AUGUSTA — David Trahan, whose hard-charging style as a Republican lawmaker earned him the nickname “Pitbull,” is bringing that same tenacity to his job as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, an organization that is poised to play a key role on gun control legislation that is moving to the forefront in the Maine Legislature this week.
It’s too early to say exactly how Trahan will influence the debate. Already, he has presented a sharp contrast to his predecessor George Smith, who served as the Sportsman’s Alliance’s public face for 18 years. Smith’s style was as smooth and laid-back as any lobbyist in the State House before he stepped down from SAM in 2010 to focus on a new career as a writer.
The contrast between the two men is even more evident now because they are testifying on the same gun control issues – Trahan as the leader of a group with 8,000 dues-paying members, and Smith as a private citizen.
But while the two men have headed the same organization, Trahan so far has taken a hard-line position opposing more than 20 gun control bills before the Legislature, while Smith has sought to forge a compromise between advocates for gun rights and gun control.
Smith, 64, is telling lawmakers that many gun owners would support a bill that would require background checks for private gun sales, but only if the bill also allowed people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. He said the permits aren’t effective in preventing gun violence.
Smith said he has heard from many gun owners who support the compromise.
“There are plenty of sportsmen in this state who are more reasonable and less heard from and are not as well represented in the state,” Smith said. “I have been kind of speaking for them.”
Trahan, however, said he doubts any of the proposed gun control bills, such as the ban on high-capacity magazines or extending background checks to private sales, will pass. While he says he is always open to talking to anyone, he doesn’t see the need to work with gun-control advocates on any deals.
“I don’t think there will be much we can find in common on new gun control,” he said.
Trahan said Smith’s current political activity has confused some people because of his long association with SAM. Earlier this month, many of the group’s members became angry over a public service announcement in which Smith urged private gun sellers to run background checks on buyers they don’t know.
On television, the ad identified Smith as a former executive director of SAM. But when Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, which paid for the ad, posted it on its website, the video was billed as “George Smith, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Promotes Background Checks.”
In a letter to the Kennebec Journal, Trahan said the sportsman’s group has supported the voluntary application of background checks for private sales in the past.
“Given the current highly charged political debate about gun regulation, however, we think it is important the public understand the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is no longer associated with Smith and his current political actions,” he wrote.
Smith said the Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence mistakenly identified him on the website and that the error was corrected immediately. The ad was produced last fall before gun control became such a big issue.
While people remember him for his work at the helm of SAM, Smith said, he always makes sure people know he’s now speaking on his own behalf.
“It’s that my personal views now are slightly different than SAM’s views,” Smith said. “There is nothing I can do about it. I did the best I could for 18 years and now I have a chance to speak my mind.”
Trahan said he has spent about 90 percent of his advocacy time this session on gun bills. He won his first big victory last week with the passage of L.D. 345, which makes the names of concealed weapon permit holders private. SAM had drafted the language of the bill.
On Friday, he joined a group of jubilant lawmakers in Gov. Paul LePage’s cabinet room to watch the governor sign the bill into law.
After the ceremony, when a reporter asked him to describe how his leadership style differs from Smith’s, Trahan replied: “There are people who go out and work their butts off and get the job done and are not necessarily seeking headlines.”
Smith said running a large and diverse membership organization like SAM is “grinding” particularly in raising enough money to keep it going. Like many nonprofit groups, SAM ran into financial problems during the recession and revenues dried up.
After Smith, there were two other executive directors – Tim Bell, a Florida lobbyist who was removed after only six months on the job, followed by Matt Dunlap, who later stepped down to run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.
By the time Trahan took over, “things were a mess,” Smith said. Asked how he thought Trahan was coping with the job’s challenges, Smith replied, “I think he’s struggling.”
Trahan disagrees. He said he stabilized finances by cutting $60,000 from SAM’s $250,000 operating budget and leasing vacant space in its 6,000-square-foot headquarters, which was built on the outskirts of Augusta in the pre-recession days when the group was flush with money.
The job is not wearing him down, he said. “I grew up doing every type of hunting and fishing there is,” he said. “I mean, it’s stuff I love to do. I love this job.”
On gun rights issues, the group’s long-held opposition to gun control seems more focused and intense under Trahan, said John Hohenwarter, a National Rifle Association lobbyist who works in several states in the Northeast, including Maine.
“I think they have become more active on the issue, which obviously we are pleased to see,” he said.
People noticed the shift when Trahan ran a large photo of LePage holding a concealed weapons permit on the winter issue of its newsletter, SAM News.
“The nation is about to embark on the “greatest threat to our Second Amendment rights of our lifetime,” Trahan wrote in his column, which ran next to the photo. “Law abiding gun owners are not to blame for the action of mad men; we are not the whipping post for anti-gun groups, and we will stand up for ourselves.”
Trahan said the group’s strong defense of gun rights reflects the passion of its members on the issue.
Trahan, 50, a former self-employed logger, served eight years in the House and then three years in the Senate, representing much of Lincoln County. He became executive director of SAM in the summer of 2011.
Since then, the number of dues-paying members has increased by 2,700, with nearly half of that increase taking place since gun control advocates began pushing for regulations in the wake of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last December.
Trahan said members’ attitudes about gun control have hardened in recent years, but the change is more reflective of the national mood rather than anything to do with SAM.
When asked what concealed weapons permits have to do with being a sportsman, he said that defending gun rights has been a primary focus of the group since it was formed in 1975 by an Augusta dentist, Alonzo “Doc” Garcelon, who at the time was second vice president of the National Rifle Association.
At the time, hunting groups in Maine and nationally were outraged over a CBS documentary, “The Guns of Autumn,” narrated by Dan Rather. The special report featured negative images of hunting, such as a scene of black bears being slaughtered at a Michigan garbage dump by tourists with rifles.
At a rally that year in Augusta attended by 250 people, Garcelon said the new group would work to protect hunting and gun owners’ rights at the state level, much as the NRA works on the national level, according to a Kennebec Journal account of the rally.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who has an A-plus rating from the NRA, said that Trahan has a more aggressive style than Smith, but the group’s attitudes on gun control remain unchanged since its founding.
“I don’t see them being the new NRA for Maine,” he said. “I see them as being out there on the issues they have always been.”
Certainly, the group has a very different leader in Trahan, though.
Smith excelled at writing, public speaking and raising money, and developed a deep knowledge of issues related to conservation, hunting and fishing, according to several current and past board members.
Trahan, by contrast, is more comfortable working behind the scenes to build the organization, increase membership and manage the group’s day-to-day affairs.
“I think under David’s leadership, we are strong, more grassroots-oriented and more connected to the individuals who hunt and fish in the state of Maine than we have been in a long time,” said Nick Archer, a board member from Westfield. “His interaction with regular folk has been reflected in the increasing numbers of our membership.”
SAM’s treasurer, Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said he’s impressed by Trahan’s doggedness.
“He just doesn’t quit,” Davis said. “He goes and goes and goes.”
But not all members agree with Trahan’s style. Jim Gorman of Freeport, who had served on the board since 1991 and resigned earlier this month, said Smith was a “tremendous” fundraiser and communicator who helped the group focus on issues.
Gorman said he left the board because he doesn’t agree with its new direction for funding the group, which is to raise revenues by increasing the number of members. He said the approach is not sustainable because the state’s population is too small.
“George was exceptional at what he did,” Gorman said. “David has stepped into a big pair of shoes. He needs time to make the job his own.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at