Another in a weekly series on what Mainers across the state say about the race for the White House – and what they want from the next president.
MILLINOCKET – There’s a verse in the Bruce Springsteen song “My Hometown” that could have been written about Millinocket:
“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.”
Few Maine towns have been hit harder by job losses than Millinocket and its sister community East Millinocket. Not one, but two mills have closed in the past four years, though one is back operating on a limited scale. Before the mill in East Millinocket reopened last year with a work force of 215, unemployment was more than 20 percent in the Katahdin region.
Locals laugh that the town was saved by soft porn. The mill made national news last week for producing 5,000 tons of paper this summer that Random House used to publish the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series of erotic novels. There’s talk of the other mill coming back if things fall into place.
Greg Friel isn’t holding his breath. “It’s not coming back,” said Friel, a 50-year-old school teacher who was born and raised here, and hopes to stay here to raise his children, 8 and 11.
The mills provided a good life for a lot of people for many years. The jobs kept people in their homes, which boosted tax revenues and helped pay Friel’s teaching salary.
But those days are over. More than 400 homes are vacant, dropping property values for those that remain occupied. The median household income is about $10,000 below the state average.
Up here in the Maine woods, the presidential election is about the dignity of the working class.
This town may be down, Friel said. But it is not out. Pride runs deep.
Friel voted for John McCain in 2008, and is leaning toward Barack Obama in November. The president, he said, has done nothing to deserve being booted from office. More important, Friel believes that Obama better understands the struggles of this town and the people who live here, and his policies offer the best hope for Millinocket’s comeback.
“Romney is more for the big-business guys,” said Friel.
He used to think he did pretty well for himself, and considered himself firmly middle class — until Romney told him that the middle-class is defined by a household income starting at $200,000.
“I guess I am now living in poverty,” he said.
Friel also works as a Registered Maine Guide. He takes folks fly-fishing on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Increasingly, people hire Friel to lead hikes through Baxter State Park so they can photograph wildlife.
“A lot of times we take for granted what we have up here,” he said over after-dinner coffee at the Appalachian Trail Cafe. “People from away cherish what we have up here.”
Tourism and the services that support tourism represent the best hope for Millinocket going forward, he said, noting that the cafe where he was having coffee caters to hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
The future of this town, he said, are places like this cafe, and not the mill.
Marsha Donahue is part of that future. A Pittsfield native, she moved to Millinocket from Portland seven years ago with her husband. They wanted to live in a rural community, and opened the North Light Gallery in the heart of downtown because they believed in Millinocket.
A watercolor painter, she keeps her studio in the back of the gallery.
Everyone told her she was crazy, and predicted the quick demise of her business. Seven years later, she thinks she might have turned the corner. She survived the recession, and this summer was her best ever.
Donahue is voting for Obama. The motivation for her vote is simple: As a small-business owner struggling to stay in business, she cannot afford health insurance. She has not had health insurance since she opened the gallery, and at age 62 is three years away from qualifying for Medicare.
Obama’s health care plan offers her hope.
She worries that the country is splintering along class lines, and fears that a Romney presidency would add to that division.
Like Friel, Donohue was deeply offended by Romney’s assessment of the middle class as having a household income of $200,000. With one comment, he insulted an entire town, she said.
“Egads, we cannot even begin to approach that number. That means we are the lower class now. It’s demeaning and deflating,” she said. “I think of me and my business as contributing. It rocks your foundation a little bit.”
Jared McLaughlin has a different view.
McLaughlin, 33, helped put up a display in a vacant downtown storefront last week advocating for a conservative slate of candidates at the local and state levels. McLaughlin, who works in the health care business, included his phone number in the window display, urging people to call if they wanted more information about conservative politics.
McLaughlin is a Ron Paul guy all the way, and remains uncommitted to Romney.
“Mitt Romney is going to have to earn my vote,” he said. “I will never be tricked into thinking I don’t have a choice. … We don’t need to get behind Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney needs to get behind us.”
He agrees with Romney on a few issues: Lowering taxes and reducing regulations and the size of government. Those issues may be enough for McLaughlin to support Romney, but McLaughlin wants to hear more from the Republican candidate before he pledges his support.
He is certain not to vote for Obama. McLaughlin espouses the theory that big government is the source of nearly all ills afflicting the country right now, including job losses. He cites the mills in Millinocket as an example. Those jobs went overseas because taxes and government regulations made it impossible for the mills to compete globally, he said.
“The jobs have been destroyed by big government,” he said.
In this election, he says, “Everything is at stake … Liberty, our freedom. The government cannot give you anything that it does not first take from you. The battle between big government vs. small government means absolutely everything to the future of this country.”
He believes it is permissible for government to provide basic services — police and fire protection, primarily. Anything else should fall to the private sector.
Lowering taxes is the key to economic growth, McLaughlin said. He believes it’s entirely possible for the mills in Millinocket to return to full capacity.
“Abso-freaking-lutely,” he said. “We have the best engineers (and) the most motivated people. … The mills are coming back. They have to come back. The only thing getting in the way is people telling you how to run your business.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: