Friday, March 7, 2014
I have two words for Republicans who wonder, in the wake of last week's shellacking at the polls, what Maine's resurgent Democrats have that they don't:
Craig Hickman will represent Winthrop and Readfield in the Maine House of Representatives.
Kennebec Journal photo
He's an organic farmer who's more than happy to give away as much as a quarter of the food that he and his partner, Jop Blom, raise on their 25-acre piece of "heaven" right in the heart of central Maine.
And, oh yes, one more thing. For the next two years, Hickman, 45, will represent his hometown of Winthrop and neighboring Readfield in the Maine House of Representatives.
"A friend of mine says I am a walking improbability," Hickman mused during a break from Thursday's orientation at the State House for rookie lawmakers. "I like to just think that I have faith in people. I've always had faith in people."
It appears to be mutual: In the race to replace Rep. Patrick Flood, a popular Republican who was prevented by term limits from seeking re-election, Hickman beat Republican Scott Davis, 59 percent to 41 percent.
That, no doubt, is big news around the coffee counters of Winthrop and Readfield. At the same time, far beyond House District 82, Hickman's victory speaks volumes about the strikingly different trajectories of Maine's two major political parties.
On the rise, we see a Democratic Party that finds strength in the diversity of its members -- not to mention its candidates.
In total tailspin, we see a Republican Party led by soon-to-be-ex-Chairman Charlie Webster and his visions of "hundreds" of mysterious "black people" stuffing ballot boxes in rural communities where nobody knew their names.
Black strangers sneaking around rural Maine's polling places? Care to comment, Rep.-elect Hickman?
"I tend not to pay attention to nonsense," Hickman replied tactfully. "That's just me."
Let's set Webster aside for the moment -- or maybe forever. Here's what the good citizens of Winthrop and Readfield -- and all of Maine, for that matter -- get in Hickman.
He grew up in Milwaukee, the adopted son of a Tuskegee airman and a mother who took in countless "throwaway girls" with no place else to go for a warm meal or a clean set of clothes.
He earned a bachelor's degree with honors in government from Harvard. He wrote a book, "Fumbling Toward Divinity," about his successful search for his birth parents.
He's a chef, an actor and a rabid tennis fan -- his blog, Craig Hickman's Tennis Blog, has been rated among the top 10 independent sports blogs in the country.
Hickman and Blom sold their house in Boston in 2002 and moved to Maine, where they now own and operate the Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast and Organic Farm Stand just 10 miles west of Augusta.
And here's the best part: Even as all those black strangers lurk in at least one Maine Republican's nightmares, everybody knows this guy's name.
Hickman is president of the Rotary Club of the Winthrop Area. He has served on the boards of the Annabessacook Lake Improvement Association, the Theater at Monmouth and the Washburn Norlands Living History Center.
When the Winthrop Food Pantry hit hard times a few years ago, Hickman put out the word that there was free food for all who needed it at the farm stand in front of his home.
When the Winthrop Hot Meals Kitchen similarly lost its financial balance, Hickman volunteered to cook hot meals to go out of his kitchen every Wednesday until the soup kitchen could get back on its feet.
Hickman actually began thinking about running for public office out of annoyance with "regulators coming to my farm and telling me what I could do and could not do." (Turns out he's a Democrat by enrollment but a "libertarian in spirit.")
Still, it wasn't until he went to the State House in 2008 to watch Maine's four electors vote for Barack Obama that Hickman's political ambitions took root.
Gerald Talbot of Portland, who became the first African American elected to Maine's Legislature way back in 1972, nudged Hickman that day, pointed out at the House chamber and said, "One of these days, you're going to be sitting in one of those chairs."
Back in 2010, sprouting a head full of dreadlocks, Hickman ran against incumbent Flood and lost with just under 40 percent of the vote.
Two years later, the dreads are long gone. And just as Talbot predicted, one of those seats soon will have Hickman's nameplate in front of it.
(Hickman is also one of Maine's presidential electors this time -- he ran for and won the honor at the state Democratic convention in June.)
So what was it like for a gay, black farmer to knock on doors in one of the nation's whitest states and ask for people's votes?
"I guess I just did it with determination and fortitude and authenticity," Hickman replied. "If you talk to people long enough, you find common ground."
Take the woman who wanted nothing to do with Hickman one day as he pulled into her driveway.
"Then can I at least leave you this information?" he persisted, reaching for a campaign flier. "I'm running to be your state representative."
The woman stopped dead in her tracks.
"You're doing what?" she asked incredulously.
"I'm running to be your state representative."
The woman burst into laughter.
"Oh my God," she said. "That's the best thing I've ever heard!"
Recalled Hickman, "Then we talked ..."
His politics begin and end with food -- so many problems, Hickman maintains, stem from the fact that too many people lack access to affordable nutrition.
"I've been preaching that forever," he said. "And it finally caught up to me -- it's like the situation caught up with the message."
Thus he's hoping for a seat on the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, although he wouldn't mind Judiciary or Health and Human Services.
But mostly, Hickman's just happy to have won -- and maybe a little stunned that so many of his neighbors saw fit to send him to Augusta. Neighbors who, rather than worry about imaginary black people, had no problem whatsoever electing a real one.
Since last week's election, more than a few folks in District 82 have gone out of their way to tell Hickman how proud they are of him. He tells them all they have it backward -- it is he who is proud of them.
"Because they proved that it doesn't matter what you look like or who you love or how you walk or talk -- it only matters what you do," Hickman said. "And that is a victory for all of us."
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: