Bill Nemitz – Press Herald Wed, 23 Aug 2017 00:41:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bill Nemitz: Mary Mayhew lacks even a sliver of remorse for chilling DHHS fiasco Sun, 13 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Forget about her incompetence. Mary Mayhew just descended to downright disgusting.

“There is nothing more important than the health and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens,” the former head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, now a Republican candidate for governor, said Thursday in response to a federal audit that should leave all of Maine hanging its head in shame.

The report by the Office of the Inspector General lays out, sometimes in chilling narrative, how 133 of those “most vulnerable citizens” died on Mayhew’s watch.

Yet Mayhew did nothing.

The 77-page audit report, which covers the 2½ years between January of 2013 and June of 2015, also cites a litany of unreported “critical incidents” that befell hundreds of developmentally disabled adults – things like sexual assault, suicidal behavior, injuries requiring hospital treatment …

Yet Mayhew did nothing.

“Therefore, Maine failed to demonstrate that it has a system to ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the 2,640 Medicaid beneficiaries with developmental disabilities,” concluded the audit team.

Mary Mayhew

So how did Mayhew, who jettisoned her job in May to run for the Blaine House, react to this punch to the gut of her fledgling gubernatorial campaign? By doing what she does best:

She blamed those who came before her, calling the scathing report “a reflection of prior administrations and years of explosive entitlement growth prioritizing able-bodied adults at the expense of our most vulnerable.”

Right. It’s all John Baldacci’s and Angus King’s fault.

She boasted how much better things became during her six-year tenure: “Today the department is prioritizing our most vulnerable, there is financial discipline and stability, and a commitment to accountability and quality results.”

Translation: We count dollars, not dead people.

And never, not once, in her 104-word communique did Mayhew apologize or accept so much as a sliver of responsibility for her utter ineptitude atop Maine’s most vital government operation.

“I cleaned up significant problems within the Department,” she huffed, “and prioritized services for our most vulnerable.”

Cleaned up significant problems? Mayhew, who spent all those years perfecting her skills at dodge ball, was the most significant problem.

This is no longer a politician putting lipstick on her prize pig. This is an obscenity.

As is the response that came from DHHS after the release of the audit.

“We are proud that we have successfully made improvements since the audit period,” the department said in a statement under the letterhead of acting Commissioner Ricker Hamilton.

A word of advice for whoever crafted this piece of artful deflection: When a team of federal investigators charge you with routinely ignoring the deaths of people you’re supposed to be keeping safe, simply decency would dictate that you avoid using the word “proud” in your rebuttal.

And if you’re going to toss around the word “vulnerable,” you might at least pause long enough to consider what it truly means.

It means these people are susceptible to harm, that they need protection – and when they don’t get it, they need someone in a position of authority to dig deeply into what happened and why.

What they don’t need are excuses that are as hollow as they are morally repugnant.

“The Department expressed to OIG that this is a complex system with many programs working together to assist and protect a vulnerable population and that the OIG’s approach did not capture all of the necessary data,” read the DHHS statement.

To the contrary, the Office of the Inspector General captured more than enough data to demonstrate that DHHS failed miserably to ensure that all critical incidents were reported, to analyze those reports to see what trends might exist and, most importantly, to use that information to prevent these nightmares from recurring.

As for it all being such a “complex system,” cry me a river.

Yes, enabling Maine’s developmentally disabled citizens to live in the community rather than behind locked doors is a complicated undertaking. We get that.

But using that as a cudgel to attack the messenger isn’t a fair and legitimate response. It’s grasping at straws – a reflex reaction by the entire LePage administration whenever its lofty rhetoric dissolves in a flash flood of cold reality.

One can’t help but wonder how long Mayhew has seen this coming.

When she announced her candidacy for governor two months ago, she took a shot at fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins for supporting the long-overdue expansion of Medicaid, known as MaineCare here.

“We have worked too hard to see all we have done undone,” Mayhew said at the time. “We need bold leadership and someone who is prepared to make difficult decisions in the best interests of this state.”

Perhaps, sometime between now and the Republican primary next June, she might explain those “difficult decisions” to the family of the 57-year-old MaineCare “beneficiary” who went to the dentist for a cleaning and ended up having six teeth extracted.

“One tooth was infected and another was cracked, but the community-based provider did not know why the other four teeth were pulled,” the audit report states. “The dentist did not prescribe antibiotics following the extraction of the infected tooth or provide the beneficiary with gauze to stop the bleeding because of concerns that she might swallow it. The beneficiary aspirated blood from the site of the extracted teeth and was taken to a hospital emergency room with a fever 5 days after the extraction.”

Five days. If it were your family member, Ms. Mayhew, how long would you have waited?

The report continues: “The patient was diagnosed with double pneumonia and sepsis and died in the hospital’s intensive care unit 2 weeks later. The beneficiary’s death was not investigated by the State agency or reviewed by OCME (Office of the Chief Medical Examiner). The (DHHS) Mortality Review Committee reviewed the report but no corrective actions were taken and no preventable causes were identified.”

Meaning nobody bothered to ask how a routine trip to the dentist somehow resulted in what was dismissed by DHHS as death from “complication to illness.” Or how such a tragedy might be prevented in the future.

You won’t hear about that debacle – or eight others like it detailed in the federal audit – in the coming months as the heiress apparent to Gov. Paul LePage traipses around the state congratulating herself for “prioritizing our most vulnerable.”

Neglect, injury and death, after all, don’t play so well on the conservative dog whistle.

So go ahead, Mary Mayhew, keep patting yourself on the back. Run for governor to your heart’s content.

But don’t think for a minute you can hide.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Mon, 14 Aug 2017 13:39:55 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Tuning out the world, tuning in the Little League World Series Thu, 10 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 I admit it. I’m hooked. Try as I might, from day into night, I can’t look away from the big-screen television.

Cable news? Nope – not if it’s August.

Welcome to the Little League World Series.

Every summer around this time, I tune out the politics and mass disasters screaming for my attention up and down the channel guide.

I ignore my overgrown lawn.

While the rest of the world has fun in the sun, I park myself in front of the tube for game … after game … after game …

Why the fixation?

Because when it comes to pure drama, nothing touches these kids, still on the cusp of adolescence, as they chase down their wildest dreams in front of a national TV audience.

You want ecstasy? You got it Tuesday evening when pitcher Aiden Lee of the South Portland American team, Maine’s state champs, got the last hitter to pop up to right-center and thus kept Maine alive in the New England Regionals in Bristol, Connecticut.

(Point of clarification: Tuesday’s game actually was streamed live on ESPN-3, which I called up on my laptop. Like I said, I’m obsessed.)

You want heartbreak? It was etched on the face of the poor opposing pitcher after a passed ball enabled South Portland’s Nolan Hobbs to scamper home with the winning run in the 3-2 squeaker over Cumberland, Rhode Island.

You want grit? Nobody out-hustles South Portland catcher Richie “Big Daddy Hacks” Gilboy, who ran into and through an open gate in the chain link fence behind home plate in pursuit of a foul pop – and then returned to his position with a “What just happened?” smile plastered across his face.

More on the kids from Maine in a minute. First, it turns out I’m not alone.

“I haven’t missed a year,” Paul Pickett, 58, told me Wednesday morning during a short break from his nonstop chimney service business. “I keep telling my wife, I say, ‘One of these years I’m going to go down there and watch it.’ And I will. That’s one of the things on my bucket list.”

Pickett, who now lives in Gray, batted second and played third on the 1971 Augusta East Little League team – one of only three in Maine baseball history that have made it all the way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (The other two were Portland Suburban in 1951 and Westbrook in 2005.)

“It was awesome,” recalled Pickett, who was joined on the roster by his younger brother, Ed “Poochie” Pickett. Their uncle, Charlie Gallant, coached.

“Charlie just forced defense down our throats,” Paul Pickett said. “At practice every day, no lie, each kid would have to take 100 ground balls, and if you missed one, you ran out and got it. And we did that day after day after day. People would call it child abuse if they did it now.”

But it worked.

They marched through the state tournament, in which Pickett remembers hitting an opposite-field triple and scoring on a passed ball to beat Saco, 3-2, in extra innings and keep Augusta’s hopes alive.

They ran circles around the Eastern Regional, fighting back from an 8-6 deficit to beat powerhouse Maryland, 10-8.

And on they went to the big show in Williamsport, where they finally fell to Spain, 5-0.

Back then, ABC televised only the final championship game between Indiana and Taiwan – a far cry from the dozens of games now shown either on cable or online.

But memories? Pickett has tons.

“I remember I first get there and the first thing I see is this kid who looks like a man,” he said.

That would be Lloyd McClendon of Gary, Indiana, who went on to play eight seasons in the majors and manage the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Seattle Mariners. He’s now the hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers.

“I think he swung his bat six or seven times and hit six or seven home runs,” recalled Pickett. “He was just a man among boys. I’ll be damned if I didn’t grow up and follow that name.”

Start to finish, the entire Augusta team felt like royalty.

Despite being knocked out in their first game – unlike today’s double-elimination format, it was “one and done” back in those days – they went to the White House to meet Vice President Spiro Agnew. Then came dinner with Neil Armstrong, who just two years earlier became the first man to set foot on the moon.

But it was the baseball that truly mattered.

“No lie, we had one error in 11 games,” Pickett boasted. “That’s just crazy.”

Back in 1996, almost the entire Augusta team gathered for a 25-year reunion. Two years ago, more than half of them showed up to be inducted, as an entire squad, into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame.

Meaning they haven’t forgotten. If anything, Pickett said, memories of that summer sharpen as the years, and now the decades, fly by.

“I still think of it now and then,” he mused, “Especially at this time of year.”

Which brings us back to our current Maine champs.

It’s a Cinderella story in the making: The entire South Portland American Little League, from which these 11 all-stars were drawn, consists of just 33 players divided among three teams – a far cry from other Maine cities and towns with triple that number.

“So, to compete the way we have and to see these kids doing what they’re doing is pretty incredible,” said Jim Poole, the head coach, in an interview Wednesday from Bristol.

Yet there they are, with a 2-1 record, playing their hearts out to avoid that season-ending second loss.

Things looked bleak Tuesday evening after Rhode Island jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning. But then pitcher Andrew Heffernan drew a deep breath, dialed in a curve ball that both TV commentators christened “nasty,” and shut his opponents down until reliever Lee took over in the fifth.

“That was a super game,” said Poole. “Very exciting for the kids.”

Three more wins and they punch their ticket to Williamsport, starting today at 1 p.m. against Vermont on ESPN.

And if per chance they don’t make it? Life will go on, as will the tournament.

“I just say, ‘At the end of the day guys, you know why we’re here and there’s nothing that can stop us,’ ” said Poole. “And they believe it. Any challenge that comes at them, they’ve handled it. It’s fantastic.”

That’s why, political winds be damned, I’ll be watching. So will Charlie Gallant, now 70, who guided that Augusta team almost a half-century ago.

“I have not missed one since we went,” Gallant said over the phone Wednesday as he flipped through his Little League scrapbook. “I just love it. To me, that’s real baseball.”

And these are the real boys of summer.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 10 Aug 2017 17:00:58 +0000
Opinion Podcast: Sportsmanship personified, election fraud, and cell phones in your car Tue, 08 Aug 2017 20:18:21 +0000 In this episode, our columnists discuss a viral moment of sportsmanship at the 2017 Beach to Beacon 10K; Cynthia Dill argues that our good feelings were misplaced. Also: Bill Nemitz shares a behind-the-scenes story from Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s involvement with President Trump’s voter fraud commission, and our panel sounds off on using handheld cellphones while driving.

Related stories

B2B Maine winner collapses shy of finish, then ‘I felt someone pick me up’

Maine regularly sells voter data it denied to feds

As session ends, Legislature overrides LePage veto, raising legal age for tobacco to 21

Podcast links

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

Stream on Stitcher

]]> 0 Gomez helps Jesse Orach cross the Beach to Beacon finish line after picking up the fallen Orach, who had collapsed within sight of the finish, instead of running past him.Thu, 10 Aug 2017 10:31:07 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Maine’s elections chief sees no monsters under the bed Sun, 06 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 So there sits Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a minority Democrat on a commission created to ferret out those millions of people who, according to President Trump, “voted illegally” in last fall’s national election.

The same Dunlap who is already on record saying he doesn’t believe a word of it.

What could possibly go wrong?

“It puts a bullhorn in my hands,” Dunlap explained during an interview in his office Friday.

A bullhorn? For what?

“I think there’s great value in stating the obvious.”

Such as?

Dunlap, rarely at a loss for words, thought about this one for a few seconds.

“What’s obvious to me is that elections run really, really well,” he finally said. “Very committed people do a great job. And the public has a lot to be proud of and to trust. To me, that’s the obvious.”

It’s been three months since Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state for 11 of the past 13 years, accepted an invitation to sit on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

Led by Vice President Mike Pence and Vice Chairman Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state in Kansas, the panel of seven Republicans and five Democrats has stumbled out of the gate after Kobach twice sent letters to all 50 states asking for comprehensive voter information – requests that all but a handful of states, including Maine, have denied.

Critics far and wide say the whole commission is a sham, a transparent attempt to lend credence to a longstanding Republican mantra that our election system is rife with illegal voting by noncitizens, by students, by dead people …

“I don’t think we’re going to find very much,” Dunlap said. “And if this commission has any sense of dignity, if we don’t find very much, then we just stop meeting at some point.”

But what if the commission, as many fear it will, grasps at what few straws it can find and uses them to erect new barriers between the electorate and the voting booth?

“Then I’m going to be out there with that bullhorn,” Dunlap replied.

He joined the commission at the urging of Kobach. Despite their perches at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Dunlap still considers the fiery Kansan “a good guy.”

The two became acquainted through the National Association of Secretaries of State. They bonded over, of all things, guns.

“I set him up with a sporting camp up north. He brought the family. They had a great time,” recalled Dunlap, an avid sportsman who once chaired the Maine Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee and served for a short stint as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

“(Kobach) tends to pigeonhole Democrats as holding a certain series of beliefs, guaranteed,” mused Dunlap. “I think I fascinate him in a certain sense. … We can have a conversation about ballistics. It amazes him that a Democrat knows anything about bullet weight, trajectories, the certain load of a .30-06, the 150-grain versus the 180-grain, the hollow point versus the soft point.”

But whatever their shared interests in firearms, they’re way beyond each other’s range when it comes to the integrity of America’s elections.

Kobach has already gone on record claiming that voter fraud poses a real and present danger to the republic.

Dunlap, meanwhile, detects danger in the notion that voters can’t be trusted.

“It’s natural – in fact it goes back to before the founding of our republic – for the public, the citizens of this country, to not trust their government. That’s normal,” he said. “When the relationship becomes dangerous is when government does not trust its citizens. And Trump saying that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally and we all have something to hide tells me that he does not trust the citizens.”

Then why aid and abet that effort by joining the commission? Why not denounce it as a charade like so many others have and walk away?

Two reasons.

First, Maine has been here before: A much-ballyhooed commission formed in 2012 to examine alleged widespread voter fraud here found no such thing.

Thus, when Dunlap consulted his elections staff on Kobach’s invitation to join the president’s commission, they responded with a resounding “yes.”

“If they’re going to do this and they’re asking you to be a part of it, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to tell our story,” said Dunlap recalling his staff’s advice.

To illustrate his second reason for signing on with Kobach, Dunlap invokes the typical crank at the typical Maine town meeting who rails on … and on … and on about corruption in the public works department and the need to cut out all road funding and blah, blah, blah.

“You know how you handle that?” he said. “You handle it by letting them talk, letting them air their grievance or articulate it in a motion – and then it goes up on its belly and goes down in a sheet of flame. And they’ve had their say. You don’t deal with that by saying, ‘I’m not going to allow you to speak.’ ”

Ditto for the commission. Nipping it in the bud now, as many have demanded, would only provide the conspiracy theorists a bigger platform as they claim that “the truth” is being suppressed by the powers that be.

Far better, Dunlap said, to “lift up the covers and shine the flashlight under the bed and say, ‘Look, there are no monsters there.’ ”

And so he’s in, provided it doesn’t reach the point where “I’m completely ineffective and can’t get that story out” or, even worse, his name is attached to a finding he doesn’t consider valid.

When appropriate, he’ll advocate for improvements in the 50 states’ election systems (see: more interstate cooperation in updating voter rolls). What he won’t do is surrender his steadfast belief that Americans are, by and large, an honest people.

Back when he was in the Legislature, Dunlap spearheaded a survey to gauge how many Mainers obtain a fishing license before they drop a line – and how many don’t.

“We have about 5,000 bodies of water in the state of Maine and 3,000 brooks and rivers,” he said. “Now at any given time, we probably have no more than 40 game wardens on duty. You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to run into a game warden.”

The survey said?

“The compliance rate is 98 percent,” Dunlap said. “People are law-abiding.”

That’s his message for the voter fraud commission. And that’s why, despite all the pleas to walk away, he’ll stay put for now.

“If you’re not at the table,” Dunlap noted, “you’re on the menu.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 06 Aug 2017 11:03:58 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Strimling as the victim? It just doesn’t play in Portland Wed, 02 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 You’d think, considering he once studied theater at the famed Juilliard School, that Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling might not be so tone-deaf.

Yet there he stood Monday evening in the City Council chamber, cloaking himself in the role of the helpless victim. A role that nobody else in the room could even find in their playbill.

It was billed as a council workshop “To Discuss the Assignment and Duties of the City’s Executive Department.”

But in reality, it was an intervention. And the marathon four-hour session, with no fewer than five former Portland mayors looking on in utter bewilderment, failed miserably.

“Enough is enough,” said former Mayor Cheryl Leeman at the entrance to City Hall. Behind her, nodding in agreement, stood a dozen onetime mayors, city councilors and municipal officials – all calling for an end to the penny opera that for months has pitted Strimling against City Manager Jon Jennings, against the current City Council, against anyone who fails to fully appreciate the sheer awesomeness of Hizzoner.

Strimling told the packed chamber that he came to look forward, not backward. But when Jennings later explained in some detail how “I’m being asked to manage an unmanageable situation,” the mayor too shifted hard into reverse.

At his side: A manila folder brimming with perceived slights by a city manager and a City Hall senior staff fed up with the mayor’s often aggressive, always insatiable ego.

Strimling’s drip-drip list of petty grievances felt like the opening round of a divorce mediation – huge injustices in the eyes of the complainant, not so much for the third-party observers.

Coming up for air at one point, he said, “As I said earlier, these are not all the examples.” Then a dramatic pause, followed by, “I’ll give you a few more …”

Please, Mr. Mayor, don’t.

Truth be told, Strimling’s 20-month tenure as Portland’s second popularly elected mayor in recent times has been, in many ways, a classic tragedy.

Handsome, charming and quick with the smile, he sailed to a 51 percent majority in a three-way race in 2015 that required no second-round count under Portland’s ranked-choice voting system.

With years of television and radio punditry under his belt, he’s taken to the airwaves like a moth to a flame – sometimes sounding off before he has his facts straight and, more importantly, before any of his colleagues have a clue what he’s doing.

Jennings lamented the time Strimling went on the radio and began riffing sans script about overtime for firefighters – at the exact time that issue was being delicately negotiated with the Portland firefighters’ union.

Those same firefighters, Jennings recalled, once called the city manager from a working fire “asking if they had the authority to move the mayor behind the cordoned-off area.”

Then there was the time Strimling showed up at an active crime scene and began peppering a poor police officer manning a checkpoint for information.

“I would never, in my wildest dreams, think of doing something like that,” said Jennings, to whom the police chief actually reports.

But there’s more to this than just Strimling’s hard-wired attraction to the bright lights.

Over and over during Monday’s session, the talk turned to his ever-eroding credibility. In fact, Councilor Jill Duson achieved a linguistic milestone when she decried the mayor’s penchant for what she generously called “misparaphrasing.”

Translation: He hears something that everyone else hears, only to later recount it in terms favorable to him while others scratch their heads and mutter, “Say what?”

To wit: Speaking to the decline in decorum at City Hall, Jennings bemoaned the “individuals and groups” who now flock to council meetings and “say anything they wish about us – including calling one of us a murderer.”

Only minutes later, Strimling lambasted the city manager for “claiming that I called someone a murderer.”


“I don’t think he said that,” observed Councilor Nick Mavodones, who ran the meeting.

Misparaphrasing aside, several councilors brought up Strimling’s notorious lack of preparation and his penchant for asking questions that could easily be answered if he simply read the background material they all get before meetings.

“Questions are important,” counseled Councilor Belinda Ray, a writer and teacher. “It is equally important to do your homework. Before you come to a meeting, read the material.”

She added, “Google is awesome! I get a lot of information that way.”

The longer Monday’s session dragged on, the more apparent it became that Strimling places himself on a considerably loftier pedestal than do the councilors and city manager who wallow in his incessant complaints and demands.

Councilors noted that they get briefed by the city staff on issues, often with Strimling in the room. Why then must he insist on his own private briefings with the same staff on the same issues?

Councilors ask questions of staff members by first going through the city manager. Then why, when the city charter assigns to the manager the “day-to-day operations of the city,” does Strimling chafe at the same protocol?

“We do not sit around in this building or any other city building waiting for you to call us to ask us questions,” Jennings told the scowling mayor.

In the end, it all felt so sad, so futile, so interminable.

Ray recalled how Strimling ran on the promise to be, above all, “listener in chief.”

“That’s the mayor I voted for,” she said. “That’s not the mayor I’ve seen for a very long time.”

Duson said the council must assert itself more to counterbalance “the insistent, singularly aggressive position of the mayor” in his dealings with the rest of the city’s government.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, once viewed as one of Strimling’s close political allies, looked him in the eye and said, “The council is telling you, Mr. Mayor, that you need to get it together.”

Good luck with that one.

In one of the few tidbits of news from the workshop, the audience learned that the city actually paid a mediator to try to patch things up between Strimling and Jennings. It didn’t work.

So there they all sit, pretty much right back where they started.

Strimling and Jennings still can’t stand each other, although they’ll start meeting again weekly with a third party present.

The council, for its part, will keep trying to tune out all the discord.

And Strimling?

He’s the mayor who thrives on improv. And all his city’s a stage.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Wed, 02 Aug 2017 00:38:46 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Sen. Collins’ courage isn’t just a talking point Sun, 30 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 It’s no secret that politicians like to talk about themselves. Point them toward a gaggle of cameras and microphones and you can almost guarantee they’ll drone on ad nauseam about all they’ve done, how they did it, what they plan to do next …

Not so for Sen. Angus King on Friday, moments after he touched down in Portland aboard the morning shuttle from Washington, D.C.

“In my public life, or in my life generally, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public official manifest greater courage and commitment to their constituents as Susan Collins has over the last week,” King said. “And the people of Maine need to understand that.”

Hear, hear, Senator. And then some.

The whole nation still buzzes – and rightfully so – about Sen. John McCain’s dramatic, post-brain-surgery arrival on Capitol Hill and his even more dramatic vote in the wee hours Friday to drive a stake through Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But the award for pure courage in this partisan debacle goes, first and foremost, to Maine’s own Sen. Collins.

From Tuesday’s vote to reopen debate on the repeal, to the two failed measures to replace it with Scotch tape and bubble gum, to the final “skinny repeal” showdown around 1:30 a.m. Friday, Maine’s senior senator never wavered.

She thought it was a bad deal and she said so, as did so many of her Republican colleagues who trusted, for no apparent reason, that the House would negotiate a real bill in conference committee rather than simply pass the Senate’s stinker outright and send it on to the White House.

But unlike all of them save McCain and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Collins chose principle over pragmatism. Of the three Republican votes it took to send President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell packing, it was Collins who said “no” first.

Quoting from a text he’d just sent to his son, King observed, “I hope when my moment comes, I’ll have as much guts as she had.”

There have been times during her 20 years in the Senate when critics, myself included, have chided Collins for not taking a strong enough stand against her party’s leadership. Others within her party, on the other hand, have branded her a “RINO” – the Tea Party moniker for a “Republican in name only” who sits too close to the center and thus gives “real conservatism” a bad name.

But last week was different. Despite overwhelming pressure from McConnell and Pence to get with the program and kill Obamacare because … well, just because, Collins staked her ground and never wavered until finally, a half hour or so before the climactic vote, Pence waved the white flag.

“He said to me, ‘You sure are tough,’ ” Collins, still operating on two hours of sleep, recalled in an interview late Friday afternoon. “And he softened it by putting his arm around me when he said it.”

No calls from the Oval Office? No threats of retribution such as those leveled against Murkowski – at the president’s behest – by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke?

“Obviously they wanted my vote, but none of them have been in any way comparable to what Lisa has experienced,” said Collins, who was lobbied directly by both Pence and now-departed White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Her only contact with Trump came late last month when the president hosted an arm-twisting lunch with Republican senators and conspicuously seated Collins and Murkowski on either side of him. In a photo from the event, Collins appears, shall we say, less than comfortable.

“I know,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve got to work on being more relaxed, I guess.”

Not here in Maine, she doesn’t.

Back on July 4, both Collins and King traveled to Washington County to march in Eastport’s Independence Day parade. On Friday, both recalled how, from start to finish, it was all health care all the time – punctuated by pleas that they stand fast against the House repeal bill that had landed with a thud in the Senate.

“Keep in mind that that’s a county that went heavily for Donald Trump,” noted Collins. “And what I found as I walked the length of the parade is that over and over, people were calling out to me, ‘Thank you, Susan,’ and ‘Thank you for opposing the House bill,’ and ‘Stay strong, Susan,’ and coming out and literally hugging me.”

One woman, a longtime Republican who went all the way back to Collins’ run for governor in 1994, spotted the senator at the end of the parade and made a beeline for her.

“Uh-oh,” thought Collins, expecting an earful about her well-publicized opposition to the House bill.

“Instead, she was bringing her grandson, who has cystic fibrosis, to meet me,” Collins said. “And she said, ‘That bill is terrible. And my grandson has cystic fibrosis, he’s going to have it his entire life – it’s a pre-existing condition for him. And I’m really worried about what’s going to happen to him and whether he’s going to be protected and be able to get insurance.'”

That encounter, more than any other, hit home. It reinforced Collins’ belief that health care “really cuts across party lines” and directly impacts people of all political stripes.

And so it came down to this: On this most critical of issues, Collins’ constituents spoke loudly and clearly. And when it truly counted, much to her credit, she listened.

That said, Collins’ breakaway vote will not soon be forgotten on Capitol Hill. Mused King, ‘How she’ll be treated in the (Senate Republican) caucus and what comes next by the administration, who knows?”

Still, echoing Pence, King added: “Susan is tough. She’s really tough. I think she’ll be fine.”

Friday morning, as she wearily walked off her plane at Bangor International Airport, Collins stepped out into a terminal gate packed with passengers waiting to board their outbound flight.

She recognized no one. But several of them recognized her and began to applaud.

Within seconds, the whole terminal was clapping, many people rising to their feet as their sleep-deprived senator passed.

Never before, throughout her two decades and 6,300 votes in the Senate, had Collins received such a spontaneous welcome home.

“It was absolutely extraordinary,” she said. “It was just so affirming of what happens when you do the right thing.”

Hope, in this summer of our discontent, springs eternal.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 29 Jul 2017 19:01:20 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Bad call by LePage on cellphones, driving Thu, 27 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 It was a carefree Sunday afternoon. I’d just dropped my daughter off at the train station in Saco and, as she boarded the Boston-bound Downeaster, I headed back up Route 112 in my pickup truck reflecting on her visit, how proud I am of her, how the joys of being a parent never really end …

Then I almost got killed.

As I headed into a long curve in the road, another pickup coming the other way failed to navigate the bend and instead sliced across my lane toward the nearby woods.

Instinctively, I crossed the center line to stay out of its way.

Then, a split second from impact with the first tree, the driver lurched back onto the pavement, unaware that I was by now going north in the southbound lane trying to avoid him.

He crossed back across the road diagonally and returned to his lane. I turned sharply back into mine. Our side mirrors missed colliding by an inch or two.

As he passed, I saw that he had only his left hand on the steering wheel. In his right hand, a cellphone.

He kept going, well above the speed limit. I pulled over, shaking like a leaf.

The whole thing lasted no more than five seconds.

I flashed back to my brush with disaster Tuesday after Gov. Paul LePage told WVOM radio that he planned to veto a bill banning the use of cellphones and other handheld devices while driving in Maine.

Why? Because, LePage said, this bill (and another banning tobacco sales to anyone under age 21) is nothing more than (cue the gasps) “social engineering.”

He added, “I don’t believe that social engineering a society is going to create a good society.”

Let’s pump the brakes on that one for a minute.

The Oxford Living Dictionaries define social engineering as “the use of centralized planning in an attempt to manage social change and regulate the future development and behaviour of a society.”

In other words, social engineering is not, by definition, a bad thing. With it, we evolve as a society. Without it, we can easily end up in a ditch.

Yet here we find ourselves once again, stuck with a governor who throws around fancy terms like a toddler plays with the heirloom china.

He’s oblivious to not just what “social engineering” really means in the context of rapidly changing technology but also to his critical role in ensuring that nothing (or no one) gets broken as cellphones consume larger and larger chunks of our time and attention.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and passed by strong (but not veto-proof) majorities in both the House and Senate, picks up where the current ban on texting while driving leaves off.

That prohibition, while well-intentioned, has had limited success in making the roads safer. Here’s why:

Let’s assume that the guy who almost creamed me that day was texting. And let’s assume a police officer saw the whole thing and pulled him over.

“Were you texting?” the cop would inevitably ask.

“No sir,” the guy would inevitably reply. “Uhmm … a bee distracted me! That’s right, a big fat yellowjacket! You should have seen him, officer – he was huge!”

LePage wrongly claimed this week that the officer in such a situation could simply confiscate the driver’s cellphone and check for recent activity.

Not true – at least not without a cumbersome court order. And as a lover of the U.S. Constitution, including its Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure, you’d think LePage might already know that.

LePage also argued that “there’s all kinds of other issues that are out there in driving,” such as people eating a sandwich or drinking a cup of coffee or women putting on makeup in the morning.

If the texting law and an existing distracted driving law aren’t working, he said, “let’s figure out why they’re not working and make them work.”

Don’t look now, folks, but it sounds like the governor just called for a little social engineering.

The reason the current laws aren’t working is because they contain a loophole big enough to drive two pickups through: The law still permits talking on a cellphone, dialing on a cellphone, checking a cellphone to see who’s calling you, leaving a voice mail, navigating Google Maps and other activities that don’t meet the narrow definition of “text messaging.”

All of those things can be at least as distracting as texting. What’s worse, they provide an instant – and legal – excuse for having a cellphone in hand when things suddenly go bad.

As in, “No, officer, I wasn’t texting. I was dialing up my buddy’s 10-digit number in California.”

What, pray tell, is the difference?

As for LePage’s claim that other things besides cellphones can distract drivers and cellphone use therefore should not be banned, I would offer what I’ll call the “propane rebuttal.”

If you own an outdoor gas grill, you probably already know how retailers tend to freak out if you walk into their establishment toting an empty, 20-gallon propane tank in search of a refill.

Why? Because propane is extremely dangerous in enclosed places and, as the warning signs proclaim at the store entrance, all tanks should be left outside.

Now, matches also can be dangerous. Ditto for cigarette lighters. So why are they allowed inside stores when propane tanks aren’t?

Because propane poses a far greater risk. Just as handheld cellphones, regardless of how they’re being used, threaten public safety far more than a handheld cup of coffee or a sandwich.

And we all know it.

In a 2015 survey by AAA, 80 percent of the drivers polled said it was completely unacceptable to text or email while driving. Yet 42 percent said they’d read a text or email while driving in the past 30 days, while 31 percent admitted they’d typed one.

Meaning they are deterred neither by their own common sense nor, more significantly, by current laws. That crazy guy in the pickup is still out there, cellphone in hand, a menace to anyone who crosses his path.

So how do we end this madness?

Police can only do so much – and they’re not shy about saying so.

Thus, with veto-override day fast approaching, enhanced safety along Maine’s highways and byways now hinges on our last line of defense – our lawmakers.

Also known as social engineers.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Wed, 26 Jul 2017 20:47:48 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Chesterville couple get new home built on community action Sun, 23 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Pam and Joe St. Pierre could be forgiven, as they sit in their drafty, leaky, moldy home on Dutch Gap Road in the small central Maine town of Chesterville, if they occasionally looked out their window and daydreamed of a brand-new house right there in their front yard, beckoning for them to come on in and take a load off.

Except it isn’t a dream.

The airtight, 800-square-foot structure is actually there.

They move in this week.

“I never thought in our lifetime that we’d live in a new house,” said Pam, 64, as the final finishing touches went on Friday.

“Show him the light,” Joe, 62, urged his wife of 43 years. Pam flipped a switch and, presto, an illuminated double-door closet inside what will soon be their new bedroom.

“Look at that,” said Joe, beaming.

Drive through rural Maine towns like this one, just south of Farmington, and you’ll have no trouble finding older couples like the St. Pierres.

Their twilight years have come knocking.

Their housing is, to be kind, substandard.

Day after day, season after season, they fight the good fight against those merciless forces of nature – from the black mold in the crawl space to the ice dams on the leaky roof to the squirrels who gnaw through the soffit boards and steal the damp insulation.

And then one day, a miracle happens.

“I call it a senior reboot,” said Bill Crandall, who manages the Housing and Energy Program for Western Maine Community Action. “Because these guys will start fresh with a new budget, new debt, and a new home. And they can age in place and be very comfortable doing so.”

Nearby, at the end of the dirt driveway, a banner extolled the many and varied entities that, in addition to Crandall’s agency, made it happen: Foster Career and Technical Education Center, John T. Gorman Foundation, Hammond Lumber, Mottram Architecture, Skowhegan Savings, Matthews Brothers Windows and Doors, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chretien’s Construction, Franklin County Government, Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, Maine Made, Sandy River Charitable Foundation and Maine Community Foundation (where, full disclosure, my wife works).

Put more simply, the community did it.

Joe and Pam St. Pierre sit on the steps of their old home in Chesterville. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

It all started two years ago when Pam and Joe, weary of putting out pans to catch the drips from the leaky roof and patching in new flooring where the soggy, particle-board underlayment had finally given way, showed up at Western Maine Community Action to ask about a low-interest loan to replace the roof.

