Rodney Quinn, an old-school politician who was a force in the Maine Democratic Party for two decades, died Saturday at the age of 89.

Quinn was Maine’s secretary of state for five terms, beginning in 1979. But his biggest accomplishment was getting Democrats elected to the Legislature, said state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who succeeded Quinn as secretary of state.

Without Quinn, Democrats would never have controlled the Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s, Diamond said. In fact, he said, Quinn’s influence in building the modern Democratic Party in Maine was second only to that of Edmund Muskie.

“He carried on where Muskie left off,” Diamond said.

Quinn was House majority whip in the late 1970s under Speaker John Martin. He believed in the value of machine politics and tight party discipline, but he also made deals with Republicans, said Jim Brunelle, who covered the Legislature as a reporter in the late 1960s and early 1970s and later was an editorial writer and political columnist for the Portland Press Herald.

“He knew how to work the system,” Brunelle said. “Sometimes it was kind of sloppy, but it worked, and it worked for the good of the institutions that he belonged to.”

Quinn developed grass-roots campaign techniques that are widely used today by both Democrats and Republicans.

While campaigning door-to-door in Gorham, where he won a House seat in 1974 after two failed efforts, he wrote on postcards the issues that were important to all of the registered voters he had met.

He would end up with about 1,500 postcards. Then, a few days before Election Day, he mailed the postcards to those voters, said Dick Spencer, a Democrat who won a House seat using Quinn’s system.

Spencer said voters were impressed that Quinn could remember their individual concerns.

In the days before computers, Quinn created punch cards that enabled him to quickly retrieve information about individual voters, such as their party affiliation and voting histories.

Quinn set up a sign-making operation in his garage and made signs for Democrats all over the state. After they were elected, the Democrats felt they owed Quinn a favor, Spencer said.

As secretary of state, Quinn issued highly prized low-number license plates to certain Democrats.

For young reformers, some of Quinn’s tactics may seem like “old political boss methods,” Spencer said, but Quinn wanted to build and hold together a Democratic Party that had widely divergent points of view, and he often suppressed his own political views so the party would be more effective.

“He consistently put the interest of the Democratic Party ahead of his own political interests,” he said. “That was, in a way, the key to his success.”

Quinn lived a remarkable life even before he got involved in politics.

He grew up in Gorham, the only child of a single mother who worked as a housekeeper and ran a boarding house for boys attending the Gorham Normal School.

Every day, he was dismissed from school early so he could go home and help his mother mash potatoes and serve the afternoon meal, family members said.

After he graduated from Gorham Normal School, he joined the Army Air Corps. During World War II, he flew with the Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer American pilots who helped China defend against Japanese invaders. During the Korean War, he was the commander of an air transport squadron.

He met his wife, Melba, while he was serving on an air base in Texas. He adopted her 5-year-old son, Roy, and the couple had three daughters, Sharon, Kathleen and Kelly.

During his 27-year military career, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Sacramento State College and a master’s degree in political science at Stanford University.

In 1968, he retired as lieutenant colonel and returned home to Gorham.

He served on the Gorham Town Council for six years before being elected to the Legislature in 1974.

Rodney and Melba Quinn moved to Westbrook a few years ago. In recent years, she had memory problems and he devoted his life to caring for her.

He wouldn’t allow his own to health to fail as long she depended on him, said one of their daughters, Kathleen Gartland of Biddeford. Melba Quinn died Oct. 8 at the age of 90.

On Thursday, when he became ill suddenly with pneumonia, Rodney Quinn turned down treatment and was admitted to the Gosnell Hospice in Scarborough, where Melba died.

“He didn’t want any more fuss,” Gartland said. “He was ready.”

A funeral is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the First Parish Congregational Church in Gorham.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com