Monday, December 9, 2013
AUGUSTA — The personal journeys of Justin Alfond and Mark Eves are so divergent that it may be difficult to imagine how their paths could ever intersect.
On Wednesday, they will.
In ceremonial proceedings at the State House, Alfond, an heir of one of Maine’s most successful businessmen and philanthropists, and Eves, son of a military chaplain and school teacher, will be elected as the leaders of the Legislature.
Alfond, the incoming Senate president, and Eves, the speaker of the House, will oversee a new Democratic majority that was swept into power by voters in November.
The election was viewed by progressives as a sign of a Democratic resurgence after the losses of 2010. Whether that becomes reality could depend on Alfond and Eves, who could lift the party with a successful policy agenda.
More important to Mainers is that the two will play a significant role in determining whether lawmakers accomplish anything over the next two years.
Many observers are predicting gridlock. Alfond and Eves argue that the outcome isn’t predetermined.
Alfond said the Democrats’ two years in the minority has been a wake-up call.
“I think we have a much better appreciation of being in (the minority),” he said. “We have a greater respect and appreciation for our own values as a party, but we also know how quickly it can turn if you don’t listen to people. I think we can get a lot done.”
Eves said voters gave lawmakers in both parties a mandate.
“People really voted for balance in Augusta,” he said. “Both sides of the aisle have heard that.”
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the new assistant minority leader, said the two new leaders are saying all the right things but have a tricky task ahead.
“They have the majority but have to work with a governor from the opposite party,” Katz said. “There’s a unique opportunity to collaborate with the Republicans in the Legislature and work together. There’s also the chance that we could all screw it up.”
Both outcomes hinge on many individuals who wield power in Augusta, not the least of whom is Gov. Paul LePage. The Republican governor has had his share of conflicts with Republicans and Democrats, most notably, with Alfond.
Alfond, 37, and Eves, 35, may seem young to hold the second- and third-most powerful positions in state government. But they’re not the youngest.
In 1933, Nathan Clifford was 29 when he was elected speaker of the House. He served with Senate President Francis Ormond Jonathan Smith, 26.
Alfond and Eves first ran for the Legislature in 2008. With the state’s term limits, they could serve in their leadership positions for four years, if they don’t pursue other offices and the Democrats hold their majorities in 2014.
That Alfond and Eves are in the same position, weighing the same prospective political paths, belies the different routes they took to get there.
BY WAY OF DEXTER
Drivers who take Route 7 into Dexter may notice the sign designating the road the Harold Alfond Memorial Highway. From 1956 to 2001, one didn’t need the sign to recognize Harold Alfond’s presence here.
That’s still the case.
Alfond, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, bought the Dexter woolen mill and converted it into a shoe factory. Dexter Shoe became the lifeblood of the community. It was for several decades, until 1993, when Harold Alfond sold the factory and its subsidiaries to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for $433 million worth of premium stock holdings.
The stock turned out to be a win for Alfond, the factory a loss for Buffett. Berkshire ended shoe production in 2001.
Justin Alfond never worked at Dexter Shoe, but many in his family did, including his father, Bill Alfond.
Ted Dube, who lives next to the Alfonds’ old house on Acadia Street, was a manager at Dexter Shoe. He said Harold Alfond instructed managers to give his family members the “worst jobs” in the factory.
Dube said that was consistent with the Alfond family credo.
“The Alfonds didn’t just run a business here, they were involved in the community,” Dube said. “Their kids were no different than any of the other kids. They were brought up just like any of the other Dexter kids. And they were one of the Dexter kids.”
Justin Alfond moved to Dexter when he was in second grade and went to public schools there until he was a sophomore in high school. He was a gifted athlete, particularly in basketball, and eventually in golf.
During a recent visit, Justin Alfond dropped by the basketball court where his playing days began. It’s on the second floor of the town hall.
Tiles are missing from the ceiling, but the court, which doubles as a roller-skating rink, is in decent shape.
The image of Alfond at the basketball court, and the one conveyed by the close friends and mentors from Dexter he gathered for the visit, contrasts with the image that follows him today.
Alfond is better known for ending up at a private school, the renowned Noble and Greenough in Dedham, Mass. He later attended Tulane University in New Orleans before making a run at becoming a professional golfer.
Today, he lives on Munjoy Hill in Portland with his wife, Rachael, who grew up in Garland, the small town next to Dexter. They didn’t meet until Alfond started the Maine chapter of the League of Young Voters in 2004.
“At our wedding toast, Justin’s father said he’d traveled around the world only to end up with the girl next door,” Rachael said.
The couple have a 1-year-old son, Jacoby.
Alfond is a real estate developer. It’s an interesting career choice, given that his first venture, to build a seasonal recreation facility near his grandfather’s golf course in Belgrade, was rejected three times by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Alfond scuttled the project and started the League of Young Voters six months later. It was the beginning of his political career.
In 2010, he and Charlie Mitchell opened Bayside Bowl on Alder Street in Portland. The bowling alley is a success and its clientele sometimes reflects its owners’ political leanings. On any given night, one can spot Democratic activists gathering over craft beers.
Alfond’s life in Portland and his access to family wealth have publicly defined him. But Alfond said his real values were established in Dexter, and by a family that valued small-town living and community engagement.
It began with his grandfather, he said. During family gatherings at the cottage, Harold Alfond would knock on bedroom doors with a golf club to make sure everyone was awake by 7:30 a.m. The grandchildren were put to work.
“He’d send us out to stack wood, rake leaves,” Alfond said. “We used to pick weeds out of the lake. He’d give us a penny for each one.”
It’s that experience, he said, that checked any feelings that may have come from his family’s wealth.
“My parents would not give us one ounce of leeway that we were better or different or anything,” he said. “I think the world of them for that. I’ve been in places where you see young people, or even adults, that feel entitled. ... That just wasn’t the way I was brought up.”
FAITH AND FOUNDATIONS
The small wind turbine atop Mark Eves’ house in North Berwick doesn’t work, but the solar panels do. Outside is a large pile of split wood.
The next speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives hasn’t had time to stack it.
There are no televisions in the Eves house. But there are children, Elaina, 7, Lucas, 5, and Naomi, 3.
All want Eves’ attention, Lucas perhaps more than the others. He climbs up his father and grabs his cheeks.
The family moved to Maine nearly 10 years ago from Louisville, Ky. Eves and his wife, Laura, met at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where both were pursuing master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy.
A degree from a seminary school was a deliberate choice. Eves’ father, Arthur, was a military chaplain who served in World War II and the Korean War. Eves, one of seven children, grew up in a family of faith.
He and Laura still go to church.
“For us, going to church isn’t so much about doctrine or a dogma that you have to believe in,” Eves said. “We want to give the kids a foundation and then they can decide. That’s how I was raised.”
Eves was born in northern California and his family moved to Oregon when he was three months old. The family lived in Oregon for five years, until Arthur Eves took the family to Italy so that he could train to become a Montessori teacher.
Arthur Eves later moved the family to Arizona.
“My parents wanted to make sure we had an experience that was a little more culturally diverse,” Eves said. “In Oregon, it was very homogenous. ... They felt it was important to expose us to new things.”
The largest, most formative segment of Eves’ youth was Louisville, where the family moved when Mark was 11. The impetus for the move was simple: Mark’s grandfather had recently died from cancer; his grandmother needed
The family moved in. Mark quickly noticed the lifestyle change. His parents were not poor, but not close to wealthy.
“We lived off my dad’s military pension for the most part,” Eves said. “My parents were very conscious of their money. My mom tells stories about how many people she could feed on mac-n-cheese and peanut butter and jelly.”
The move into his grandmother’s home offered new amenities, first and foremost a television. His parents had a TV in Oregon, but it broke early on. They never saw the value of fixing it or buying a new one.
Eves met Laura when he was 25.
“We fell in love over the books,” he joked. They were married within a year.
“I often take awhile to come to things, but once I do, I’m really sure of them,” he said. “I really go for it.”
It was the same with politics, for Eves and Alfond.
After settling in North Berwick about 10 years ago, Eves practiced family therapy in the area. He’s now the director of business development for Sweetser and continues to see clients.
