wishes on strong leadership in the face of vast challenges.

Chellie Pingree, Maine’s newly elected First District congresswoman and a Democrat, said her top wish is that Obama will be able to restore confidence and fulfill campaign promises to provide access to health care, fight global warming, end the war in Iraq, become energy self sufficient and create new jobs.

“It’s going to take a very different vision, but I feel President Obama can pull it off,” Pingree said. “You have to have faith … and you have to realize it’s going to take a little bit of sacrifice on everyone’s part to make this work.”

Meredith Strang Burgess, a Republican state representative from Cumberland, offered a wish for Maine’s leaders in light of the mounting financial challenges that will face them in January.

“I wish for the Maine state Legislature to have incredible guts and foresight and common sense to make some big policy changes on how we spend our money, and for everybody to be open-minded and willing to think outside the box,” she said.

John Kerry is wishing for $100 million. Not for himself. Kerry, who directs the state’s energy office, said a gift of that size could help Maine kick its oil dependency.

If Maine were given such a generous trust fund, Kerry said, the money could weatherize homes, promote renewable energy development and enhance efficiency in businesses and government. Savings in the state’s energy bills could be returned to the trust fund, to help sustain it.

State government is preparing to launch a new energy plan next year. And Kerry is expecting President-elect Obama’s interest in the issue to translate into more federal money headed to Maine. But with governments fighting red ink, a privately endowed revolving fund devoted to energy independence would be timely gift.

“You can’t just have a plan,” Kerry said. “You have to have the resources.”

Lt. Arlene Jacques, coordinator of the Cumberland County Jail’s education team, wishes for a little empathy for people who have been to jail.

“People have passed judgement on these folks. They’re the fringe of society. They’re not worthy of their time, effort or even respect or kindness,” Jacques said. “If I had one wish it would be that people would perhaps suspend judgement for a little while until they get the whole story.”

Jacques is not blind to what people have done, but she also gets to know the story behind the conviction, and the person behind the story. It might be, she said, a woman who took her child to the emergency room and got pulled over and charged with operating after suspension, or someone with a mental illness who can’t find services or get their medication, she said.

“They got themselves here. But imagine how difficult it must be to be here, especially at a time like this,” she said.

“In order for a person to get back to their community and feel they are a part of that, they can’t be judged by their past behavior, especially by someone who doesn’t know.”

Some also wish for a strengthened connection to nature and art.

Patrick McGowan, the commissioner of the Department of Conservation, said that, next to comfort for the cold and hungry, his top wish is that Mainers find refuge in the state’s public lands.

“These lands in the mountains, rivers, lakes and streams of our state provide solace and adventure. When people are down and in certain states of despair … they come to our lands for comfort and mental health,” he said. “I hope more Maine people find these gems.”

For Thomas Denenberg, acting director of the Portland Museum of Art, adding to the city’s treasury of art tops the list.

“I’d love to have another major Marsden Hartley painting, either one of the abstractions from just before World War I or one of the big figural works from the 1930s, to accompany our great landscapes like ‘Kinsman Falls.’ “

A Winslow Homer from the 1880s would be nice, too, Denenberg said. “We’re missing a great dory painting, but there is only one in private hands, so unless Santa brings one, we are out of luck.”

And, if Denenberg gets his wish, art lovers will be richer, too. “I’d like to see 150,000 happy visitors to the museum next year,” he said.

Finally, no list would be complete without the oldest – and purest – of Christmas wishes: peace and love.

“The world is not a happy place with so much terror, trouble, and murder in so many places,” said Jean Noon, an organic sheep farmer and artist in Sanford. “My first wish is that the United States under (president-elect Barack) Obama will be able to evolve into a world leadership position of peace through diplomacy instead of force.”

Rodent Biacho of Portland, a Sudanese immigrant and devout Christian, wishes only for harmony.

In Sudan, Christmas is purely a religious holiday, less cluttered by the commercial side that’s so prominent here, Biacho said. At the same time, it’s traditional for Sudanese Christians to reach out with goodwill to neighbors, whatever their beliefs, he said.

“The people come much closer,” Biacho said. And that’s his wish for all of us, too.

“People of all (kinds) and religions – the poor, the rich, the religious people and non-religious people – were going to be united by this new newborn child,” he said. “We need to be united. Christmas is a good time to call people together.”

Staff Writers Ann Kim, Ray Routhier, Dennis Hoey, Matt Wickenheiser, Tux Turkel, David Hench, Deirdre Fleming, Bob Keyes and Beth Quimby contributed to this report.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]