September 25, 2010

The Franco effect

Politicians have long courted Maine's chief ethnic group, though it doesn't necessarily vote as a bloc.

By Matt Wickenheiser
Staff Writer

From top to bottom, Maine is a state of Cyrs, Pelletiers, Ouellettes and Daigles -- not to mention Michauds, Gagnons, Dumaises and Lausiers.

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“It shouldn’t matter t’all,” said Jerry Roy of Biddeford when asked what role ethnic background has in Maine’s gubernatorial race.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Carol Binette, an office manager at Rubin-Fourtier & LaCourse Agency in Biddeford, said Friday that ethnicity doesn’t factor into her decisions when she votes. “I look at the candidates, I go by the person, the views.”

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The first Great Debate among Maine's candidates for governor is at 8 tonight at the University of Maine at Augusta, sponsored by MaineToday Media, WGME, WGAN, UMA and the UMA Alumni Association. The public is invited to attend the event, which is in Jewett Hall. Watch or listen on WGME 13 or WGAN radio, or  participate in a live chat or follow live updates on this website.

More Mainers identify themselves as having French heritage than any other, according to the latest census data, with 267,000 claiming a Franco background in a state with roughly 1.3 million people.

Though by no means homogenous, the "Franco vote" is courted by politicians, including this year's contenders for the Blaine House. And one candidate -- Republican Paul LePage of Waterville -- puts a spotlight on the Franco vote by dint of his own heritage.

In televised debates, LePage has given parts of opening statements in French. His acceptance speech after he won the GOP primary in June included some "merci beaucoups." And he raised the specter of discrimination that many older Francos have felt when he said this summer that Democratic operatives have suggested he's unfit to be governor because he's a French Catholic -- a claim he failed to substantiate, and which raised an uproar in the campaign.

Adding to the political-demographic brew is the fact that, even though Francos are the largest ethnic group in the state, Maine has not had a Franco governor since the 1800s. The prospect of having a Franco-American governor is an additional factor in this race, said Brent Littlefield, a Maine native who's a political consultant to the LePage campaign.

"That's one more wrinkle to the campaign, (making it) an exciting one for folks that would love to see that happen," he said.

"Paul is very proud of his heritage, he's proud to carry the name LePage. I think he realizes that he shares the feelings of many other Maine people who come from a Franco-American heritage, that it would be great to have a Maine governor that shares those values."

Franco-Americans are tracking closely to the general population in picking a favorite for governor.

In The Maine Poll, a survey done in mid-September by MaineToday Media with the Portland-based polling firm Critical Insights, LePage had 33 percent of the Franco vote. Democrat Libby Mitchell had 31 percent, followed by independents Eliot Cutler with 14 percent, Shawn Moody with 2 percent and Kevin Scott with 1 percent.

Twenty-one percent of Franco-Americans had not made up their minds about a candidate at the time of the poll.

While LePage has openly courted the Franco vote, he hasn't been the only one.

In the Democratic primary, Rosa Scarcelli had a French radio ad that featured a Franco personality who is well known in Lewiston.

In late July, as the French Catholic brouhaha was unfolding, Democrat Libby Mitchell put out a list of roughly 50 Franco community leaders from across the state who were endorsing her. In the release, Mitchell gave a nod toward early Franco immigrants' "strong set of family values, a belief in hard work, and a toughness that has become synonymous with Maine," and noted that in 2008, she had received the highest honor that Augusta's Le Club Calumet bestows on non-Francos.

So is there such a thing as the "Franco vote?"

"One thing we can say with absolute certainty is politicians behave as if there is -- I think they're right on this," said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. "Politicians behave in a certain way because they believe it will appeal to a certain group of people."

As they try to figure out how to win elections, politicians consider issues in terms of what they can do to appeal to certain groups, to build support across groups, said Brewer. In Maine, one of the first groups politicians think about in those terms is the Francos, he said.

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Maryann (LeFlamme) Benedict of Saco said Friday she’s looking for a candidate who will lower taxes and generally “look out for the people.” Her Election Day decisions won’t be based on ethnicity, she said.


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