Eves said he was always interested in politics because of his parents. Both are proud Democrats. Eves’ mother, Jo Ann, was a precinct leader in high school for Richard Nixon.
“That was her dark side,” Eves joked. “She said that was the last campaign.”
Eves’ first campaign came in 2008. He was recruited by the Democratic Party after leading the area’s presidential caucus. He defeated Republican Rep. Bonnie Gould.
Eves served on the Health and Human Services Committee and learned the ropes of being effective in the Legislature. He was a quick study.
By 2010, he was eyeing a leadership role in the House. He pulled back after the Democrats lost control of the chamber. The move turned out serendipitous.
Eves became the Democratic lead on the Health and Human Services Committee, which was a flashpoint in a legislative session marked by contentious cuts to Medicaid and welfare benefits.
Eves is credited with negotiating provisions in the state’s two-year budget that preserved funding for some of those programs.
He’s the consummate gentleman,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the new assistant minority leader, who worked closely with Eves during the 2011 budget negotiations. “He is also a vigorous advocate for his positions.
He does it in a very civil way and he understands the necessity of compromise. He’s very effective.”
Eves said his family therapy skills have translated into legislative deal-making.
“You have to be able to tell people where you stand yet get the other person to come back,” he said.
Alfond took a different path in 2010. As the assistant minority leader, the young senator was often the point man for responding to LePage’s controversial statements and policy initiatives.
Alfond rarely appeared reluctant to offer sharp-tongued rebuttals. Meanwhile, he led the Democratic resistance in the Senate and on the Education Committee, where several of the governor’s coveted education reforms failed.
Alfond also proved to be a prolific fundraiser, during his party’s attempt to rally from 2010 electoral defeats. His leadership political action committee, Alfond Business Community & Democracy, spent over $109,000 to help Democratic lawmakers get elected.
By contrast, Eves’ leadership PAC spent $17,650 on behalf of Democratic candidates.
Alfond’s activities have not gone unnoticed by his opponents. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney declined to comment about Alfond’s ability to guide the Senate for the next two years.
Courtney, who likes Alfond personally, didn’t have to comment. Alfond’s reputation, at least among some Republicans, is that he’s stridently partisan, unwilling to compromise.
But Katz said that becoming Senate president or House speaker can defang a politician.
Katz said the leaders’ personal beliefs can take a back seat to the will of the caucus.
“You have to stay above the fray,” Katz said. “You can’t be as much of a free agent as much as individual members can.”
Alfond appears to understand his new role. He has reached out to Republicans across the spectrum. He offered to buy Portland radio talk show host Mike Violette a drink. Violette, who has called Alfond a “trust fund kid,” hasn’t yet taken up Alfond’s offer.
Neither has LePage.
A HISTORY OF CONFLICT
Despite vowing to hit “reset” with Gov. Paul LePage after two acrimonious years in the minority, the incoming Democratic leaders can’t seem to get a meeting with the governor.
The three have a history.
Alfond and Eves have been vociferous critics of the governor. The mild-mannered Eves would appear to have a good chance to mend fences.
But Eves’ demeanor belies a belief in the policies he defends. During his nomination speech in November, Eves said LePage’s “extreme, ideological agenda does not represent my family’s values or the values of Maine people.”
And then there’s Alfond.
It’s difficult to evaluate his relationship with LePage without mentioning the comment that has defined it: “Spoiled brat.”
That’s how the governor described Alfond earlier this year during a radio interview on WGAN. To Alfond, it wasn’t a political attack, it was personal. The subtext was that Alfond would be insignificant if not for the legacy and fortune of his grandfather.
Justin Alfond demanded an apology. None came.
Alfond says he’s over it, ready to work with LePage. Many observers doubt that will happen, but as Katz noted, “anyone who says they know what can happen this session is making it up.”
For Alfond, Eves and LePage, the options are make-up break-up. Alfond said the latter is a last resort.
“The people of Maine don’t want Augusta to turn into the kind of politics they see in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I think we saw this election year that they’re angry about what’s happening down there and thankful that it hasn’t happened here yet.”
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:
Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick
John Ewing / Staff Photographer
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland
John Ewing / Staff Photographer
click image to enlarge
Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and his family
John Ewing / Staff Photographer