Seeking help did not come easily for these two onetime millworkers – Pam spent more than 20 years stitching shoes at G.H. Bass & Co. in Wilton and then Franklin Shoe Co. in Farmington; Joe worked for three decades making toothpicks at Forster Manufacturing in Wilton.

The mills are long gone. As Crandall put it, “They didn’t leave their jobs. Their jobs left them.”

“We’ve worked very hard all our lives for everything we have,” said Pam, who now works part time at a medical call center in Farmington. Joe worked at various odd jobs until he was sidelined by cataracts, for which he recently underwent corrective surgery.

Yet they couldn’t get the loan. Their house since 1978 – half circa-1972 mobile home, half an addition Joe put on when their third child was born – fell short of federal standards for subsidized home-improvement financing. Way short.

In addition to the myriad structural problems, it took 10 cords of wood and a barrel of oil to heat the place.

And when the pipes froze, as they were fond of doing, Joe would unstack the cordwood piled up around the home, crawl under with a hair dryer, and then restack the wood so it wouldn’t get wet in the snow.

Then there were the constant leaks.

“You can stick a tarp up there and it works for a little while, but it don’t keep it all out,” said Joe, looking up at his soon-to-be-demolished roof.

As part of their assessment of the home, Crandall’s team conducted a “blower-door” test to see how airtight it was – or wasn’t.

“We found there were 21 air exchanges per hour,” Crandall said. “Meaning they heated the home 21 times in an hour.”

It all quickly shaped up as a “walk-away,” a worst-case scenario Crandall has encountered all too often in his eight years with Western Maine Community Action: People come looking for help, but their dwellings are so far gone they don’t qualify for further investment. So the agency has no choice but to walk away.

“We can’t help them with anything,” Crandall said. “And that doesn’t make any sense. We have to go on to someone who has a little better house structure than they do. Meanwhile, we’re leaving these folks stranded.”

Not so for the St. Pierres. Crandall had pretty much run out of options when a light bulb went on.

Working with Peter Thayer, his home repair technician, Crandall contacted George Chimenti, who teaches building construction for the Foster Career and Technical Education Center at nearby Mt. Blue High School.

Typically, the kids in the yearlong building class might build an off-campus garage for someone or construct something at the school – only to have the next year’s class dismantle it so they could reuse the wood and other materials.

Crandall’s proposal: How about having the kids built a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient house? A real home. For real people.

At the same time, he sat the St. Pierres down with a financial planner at the community action agency and hammered out a low-interest mortgage that would allow them to consolidate other debts, roll in taxes and insurance through an escrow account and, most important, have a real financial stake in the project.

“I said, ‘I don’t have a problem with that. We’ve paid for everything our entire lives. It ain’t going to kill us to pay for this, too,’ ” recalled Pam, who along with Joe, now receives Social Security retirement benefits.

Finally, Crandall applied his powers of persuasion to drive down the costs through foundation grants, donated and discounted materials and professionals willing to do work the kids couldn’t at generous rates or, in a couple of cases, for no money at all.

And so it began.

They poured the foundation on Nov. 29 – beyond late for starting a building in a place where they measure the snow in feet.

Then in January, the students showed up – two teams of 11 kids working three-hour shifts on alternating days.

They worked through a harsh winter, shoveling the heavy snow and chipping away at the ice as they raced to get the roof on.

They slogged through a nasty spring with rains seemingly sent from on high to test their mettle.

Then, with the end in sight, they faced the biggest test of all: One of their own, 17-year-year old Daniel Emery of Highland Plantation, died in a single-car accident on June 2.

He was one of a handful of kids experienced enough to work largely on his own. With high school graduation just weeks away, he’d already accepted a job offer from a heating contractor who’d worked on the project.

“A lot of life lessons for those kids this year,” said Crandall. “I mean working outdoors in the real world in the snow, rain and ice and then losing one of their peers. It was a tough road for them – and they came still with smiles and a positive attitude on this place. They really did.”

And their work was second to none.

The new house opens to a large, open kitchen-living room, flanked on the far side by the bedroom and a bathroom-utility room. A trapdoor leads down to a large cellar sealed top to bottom with heavy plastic and tape.

Joe and Pam St. Pierre in the bedroom of their new home. The house was built right on their property next to their old home, where they lived for over 40 years. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The electrical heat pump and energy recovery ventilation system will reduce the St. Pierres’ air exchange from 21 per hour in the old house to just over three per hour – and only after much of the heat is squeezed from the outgoing air.

And no more spongy floors – every square foot of living space is covered with lustrous wood laminate.

Ten cords of wood per season? Try one – assuming the new, high-efficiency wood stove is needed at all.

There’s still clutter to toss out from the old place, but not the family photos and other mementos that stop Pam in her tracks as she sifts through almost 40 years of a life that’s left her and Joe with remarkably few complaints.

And when the wrecker arrives sometime later this week, memories will pull heavily on the heartstrings – like the time 33 years ago when the snow stopped all of Chesterville in its tracks and for three days the St. Pierres and their three now-grown kids hosted a half-dozen relatives and friends seeking shelter from the storm.

They stoked the wood stove nonstop and, with the power out, played games by the light of kerosene lamps. They cooked huge meals on the propane gas stove.

“We had everyone spread out in sleeping bags and mattresses on the floor,” Pam recalled wistfully. “But we had a good time.”

Added Joe, “And we had a 24-cubic-foot freezer.”

Added Pam, “So nobody went hungry.”

Truth be told, though, they’re more than ready to see the old place come down. They plan to start a garden in its place – their new cellar will be perfect for storing the root crops.

Sometime next month, those who had a hand in building the house will gather there to celebrate their good work.

Late the other night, one of the students pulled into the driveway to show his girlfriend what he’d been laboring on the past six months.

“His house,” mused Joe with a smile. “That’s what he called it – his house.”

After things settle down, the St. Pierres will host a housewarming party of their own with family, friends and neighbors up and down Dutch Gap Road who have cheered them on every step of the way.

