CAPE ELIZABETH — The Harvard Lampoon magazine was struggling for money in 1966, so a group of students did a spoof edition of Playboy magazine to attract national advertisers.
It worked. The spoof raised enough money to set up a Lampoon endowment, setting up the magazine financially for the future. After a few similar take-offs of other national publications, some of the students decided to launch a commercial enterprise – National Lampoon.
Some of the Harvard Lampoon students chose other career paths.
“I decided instead to go work for Ed Muskie,” said Eliot Cutler. “I won’t pretend it wasn’t a difficult choice. It was in part the right thing to do, in part a different challenge, in part, it was growing up.”
He worked for the Maine senator, and for President Jimmy Carter, then went into environmental and land-use law for the next 25 years, working on issues around the globe.
Today, he’s an independent candidate for governor. As an unenrolled candidate, he has no primary. The June 8 Republican and Democratic primaries will narrow the field of party candidates from 11 to two. And because Cutler has gathered enough signatures, he’ll be on the Nov. 2 general election ballot with them, along with other unenrolled candidates who have qualified.
Cutler’s campaign has raised $571,000, according to the latest state filings, including $240,000 of his own money.
After Lampoon, Cutler’s life took a serious path.
Dick Spencer, an attorney at Drummond Woodsum in Portland, was president of the Harvard Lampoon in the mid-1960s, and has been friends with Cutler for 45 years. He watched Cutler’s career as it progressed from one position of responsibility to the next.
“I remember after I started practicing (law), I was working on how much to charge for a sewer connection in Kennebunkport,” Spencer said. “Then I read in The New York Times how Eliot Cutler was deciding how much the United States should spend on space exploration in the next century.”
On the campaign trail and in debates and forums, Cutler can come across as brusque, sometimes pointed.
“I have little patience for drivel, and slogans. I’ve been around the track too many times, for one thing. When I’m asked a question, I answer it. I try not to indulge the audience,” Cutler said. “The importance of what’s at stake for Maine now is so great, so fundamental, that we need to be clear about what we think we need to do. We need to be strategic about it, we need to be focused.”
Some have criticized Cutler as out of touch, because he lived away from Maine for 25 years. He moved back in 1999 to a home on Shore Road in Cape Elizabeth, then lived in China for several years as he opened his law firm’s Beijing office.
“The fact is, I did move away. There’s not a single experience I’ve had that I’d trade, or that hasn’t equipped me better to be governor,” Cutler said. “My heart’s always been here. People forget – I grew up in Bangor. It’s still my home.”
Cutler’s father was an internist and longtime head of medical services at what was Eastern Maine General Hospital. Cutler’s earliest memories are of going on house calls with his father, driving hours to visit patients in Aroostook or Washington counties.
The elder Cutler served on the University of Maine board of directors and fought former Gov. James Longley’s disinvestment in the college.
Cutler’s mother was an economist by training, and worked on social issues such as mental illness, family services and children’s services. She helped start eastern Maine groups such as the Family Services Society and Spruce Run.
She was “a very tough woman” with strong, liberal political views, Cutler said, and she fought with Muskie regularly.
Both mother and father helped shape his political personality.
“Whatever political skills I have come from him – the ability to achieve consensus, the collaborative approach to things – all of that comes from him,” said Cutler. “The independence – the fact that I’m an independent? That comes from her.”
Cutler went to Bangor public schools until he was a sophomore, then attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
It was there, under headmaster Frank Boyden, that he learned of the importance of a “shared enterprise,” the idea that the students all had an interest in the success of each other, of their school.
“We were all going to rise or fall together,” Cutler said. “When I talk about Maine and what I think we need to do and the importance of leadership, the importance of one Maine, the importance of everybody’s eyes on the same ball, everybody subscribing to a common strategy, everybody working together, it all comes from that experience.”
After Deerfield it was Harvard. Cutler had worked for Muskie during the summer between his junior and senior years, and he was given a job after graduation. He worked for Muskie for 6 years.
“He was an extraordinary person. He was hard as hell to work for – it wasn’t easy – he was a very demanding boss. But the entire time I worked for him, I learned from him,” Cutler said. “I really learned about public policy, disciplined public policy, from Muskie. The importance of relating principals and objectives – strategic objectives – to policy.”
He worked on the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and learned about collaboration under Muskie. He got tougher working for the senator, Cutler said, and then “really tougher” in his position in the Carter administration as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“You sit there and say ‘No, no, no,’” said Cutler. “You learn there’s life after ‘No.’ ”
Cutler said he was part of the administration’s effort to stop pork barrel spending on dam and reclamation projects. If projects had to be built for safety reasons, they were built, he said. But new projects, pork barrel projects, were cut.
“I was the guy saying to members of Congress, ‘We’re not going to do this,’” said Cutler. “If people in Maine don’t think that’s the kind of fiscal discipline we need today, they won’t vote for me.”
He left politics after working on his fifth presidential campaign, Walter Mondale’s in 1984. From 1980 to 1989, he and associates built the Washington, D.C., office for the Webster Sheffield law firm.
He and a colleague then left to build their own firm, Cutler & Stanfield, which largely represented counties, states and other entities trying to build big infrastructure projects such as highways, landfills and airports. One notable project was the Denver airport.
At that firm, Cutler was offering a combination of legal and political expertise. He was in court, and was also making deals between counties and cities. They grew the firm into the second-largest land use/environmental practice in the U.S., Cutler said.
Barry Conaty, a friend and former colleague, said Cutler has a “keen strategic mind,” and that he was adept at taking abstract issues and reducing them to concrete problems that could be solved with distinct steps.
In the late 1990s, he and his partner merged their firm into Akin Gump.
Cutler moved back to Maine, to the Cape Elizabeth land he had purchased in 1997. He still commuted to wherever he needed to go for Akin Gump, depending on the case. In 2006, they asked him to open the Beijing office, so he and his wife, Melanie, lived there for several years, visiting Maine a dozen times a year.
“China is going to be the biggest market in the world during our lifetime. It ought to be one of the biggest markets for Maine products – seafood, agriculture, pulp and paper,” Cutler said. “Not to understand China the way I do, in my view, would be a shortcoming. I think I can do more for the state of Maine by virtue of what I know about the rest of the world.”
Cutler was involved in some business ventures over the years, as well. One was Thornburg Mortgage, where Cutler was a member of the board of directors. The firm, started by Cutler’s friend Garrett Thornburg, was an originator of super-prime high-end jumbo mortgages. These were the opposite of sub-prime loans; they were made to borrowers with exceptional credit.
The firm would originate mortgages, package them and sell securities based on them, then borrow money against the securities to make further loans, Cutler said.
But the model failed when the credit markets seized up, and when new accounting rules were put into place. The firm went bankrupt.
There was some alleged malfeasance, said Cutler, when former executives were accused of attempting to start a new business while under bankruptcy protection. Cutler and the other independent directors fired them, sued them and ultimately all resigned when an independent trustee took over, he said.
If he were governor, Cutler believes he could work with the Legislature, even though he’d be an independent dealing with Republicans and Democrats. Although he was a Democrat for much of his life, he registered as a Republican in 2006 to support Peter Mills (who is again running on the GOP ticket).
Cutler said he decided to run as an independent because he felt the Democratic Party has become too “self-absorbed.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at :[email protected]