Eighth in a series profiling the candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.
A declaration by Matthew Dunlap’s young daughter pushed him to run for U.S. Senate. She told him that she wanted to live in her hometown of Old Town forever — a prospect that Dunlap says was concerning because of the area’s uncertain economic opportunities.
The former Maine lawmaker and secretary of state knew about the job prospects, or lack thereof, from experience. Not long ago, after working temporarily as head of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, he expected to work nights at Pat’s Pizza because he couldn’t find other work.
“This is why I want to do this,” Dunlap said of his Senate bid. “I want to do this for my daughter.”
Dunlap, 47, is one of four Democrats who are seeking the party’s nomination for the seat that opened with the retirement announcement of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe in February.
He is highlighting his middle- and working-class credentials in his campaign: growing up on a farm in Bar Harbor, working for his family’s weaving and pottery businesses, and doing less-than-glamorous jobs in food service and shoveling crushed rock.
That personal history is Dunlap’s most important asset in the campaign, followed by a relatively impressive resume, said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine.
While every politician tries to make their case for being the “average guy or gal,” Brewer said, it’s another thing to do it with credibility.
“(Dunlap) can make the claim that he understands the economic interests and challenges of the average Mainer. That’s important in Maine. That’s particularly important outside of York and Cumberland counties,” Brewer said.
Dunlap was first elected to represent Old Town in the state House of Representatives in 1996. He served four terms before hitting term limits. During that time, colleagues and observers say, Dunlap earned a reputation as a problem solver, an effective legislator and someone who worked well with members of the other party.
“Matt was always known for his wit, his good speaking ability and the quality of being able to laugh at himself,” said Josh Tardy, a former Republican House minority leader who got to know Dunlap on Maine’s reapportionment commission in 2003.
Dunlap said his biggest accomplishments in the Legislature were helping to create the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability and sponsoring legislation to create the Atlantic Salmon Commission and the lifetime hunting license.
Dunlap served on the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee during his four terms, and was its House chairman for three.
Contentious issues that came before the committee included whether game wardens should have police authority, the possible expansion of a coyote-snaring program, and a bear-hunting referendum.
The challenges of the committee were not about partisanship, but about getting people with very strong opinions to agree on solutions — something for which Dunlap had a skill, said George Smith, a former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
Smith described one notable exception, when the alliance was pressing for a bill to extend the hunting day to 15 minutes after sunset. Dunlap vigorously fought the rest of the committee, which supported the change, because he was worried about safety.
Smith then criticized Dunlap in a magazine article, citing him as an example of how term limits produced committee leaders who didn’t know how to do their jobs properly.
A rift between the men followed. But after he saw that the change did not lead to problems, Dunlap sponsored a bill to further extend twilight hunting, by another 15 minutes.
“He recognized he was wrong,” said Smith, who is a columnist for MaineToday Media’s Central Maine Newspapers. “That really showed me growth and leadership.”
Dunlap was Maine’s secretary of state from 2004 to 2011, a time that included the controversy over driver’s licenses and the federal Real ID Act. Dunlap’s opposition to the federal regulations as overly sweeping and intrusive earned him an award from the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
During his tenure, Dunlap was at the center of a dispute over the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
Proponents of the spending cap had submitted petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office to get the measure on the 2006 ballot. One bundle of petitions was inadvertently left behind in a car and was not turned in until the morning of the next business day, a Monday.
Dunlap decided to accept the last bundle, which provided enough valid signatures to put the measure on the ballot. He said he believed that the relevant state law intended to guarantee that petitions were legitimate, and he was sure that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights petitions were.
His decision angered fellow Democrats. The issue ended up in the courts, where a judge found that Dunlap shouldn’t have accepted the petitions. The state supreme court later overturned the lower court’s decision.
“A lot of people disagreed with what I did at the time. I still think it was the right thing to do,” Dunlap said. “I thought the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was terrible policy, but that wasn’t the question.”
When he appeared before members of the Maine League of Young Voters during this campaign, Dunlap exhibited clarity, friendliness and competency, said Nicola Wells, the organization’s state director.
“Matt really felt like that right mix of vision and experience, and kind of reaching for ideals and values we really care about — particularly things like civil liberties and other progressive issues – and he was also very practical about those proposals,” she said.
The group’s endorsement of Dunlap, however, expressed reservations about his membership in the National Rifle Association. Wells said members have heard him contextualize it as a civil liberty.
L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College, described Dunlap as “a solid guy” who is respected in the Legislature. But Dunlap hasn’t raised enough money to make an impression on the state, Maisel said.
Dunlap raised $26,126 in the quarter ending March 31, bringing his total fundraising to $82,201.
Maisel said the Dunlap campaign is “nearly invisible” and not likely to get much help from the national party, given the entry of Angus King as a strong independent candidate.
“Unless at least one Democrat or Republican demonstrates during the primary season that they’re going to be someone to contend with, the national (Democratic) party is going to take a walk on this campaign.”
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: