WASHINGTON – On Monday, hundreds of thousands of spectators from across the nation will gather within sight of the U.S. Capitol to watch President Obama take the oath of office.
But for several hours Sunday afternoon, it was all about Maine — Maine politics, Maine seafood, even Maine blueberry-vodka cocktails — in one tiny corner of Washington.
About 450 people gathered on a spring-like day for a “Luncheon to Celebrate the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.” The luncheon was co-hosted by the Maine-based law firm Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios and the New Zealand embassy.
It was actually the second such event organized at the New Zealand embassy by Preti Flaherty, a well-connected firm whose attorneys are easily found in the hallways and committee rooms in Augusta. And like the first 2009 inaugural party, the guest list for Sunday’s invitation-only event read like a who’s who of Maine politics, past and present.
Former Maine Sen. William Hathaway — now in his upper 80s — talked with newly elected Sen. Angus King, who got his first taste of national politics in the 1970s as a staffer in Hathaway’s Washington office. The other three members of Maine’s congressional delegation — Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud — also were there.
Former Govs. John Baldacci and Joseph Brennan, both Democrats, sipped beverages and posed for pictures, while former and once-again Maine Attorney General Janet Mills circulated the room with her young grandson. Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, was there with his wife, as were a host of other Maine legislators primarily from the political left.
Maine is a small state — population-wise, at least — and its political scene is relatively close-knit, so Sunday’s inaugural party had a laid-back feel that seemed to fit its “luncheon” label. But it also was an opportunity for business and nonprofit leaders who made Preti Flaherty’s guest list.
“Having all of these people in one place is wonderful for networking,” said Claude Rwaganje, whose Portland-based nonprofit, Community Financial Literacy, works with immigrant populations in Maine.
Attendees mingled inside the embassy’s airy, wood-framed great room or wandered outside under blue skies and temperatures edging into the 60s. The menu included a host of Maine-sourced seafood selections — crabcake balls, lobster chowder, smoked salmon on a stick — as well as cocktails made from Maine wild blueberries and Cold River Vodka from Freeport.
Like the guest list, the Maine-New Zealand connection originates at Preti Flaherty. Firm attorney Simon Leeming also serves as one of New Zealand’s honorary consuls to New England.
“This is my first inauguration and it is extremely moving to see this enormous celebration about everything that is good about democracy, everything about America that the world admires and looks up to and aspires to,” said New Zealand Ambassador Mike Moore.
Severin Beliveau, one of the partners, said this year’s event was expanded to include New Hampshire and Vermont. New Hampshire Gov. Margaret Hassan, members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were also in attendance.
Beliveau has deep connections in Maine’s Democratic circles, and his son, Emmett, who headed Obama’s inaugural committee in 2008-09, now holds a senior staff position within the White House. Beliveau said the best thing about Sunday’s event was that it had “no agenda.” But that doesn’t mean it was without politics and policy discussions.
Among the invited guests and speakers was U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who serves as Obama’s trade ambassador. Kirk is currently negotiating a new free-trade agreement — known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — between the U.S., New Zealand and more than a half-dozen other Pacific nations.
Maine’s congressional delegation has raised serious concerns about how the elimination of tariffs on footwear under the trade partnership could affect New Balance’s factories in Maine. During remarks, Kirk acknowledged that he and Michaud do not always see eye-to-eye on free-trade issues, but said the two men have been able to work closely together to achieve more balance on trade.
He said that during inauguration events, “we can set aside what may seem to be issues that divide us and come together around what unites us. And that’s what’s special about this weekend as Americans. Our inauguration is a time to lay down our political swords and celebrate how blessed we are.”
GOP Gov. Paul LePage was a notable absence, as were recently retired Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and her husband, former Maine Gov. John McKernan.
But there were more than a few Republicans in the crowd. They included Charlie Summers, the former Maine secretary of state who ran against King in last year’s Senate race, and the Rosens: former state Rep. Kim Rosen, R-Bucksport, and her husband, former state Sen. Richard Rosen, who is now LePage’s director of the Office of Policy and Management.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at:
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