Ninth in a series profiling the candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.
Jon Hinck was 24 and out of work in Seattle when a newspaper help-wanted ad caught his attention: “Sell advertising for a good cause.”
The good cause was Greenpeace, a controversial environmental group that had emerged in the 1970s from anti-nuclear protests and the peace movement.
Despite his misgivings about joining what he believed to be a radical group, Hinck began selling ads for its magazine, the Greenpeace Chronicle. He soon began writing articles about some of the group’s environmental causes, such as stopping the dumping of nuclear waste at sea and the use of toxic herbicides to kill Eurasian milfoil in lakes.
His creative ideas — including posting official-looking pollution warning signs at local lakes — earned him a full-time job as the campaign director for Greenpeace Seattle. Two years later, after local Greenpeace chapters merged and created Greenpeace USA, Hinck became the group’s national campaign director.
He says his involvement with Greenpeace changed his life.
It set him on a path that led to the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, the Republic of Palau — where as acting attorney general he litigated a series of cases that led to the Pacific island nation’s sovereignty in 1994 — the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a legal career focusing on cases representing multiple plaintiffs, the Maine House of Representatives and, now, his Democratic candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
Even when he was working for Greenpeace, Hinck said, he recognized that his association with the attention-seeking environmental group could hurt any future career in mainstream politics. But he said he is proud of the group’s accomplishments — including an international agreement in 1993 that banned ocean dumping of radioactive waste. Moreover, it would be dishonest for him to downplay a part of his life that was so important to him, he said.
“I found it very satisfying to be making a living and pushing for positive changes in public policy,” Hinck said of his Greenpeace experience. “It hit me that it might be the way I could go on making a living and getting something worthwhile done.”
His opponents in the June 12 Democratic primary are state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, former Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and Benjamin Pollard.
Hinck has represented state House District 118 in Portland since 2006, when he defeated the incumbent, John Eder, a Green Independent Party leader, by 61 votes.
Hinck describes himself in his campaign literature as a “dynamic progressive leader” and a “champion for working people.”
He said he would be the best Democrat to take on former Gov. Angus King, an independent, in the general election because his background and positions are more aligned with working people.
Hinck grew up in Libertycorner, N.J., a township of about 250 people in the northwestern part of the state, a rural area on the outskirts of metropolitan New York City. His father, a management consultant who commuted by train to the city, lost his job when Hinck was in high school, and didn’t find another job for several years.
To pay his tuition at the University of Pennsylvania, Hinck drove a cab in Philadelphia and worked in a machine shop during the summer.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and history, he taught English in Iran for two semesters and traveled extensively in Afghanistan.
Today, he lives a comfortable life in Portland’s West End. He and his wife, Juliet Browne, are lawyers. Still, the experience of seeing his father out of work and his own work experience in his 20s affect Hinck’s views on policy.
“The thing I completely understand from a number of years in my own life is that most people are struggling to get by,” he said. “There are too few jobs that give people a living wage and benefits.”
His support for universal health care, along the lines of “Medicaid for all,” puts him to the left of many in his own party, including President Obama. He protested the war in Iraq from the start, at a time when many Democrats in Congress were hesitant to oppose the Bush administration. His voting record in the Maine Legislature is more liberal than Dill’s or Dunlap’s, according to scores by the AFL-CIO, Maine Conservation Voters and the Maine Economic Research Institute.
In the Legislature, Hinck is best known for his support of energy efficiency and alternative energy, including wind power. He was the House chair of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee during the session of 2009-10.
Some critics say Hinck has a conflict of interest because his wife, who works at the Verrill Dana law firm, is the leading attorney in Maine helping companies obtain permits for wind turbines.
But Hinck said “destructive” forms of energy, including nuclear power and fossil fuels, concerned him long before he met his wife in law school. He said wind energy — like other forms of energy — should pay its own way and not force costs onto others, including taxpayers.
At the start of the legislative session, Hinck was viewed as a “hard-charging” lawmaker who would find compromise difficult, but he learned how to listen and build consensus, said Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who was the Senate chair of the energy committee.
Those skills would serve Hinck well in the U.S. Senate, said Hobbins, who is not supporting any Democrat in the primary.
Chris O’Neil, an anti-wind lobbyist, said Hinck is bright and thoughtful but not so remarkable that voters should elect him to the U.S. Senate.
“I don’t think he brings to the U.S. Senate the skill set, experience and aptitude that Maine voters should expect in their senator,” said O’Neil, a former Democratic lawmaker who is supporting Dunlap in the primary.
It is Hobbins, not Hinck, who deserves credit for building consensus with Republicans on the committee, said Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, the current House chair of the committee.
With Hinck in the general election, Democrats would have a liberal candidate who is not well-known outside his political base in Portland, Thibodeau said. “I’d be surprised if the folks up and down my street would know who Hinck was,” he said.
But Brownie Carson, the retired executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Hinck has the commitment and the talent to be a national leader on environmental issues, similar to former Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie.
“He would work hard like Muskie worked hard,” Carson said.
Tony Buxton, a Portland attorney who lobbies for industrial energy consumers, said he donated $500 to Hinck’s campaign because he’s impressed with his intellect and his resume, including his work as an environmental activist and a tort attorney.
In 1998, working with Lewis Saul & Associates, Hinck filed the nation’s first statewide case against oil companies over groundwater contamination caused by the gasoline additive MTBE.
“He has a wealth of unusual experiences that most people don’t know about it,” said Buxton, a Democrat. “The Greenpeace stuff shows he’s not afraid of taking a difficult stand.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: