EAGLE LAKE — When Derrick Ouellette, 19, was born, John Martin’s hold on the St. John Valley was so firm that he had already served in the Maine Legislature for three decades.
Last Tuesday, casting a ballot in his first election, Ouellette joined the majority of voters in House District 1 in removing Martin from office.
“He’s been king of the St. John Valley,” said Ouellette, who works as a desk clerk at a Fort Kent hotel. “People decided enough of that.”
And so, on a day when Republicans across the state suffered big losses, voters in Aroostook County ended the 48-year political career of one of the state’s most powerful Democrats.
While some here are celebrating, others are nervously imagining the future of this remote corner of the state without a master politician like Martin fighting on its behalf.
No lawmaker in Augusta could match Martin for experience and policy savvy, said Marc Chasse, 74, a retired chiropractor in Fort Kent.
He said lawmakers to the south have long resented the way Martin used his power to bring money and jobs to the region.
He noted that Martin worked to protect the University of Maine Fort Kent from closing, upgrade Route 11 and support Northern Maine General, a social service agency in Eagle Lake, Martin’s hometown.
“Eagle Lake would have been a ghost town without him,” he said.
Lucien Dube, 79, of Eagle Lake, said he was astounded when he learned about Martin’s defeat.
“When a man does a good job, you usually keep him,” he said.
The news of Martin’s loss was stunning, both around the state and here in Eagle Lake. Martin, 71, has served in the Legislature since 1964, the year President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” and the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Maine’s term limits law, enacted by a popular referendum in 1993 partly as a response to Martin’s 19-year tenure as speaker of the House, has made his political stamina even more impressive.
Term limits restrict legislators to four consecutive two-year terms. But Martin remained in office by alternating between the House and Senate.
Martin’s Republican opponent, Mike Nadeau, a political neophyte from Fort Kent, beat him 2,142 votes to 1,854. Nadeau won the majority of votes in the towns of Allagash, Ashland, Fort Kent and Wallagrass. He even beat Martin in Eagle Lake, 248 to 179. Martin won in only one town, St. Francis.
The upset is even more bewildering considering the region has far more registered Democrats than Republicans. In Eagle Lake, for example, more than half of the town’s 609 voters are Democrats, while only 85 are Republicans.
Residents in the St. John Valley are predominantly Franco-American Catholics. While most are Democrats, they’re socially conservative and have become alienated by the Democratic Party’s support of legalized abortion and gay marriage, Republican leaders say. They say Question 1, which legalized same-sex marriage, helped bring more conservatives to the polls and thus defeat Martin. Aroostook Country voted by a 2-1 ratio against Question 1 last Tuesday.
“The Democratic Party is not the party it used to be,” said Camille Bernier Jr., 74, who heads the Republican Party Committee in Frenchville and campaigned for Nadeau. He said he left the Democratic Party 10 years ago because of its stance on social issues. “Same-sex marriage is eroding everything we believe in.”
DEMOCRATS SAY THEY WERE OUTSPENT
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a 12-year incumbent who won re-election Tuesday by a narrow margin — 51 percent to 49 percent — said he doesn’t believe Question 1 had an impact. Rather, he believes Republicans campaigned more aggressively this year and spent more money than they had in the past.
In an interview after his defeat, Martin also blamed his defeat on money that he said was spent heavily on negative campaign ads.
Martin and Nadeau were Clean Election candidates. The state’s Clean Election Act discourages the influence of money in elections by giving qualifying candidates a set amount of public funding for their campaigns. This year, however, outside groups were allowed to spend money on behalf of candidates without the state awarding an equal amount of money to their opponents.
Respect Maine, a political action committee controlled by Rep. Andre Cushing of Hampden, the outgoing assistant House majority leader, spent about $30,000 on five races in Aroostook County, Cushing said, with most of the money spent on trying to unseat Jackson.
On the Nadeau-Martin race, Cushing said, the PAC spent $4,800 on ads in the St. John Valley Times and Fiddlehead Focus. That’s not much money compared to the amount spent in many races downstate, he said.
The PAC also mailed a flier aimed at both Jackson and Martin. It had an image of a stopwatch and the words: “Maine has term limits for a reason.”
MARTIN’S BUSINESS DEALINGS QUESTIONED
Interviews with voters last week in Fort Kent and Eagle Lake revealed little enthusiasm for the theories that the Democratic Party was losing support or had been outspent by Republicans. After all, President Obama, a Democrat, defeated Republican Mitt Romney by a wide margin here.
Rather, voters said they had simply grown weary of the way Martin had come to dominate political life here, and they questioned whether he was using his influence for his own financial advantage.
“He was responsible for his own demise,” said Harold Jackson, 65, of Fort Kent, who serves with Martin on the SAD 27 board.
Jackson said recent newspaper articles about Martin’s business practices had a big impact on people’s opinion about him.
The stories in the St. John Valley Times and Bangor Daily News said that Martin and a business partner were allowed by a federal bankruptcy to buy back their Eagle Lake convenience store and gas station, the Bald Eagle, for $125,000 — less than half of what they owed to creditors, primarily Irving Oil Marketing Inc. of Portsmouth, N.H.
The bankruptcy came to public attention this year during a legislative hearing on a bill Martin sponsored to allow J.D. Irving Co. to mine gold, silver, copper and other metals in Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain.
Martin, who did not return phone calls for this story, has previously said that the allegations of conflict of interest are “false insinuations.”
Officials at J.D. Irving have told the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that there is no legal relationship between its company and Irving Oil, which is the firm that is owed money by Martin’s store.
Both firms are privately held by the Irving family of Canada.
The “gossip” about Martin’s business dealings are based on a misunderstanding about business and bankruptcy, said Raymond Reynold, a former Eagle Lake town manager who now works as CEO of Northern Maine General.
Reynold drove a reporter around town showing what Martin has done for the community over the decades. He said Martin in the 1960s helped keep Northern Maine General open as a long-term care facility and social service agency after a new hospital was built in Fort Kent.
He drove to the wastewater treatment facility and past a health clinic and several housing units for brain-damaged and mentally disabled people. The town has the only therapy pool for disabled people north of Bangor. All of these programs have created jobs, he said.
“A lot of people don’t realize the impact he has had on the lives of people,” Reynold said.
Replacing Martin will be Nadeau, a fiscal and social conservative who owns a landscaping supply business in Fort Kent. Nadeau said Martin hasn’t done enough to revive the region’s historic occupations, logging and farming.
“Yes, there are political giants. He has done great work,” Nadeau said of Martin. “But what has he done to protect jobs that were once here?”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]