Last Tuesday night, I stood in a kitchen in Brewer, in the home of a woman I think of as my second mother.
She had come into our family while my father was away in World War II to help my mother, a full-time librarian at a time when a working mother was a rarity.
I spent so much time with her, probably in part because I was the youngest of three boys, that I used to tell my friends I had two mothers. She has been a pervasive and lasting influence on my life.
One of her most admirable traits is her steadfastness in adhering to values and principles. When she casts her lot with a group, when she offers her loyalty, she means it. In politics, for instance, the Democrats can always count on her — well, almost always, it now seems.
Now 86 and closing in on 87 with a birthday in December, she lived with my family from the time she was a teenager until she married in her 30s. She met her husband through the local Democratic Party, which in those days was the political touchstone for many Maine families, including mine.
They had four children. You could argue that a family was built in Brewer because of local partisan politics.
Driving back from Washington County, where I spent a couple of days trying to clear my head from the surround-sound anger and noise of this political season, I veered onto Chamberlain Street in Brewer to visit the woman who helped raise me.
It was late and I wanted to get back to Portland, but I knew I could not pass so close to her house without stopping to say hello.
It seemed only natural to talk politics.
“Who are you voting for in the governor’s race?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” she said. “Still deciding.”
Sitting next to her in the fading light of a fall afternoon was her 20-something granddaughter, a sophomore psychology major at the University of Maine who chimed in to say that she, too, was uncertain about her vote for governor.
My guess is that you would not need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of times this woman or anyone in her family has voted for a non-Democrat.
Her family is one of those that encourages stereotyping. Irish. Catholic. Firemen. Policemen.
In my younger days, all of these words added up to “Democrat.”
These two people, generations apart, epitomize the ambivalence and confusion that have dominated this year’s politics in general and Maine’s gubernatorial election in particular.
Recent polls show Republican Paul LePage consistently running first among the five candidates for governor. At least two polls show independent Eliot Cutler pulling ahead of Democrat Libby Mitchell and two others show him tied with Mitchell for second place. Most show Cutler steadily gaining ground as the field enters the homestretch. Independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott have made little headway with voters.
It’s not surprising that LePage, mayor of Waterville and a fervent advocate of smaller government and fiscal responsibility, would have a foothold in an election year when voters in Maine and elsewhere are impatient with big government and high taxes.
As president of the state Senate, Mitchell has significant statewide name recognition and a loyal following within her party. But Cutler, offering himself as the moderate alternative to conservative LePage and liberal Mitchell, has targeted independents and undecideds, and he appears to be making dramatic progress in his effort to win support from those voters and others — enough progress that some political insiders believe he can pull off a stunning come-from-behind victory in the campaign’s final days.
The wild card in this election, the element that has all of us scratching our heads, is the large number of voters who have told pollsters — and just about anyone else who will listen — that they simply don’t know who they will vote for.
There are always late deciders in elections, but they usually break in predictable patterns when Election Day arrives. More often than not, they gravitate toward the party they normally support.
This year, however, the uncertain voters seem more uncertain than usual and less likely to move in the usual direction. That’s what Cutler is hoping for, and he believes that the unsettled political climate — the winds of change — will carry him into the Blaine House.
LePage, meanwhile, believes those winds favor him. And Mitchell is counting on a late rally fueled by voters who value legislative experience and predictability in their governor.
The truth is, the candidates probably have no better idea what will happen on Tuesday than the rest of us.
What I know is that if an octogenarian, dyed-in-the wool Democrat from Brewer isn’t sure who she will vote for at this stage of the game, this election is up or grabs. And that means every vote counts.
It can be tempting, when you don’t have strong feelings for or against a candidate, to drop out — to decide not to decide. What if you vote for the wrong person? Who wants to support a candidate who turns out to be a dud after he or she is elected?
But we always run that risk when we vote. We can study the candidates, watch debates, read the reams and reams of news and analysis published in the newspaper. We can inform ourselves to the point of information overload but we can never be sure that we’re making the right decision.
And if informed voters, if people who care about their state and its future choose not to choose, they are abdicating their responsibility as citizens, not to mention leaving it to others to determine how all of us will be governed.
There’s no shame in being uncertain. Uncertainty is a fact of life — in politics, in business, in raising our children, in planning and living our lives. The shame is in letting uncertainty prevent us from doing what needs to be done.
So if you’re not sure which candidate deserves your vote but there’s a candidate you like, or one you just “have a feeling” about, then vote for that candidate. There’s no such thing as a wasted vote or a stupid vote. It’s your right to vote and to vote the way your mind or heart or gut tells you to.
On Tuesday, voters in Maine will choose a new governor. The freedom to make such a choice is what sets our society apart from so many others. Why would anyone pass up a chance to exercise that precious freedom?
There probably have been many times in this state and nation when voters believed an election to be of historic significance, when they believed it was the most important one ever.
Maybe this is one of those elections. Whether it’s the most significant in recent history does not matter. What matters is that our state and nation are in the midst of a severe economic crisis and the ramifications of it have permeated every area of our collective life.
We need new direction. We need people in key elected positions who can lead and who can produce. We do not need talk. We need action.
Undecided voters will likely determine who will be our next governor, and perhaps our representatives in Congress.
It is encouraging to see the two women in Brewer thinking, pondering, wrestling with the dilemma of being “undecided.” Before Tuesday, I am certain, they will decide. They will not squander their vote.
They will not pass up the opportunity to participate. They will vote. You should, too.
Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at: [email protected]