March 2, 2011

Bill Nemitz: Taking stock as chief of Maine conservative think tank suddenly rises to power

By Bill Nemitz

Next Tuesday, a yet-to-be-determined number of Maine legislators will sit down to a private dinner at The Senator Inn in Augusta to talk welfare reform with two very influential players in Maine politics.

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Tarren Bragdon, of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, in 1996 became the youngest state representative elected in Maine, 12 days after he turned 21.

2010 Press Herald file

One is Mary Mayhew, the new commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The other is the evening's host: Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The same Tarren Bragdon who recently served as co-chair of Gov. Paul LePage's transition team.

The same Tarren Bragdon who played a major role in writing LePage's proposed budget for the next two years.

The same Tarren Bragdon who, even at the ripe old age of 35, looks more like a State House intern than a Republican power broker working the levers of state government one minute and issuing far-reaching policy papers the next.

"It's a great opportunity," Bragdon said Tuesday during an hour-long interview in his office in Portland's Old Port (he keeps another in Augusta). "I've been focused on how we can improve the economy in Maine for a long time, and it's great to go from ideas to implementation."

Focused on saving Maine's economy for a "long time?" A guy who graduated from high school in 1993? Where in the name of Robin the Boy Wonder did this baby-faced mover and shaker come from? A thumbnail bio:

Born in 1975, Bragdon grew up in Bangor, where he attended St. John's school and then Bangor Christian Schools. His father is a dentist, and his mother manages the dental practice.

He earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Maine and a master's in business administration from Husson College.

Bragdon made history in 1996 when, just 12 days after his 21st birthday, he ousted three-term incumbent Democrat Hugh Morrison to become the youngest state representative ever elected in Maine.

After two terms in the Legislature, during which he also worked for a child care agency in Bangor, Bragdon spent two years as special assistant to Rick Bennett, then president of the Maine Senate.

He then worked for five years as the Maine Heritage Policy Center's part-time director of health reform initiatives, before taking over as CEO in January of 2008. It's nice work if you can get it – according to the organization's tax filings, Bragdon earned $136,208 in salary and other compensation in 2009.

On the home front, Bragdon lives in China with his wife and four adopted kids – two from Korea, two from Ethiopia.

All of which raises a couple of mystifying questions: How did this personable, articulate, wonkish-if-not-worldly kid go, seemingly overnight, from rising GOP star to arguably the most influential non-elected suit in Augusta?

And, equally important, who's supporting the Maine Heritage Policy Center to the tune of $1 million a year to keep him there?

"It's what I've been doing for my entire adult life," Bragdon said in answer to the first question. "So it's something that you work on, you practice, you read lots of different things – government reports, study programs that are working and are not working, and you compare."

And the money? Might Bragdon enlighten us on exactly where that comes from?

"We are supported by over 1,500 individuals who give us from a couple dollars a year to tens of thousands of dollars a year because they believe in our mission," Bragdon replied.

Care to name a few names?

"No," he said.

Why not? Because they request anonymity?

"It's because they request it," he said. "But also because of political retribution (against) individuals who may choose privately to support our work."

(Continued on page 2)

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