Tragedy has had at least two chances to shape Bruce Poliquin.
The first happened in 1992. It made him a single father and a widower.
At a resort near Humacao, Puerto Rico, Jane Poliquin and her father, James Carpenter, decided to go swimming. Bruce remembers that the ocean appeared a bit choppy. Jane and Carpenter were strong swimmers.
He gave Jane a kiss. “Be careful,” he said.
The rip current ensnared Jane first. The 36-year-old woman futilely, fatally tried to swim against it. Carpenter, 77, tried to help, holding Jane’s head above the surface until he, too, succumbed to exhaustion.
Bruce was with his 16-month-old son, Sam, in another part of the resort when he heard the “screams and commotion.”
“By the time we were able to get them in they had expired,” Poliquin said. “They had both drowned.”
Such a loss may complicate Poliquin’s polarizing public image, which has been defined mostly by political ambition, allegiance to Gov. Paul LePage and, more recently, controversy.
Poliquin was reluctant to discuss his wife’s death in 2010, when he finished sixth in the seven-way Republican gubernatorial primary. He still is.
However, Poliquin, 58, now one of six Republicans who hope to succeed U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, acknowledges the interest, and perhaps the political necessity, of revealing elements of his private life.
Many details of Jane’s death are extracted from news reports, not from Poliquin. Carpenter’s death was front-page news in Waterville’s Morning Sentinel. He started the Bixler Art and Music Center at Colby College. The New York Times ran a joint obituary for Carpenter and his daughter, an art conservator for museums in Brooklyn, at Harvard and in Los Angeles.
Bruce Poliquin attaches no professional or political meaning to Jane’s death. He says it made him more protective of Sam, who’s now 21. He says his son “feels a great loss in his life” because Bruce Poliquin has kept Jane alive in their home and hearts.
“The only reservation I have is that when Jane and her father wanted to go out for a swim, I wish I would have said, ‘No,’ ” Poliquin said.
“Did that shape my mental toughness? No. It really didn’t,” he said. “The issue that is driving me is that I have fits when people waste money, especially taxpayer money. It absolutely frosts me.”
Poliquin frequently circles back to his message of “fiscal sanity.” It is a comfortable topic for the state treasurer and former investment manager. For the last 18 months, Poliquin’s comments about unsustainable, wasteful government spending and debt have been ubiquitous, appearing on his treasurer’s blog, at town hall meetings and in media interviews. It is now central to his Senate campaign.
“Am I comfortable with the other issues? Absolutely,” he said. “But the biggest problem that we have — bar none — in this country are financial issues.”
Few dispute Poliquin’s messaging discipline.
At Republican candidates’ debates, Poliquin sometimes brandishes a piece of white oak that he claims is from an affordable housing project in Waterville. He likes to say that the expensive wood is just one example of the wasteful spending that he uncovered in the quasi-public Maine State Housing Authority.
He holds the wood high above his head, shaking it to punctuate his words. The image doubles as metaphor for a hammer-like rhetorical strategy that has riled his political opponents.
His critics have hit back, raising questions about Poliquin’s ethics.
Democrats first questioned whether his work for his real estate business, Dirigo Holdings LLC, violated a constitutional provision that prohibits the state treasurer from engaging in commerce. Attorney General William Schneider, now a GOP Senate candidate himself, said in an advisory opinion that Poliquin should take steps to insulate himself from the business but stopped short of declaring a constitutional violation.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court declined to rule on the matter, after being asked by the House of Representatives. The decision didn’t exonerate Poliquin, and may have partially reflected the court’s traditional reluctance to meddle in affairs of the legislative branch.
The treasurer also came under fire for enrolling 10 acres of his property in Georgetown in the Maine Tree Growth program. The tax abatement program is designed to sustain the timber products industry through commercial harvesting or other uses of woodlands, but Poliquin’s property contains a deed restriction that prohibits most of those activities.
Critics claimed that he exploited the law as a tax shelter, saving thousands of dollars in taxes on his waterfront property.
Just days after declaring his candidacy for the Senate, Poliquin applied to transfer the land to Open Space, which will allow him to receive significant tax breaks without getting penalized for pulling out of Tree Growth.
Poliquin proclaimed no wrongdoing, saying the situation was “an unfair distraction to Georgetown municipal officials, my neighbors and me.”
Poliquin dismisses the controversies as payback for his taking on the housing authority and public employees’ unfunded pension debt.
“You look at the criticism and it’s all coming from one place,” he said. “You know who that is? It’s the Maine Democratic Party and their surrogates.”
Not all of the criticism has come from Democrats.
Several Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, have said they wish Poliquin was less anxious to use his office to engage in political fights with Democrats. Poliquin maintains that his efforts reflect his role as an “activist treasurer,” informing the public about Maine’s financial morass.
However, some have worried that Poliquin, who was elected by the Legislature, is too closely affiliated with the governor’s office.
That appears to have been the plan since LePage was elected. In December of 2010, the governor took the unusual — and, for some Republicans, unwelcome — step of endorsing Poliquin for treasurer.
Emails between the governor’s transition team and state Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, show that the administration wanted Poliquin to be “a surrogate” for LePage, “attending local Red Tape Workshops and occasionally speaking to reporters to provide details and context on fiscal matters.”
Nutting was not enthusiastic. He wrote an email on Dec. 3, 2010, saying “it would be a very bad idea to send Bruce out there to explain policy or argue for or against fiscal matters. If you wanted to use him for that you should have found him a home in the Administration.”
Nonetheless, Poliquin narrowly defeated Republican David Bowles to become treasurer.
His advocacy for LePage has continued unabated.
Poliquin has frequently mentioned LePage during his Senate campaign. He has aligned himself with the governor in campaign ads, which depict the pair as no-nonsense, private-sector outsiders who have been busy “cleaning up Augusta.”
Poliquin acknowledges that his campaign is courting LePage supporters.
“We’re different people, very different people. But the policy part? We’re the same,” said Poliquin, who describes himself and LePage as “good friends.”
LePage declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokeswoman said the governor wants to stay neutral during the GOP primary.
LePage, of course, has been defined by his own personal story, a compelling rags-to-riches narrative that played prominently during his campaign for governor.
Poliquin’s public biography is different. He grew up in Waterville. His father was a public school teacher, his mother a nurse. He attended boarding school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and later, on a scholarship, Harvard University. He later worked as a managing partner with New York-based Avatar Investors Associates Corp.
Poliquin’s campaign biography mentions neither his wife’s death nor the death of his older brother, Jim Poliquin, in 2006.
Jim’s death at age 54 was the second tragedy in Bruce Poliquin’s life. He called a reporter a week after a lengthy interview to offer details of his brother’s untimely death and explain an event that he said has affected his life and political career.
He said Jim was a gifted musician and a great baseball player. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Bruce looked up to him, but he says something happened to Jim during his teenage years. He got involved in drugs and alcohol. Over the years, Poliquin says, his brother was in and out of rehab. Jim applied for social assistance.
“Eventually, he found a way not to work and take advantage of welfare programs,” Poliquin said. The programs were “well-meaning,” he said, but he believes they contributed to his brother’s downward spiral because there was no work requirement.
“He found a way to be disabled,” Poliquin said. “He just spiraled downhill from there.”
James Poliquin died on Sept. 8, 2006, at the Shore Village Rehab & Nursing Center in Rockland.
“You asked me before if there was a personal event that shaped me in any way,” Poliquin told the reporter. “That was it.”
State House Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: