September 23, 2012

The making of a man without a party

The former governor's view of the world was shaped long before be ran for public office, and will likely continue to inform his choices.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Angus King hosts a Maine Public Television program in 1981.

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram file photo

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JAN. 18, 1995: Newly elected Gov. Angus King bids goodbye to his wife, Mary Herman, as he departs his Brunswick home bound for Augusta. Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel, a Democrat, says King stepped into the role at the right time. “There was a great deal of dissatisfaction with government and partisanship, and Angus then and now had a nonconfrontational nature that was appealing and what the state was looking for,” Maisel says.

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram file photo

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of profiles of the U.S. Senate candidates.

FORGED BY CIVIL RIGHTS

King says his first political awakening came in 1959, during his freshman year of high school, when a federal court forced Hammond to become the second high school in Virginia to integrate. Thirty policemen surrounded the school as federal marshals led Patsy Ragland, 14, and her 13-year-old brother, James, into the school. In the foyer, the two black siblings found themselves standing in silence amid a semicircle of 200 to 300 curious, uncertain white students.

"It was absolutely silent, and nobody knew what to do," recalls King, who was in the crowd. "After this long pause there was a voice saying, 'Excuse me, excuse me,' and it was Mike Vopatek, who was senior class president, captain of the football team, and went on to West Point. He didn't make a speech or anything, he just came up to the Raglands and said, 'Hello, I'm Mike Vopatek, can I help you find your class?'

"That moment could have turned ugly, but that set the tone and defused the moment," he says. "I'm a great believer that we have better and worse angels of our nature. We can be led in either direction, and leadership is so important. People can be moved to be generous and tolerant and all those things, and can also be moved to be hateful."

Alexandria's integration went relatively smoothly. But in other parts of Virginia, segregationists engaged in "massive resistance," with some counties closing all public schools entirely for months and years on end rather than integrate. "That was too much for my dad," King recalls. "To him, public education was the linchpin of democracy, so he became an activist."

King became an activist of a sort himself. While home from Dartmouth in the summer of 1963, he joined the crowds converging on the National Mall to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech. While attending law school at the University of Virginia, he was campus coordinator for Sen. Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign until the candidate was assassinated. He also joined the Legal Aid clinic, which dispatched students to the surrounding countryside to prepare cases for poor, unrepresented clients.

"We were pretty inexperienced, but in this particular area of the South there hadn't been any lawyers actively working on behalf of poor people in any way," says one of King's fellow law students, Michael Fox, now a retired judge in Seattle.

"I remember talking to one local official who said, 'We have some pretty successful policies here, like if somebody has more than three children in this county, we make the women get sterilized to get welfare benefits,'" he says. "My jaw just dropped. Totally illegal, but nobody was there to challenge it."

"Civil rights was an important, formative part of my life, because as Bob Dylan sings, it was all that easy to tell wrong from right, all you had to see was black from white," King recalls. "It was pretty clear: MLK was the good guy and Bull Connor" -- the police chief who turned dogs and firehoses on peaceful marchers in Birmingham, Ala. -- "was the bad guy. There was a kind of moral certainty that young people are always looking for. Only when you get older do you realize that it's more complicated."

IN MAINE: DEBTORS, DOMES

(Continued on page 4)

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CIRCA 1980: Early in his career, King settled in Topsham and was a lawyer in Brunswick.

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram file photo

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NOV. 9, 1994: Accompanied by his wife, Mary Herman, left, and their son Benjamin, then 4, Angus King holds up a copy of the Portland Press Herald on the day after he was elected governor.

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram file photo

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JAN. 13, 1997: Gov. Angus King visits Mount View High School in Thorndike to demonstrate a network to electronically connect all Maine schools and libraries to each other and the Internet. King embraced technology in education, and while in office, he initiated the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, an effort to provide laptops for every public middle-school student in the state. The program was the first of its kind in the nation.

The Associated Press file photo by Robert F. Bukaty

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Born in 1944, King grew up in this brick two-story home in a leafy neighborhood on the slope of Seminary Hill on the outskirts of Alexandria, Va.

Colin Woodard photo

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Angus “Gus” King attended Hammond High School in Alexandria, Va., one of the first in the state to integrate.

Courtesy photo

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King, who was class president in both his junior and senior years, with an unidentified high school classmate.

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King's junior yearbook photo

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