“I think the whole neighborhood is as excited as we are,” said Pam.

All because a community – in the broadest sense of the word – saw fit to help this aging couple stay put. It’s a model Crandall hopes to replicate all over Maine.

“It’s not something we’re used to,” said Pam. “But it is nice. It kind of makes me feel that all our hard work all these years has paid off.”

So, when the big day arrives, will Joe carry his bride over the threshold of their sparkling new abode?

Joe laughed out loud. Pam too.

“Yeah,” Pam chortled. “He carries me in and I’ll have to help him hobble out and take him to the chiropractor.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0 and Pam St. Pierre will find their new house quite a step up.Sun, 23 Jul 2017 10:57:44 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Anti-vaccine movement’s disregard for reality poses a threat for all of us Thu, 20 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Its formal name was Rosemary Lake, a small body of water in my hometown to which we kids flocked each summer seeking relief from the heat.

But to this day, I remember it by its ominous nickname: Polio Pond.

To be clear, no one to my knowledge ever actually contracted polio from the murky water – although Dr. Bailot, our family physician, often decried the town-operated swimming facility as a petri dish of childhood infections.

But the name was nonetheless telling: Polio, while on the wane in the late 1950s and early 1960s, still scared the hell out of everyone.

And the vaccine that all but eradicated it in the United States – from tens of thousands of cases to virtually none in a mere decade – left parents far and wide thanking God for this modern-day miracle.

Memories of benevolent old Dr. Bailot, syringe in hand, resurfaced this week with the news that the percentage of Maine children showing up at kindergarten without vaccinations jumped from 4 percent to 4.8 percent over the past year.

No big deal? Guess again.

As Peter Michaud, associate general counsel of the Maine Medical Association and chair of the Maine Immunization Council, told Portland Press Herald reporter Joe Lawlor, the uptick is “extremely distressing.”

It’s also a case study in how times can change. Half a century ago, parents welcomed with open arms the array of vaccinations for polio, measles, mumps, rubella and other serious infectious diseases that had long run roughshod over every level of society.

They had seen what those illnesses could do, how a child could be healthy one minute and paralyzed – or in a tiny casket – the next. To not inoculate your child with these readily available remedies was unthinkable.

No longer. Today, for a small but growing number of parents, the vaccines are the bogeymen. The danger of the diseases they target is overblown. It’s the pharmaceutical companies that are trying to kill us.

They could not be more wrong. Nor could they be more self-centered.

Don’t misunderstand. I have no doubt that these parents love their children as much as my mother loved her four boys and four girls.

But this is not just about them or their kids. It’s about all of us.

Much of today’s anti-vaccine movement stems from “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” a 2016 film that alleges a conspiracy by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to hide a purported connection between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism.

The film has since been discredited from every corner of the scientific community as baseless, fear-mongering propaganda. It was directed by Andrew Wakefield, who lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom because of serious ethical violations in his anti-vaccine research.

Such as? Well, Wakefield never disclosed that while conducting his since-debunked 1998 study of possible links between the MMR vaccine and autism, he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by lawyers looking to sue the vaccine producers.

No matter. Despite that and other transgressions, an anti-establishment star was born.

Which brings us back to those Maine parents who think they’re doing the right thing by not vaccinating their kids and sending them off into the general population.

Two years ago, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would require parents with a “philosophical objection” to vaccines to at least consult with a medical professional before opting their kids out of their preschool shots. He wrote nonsensically that the legislation “unwisely leads the horse to water and tries to make it drink.”

LePage also maintained that, while he personally supports vaccinations, parents who opt out “have as much right to their opinions as the parents who choose to vaccinate.”

Their opinions, however, aren’t the problem here. It’s their blinders.

Many in the anti-vaccine crowd maintain that the danger is overblown – the diseases in question are now so rare that the risk of contracting them is outweighed by the perceived (albeit unproven) risk of vaccination.

But it’s precisely because of decades of vaccination that the diseases are so rare. All of society has benefited from diligent adherence to vaccine protocols – including those parents who now turn up their noses at the needles and say, “None for my child, thank you.”

It’s enough to make my dearly departed mother, and millions like her, turn in their graves.

The simple truth is that the “herd immunity” created by vaccines protects us all, including those with compromised immune systems and other medical conditions that legitimately prevent them from getting their inoculations.

Still, herd immunity is a fragile thing. Chip away at it or, worse yet, create clusters of non-vaccinated children – the number of unvaccinated kindergartners exceeded 20 percent in six Maine public schools during the just-completed school year – and bad things inevitably will happen.

To wit: To maintain herd immunity from the highly contagious and potentially lethal measles virus, a society must vaccinate 96 percent to 98 percent of its population.

But according to a 2016 mathematic modeling study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the population exposed to the virus at Disneyland in late 2015 – an outbreak that eventually sickened 145 Americans – had a vaccination rate no higher than 86 percent and possibly as low as 50 percent.

This for a virus that was declared “eradicated” in the United States back in 2000.

Here in Maine, the first measles case in 20 years was reported last month in Farmington – a female who contracted the virus during overseas travel.

Considering that a whopping 90 percent of unvaccinated people exposed to measles end up infected with it, imagine what would have ensued had that patient walked into a kindergarten class where a quarter or more of the students had never received their MMR shots.

And for what?

Because a crusading quack made claims 20 years ago that have never, not once, been backed up by real science?

Because we live in an age when people first decide what they believe and only then seek out the “facts” to back it up?

Because it will never happen to their kid … until it does?

Not too long ago, I drove through my old hometown to revisit my childhood haunts.

Sure enough, Polio Pond is still there. But decades ago, the town actually inserted a separate – and much cleaner – swimming pool into the portion of the lake where our young immune systems once battled Lord knows what.

I saw plenty of kids splashing in the crystal-clear water.

I saw no one swimming on the dirty side.

Chalk one up for common sense.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Fri, 28 Jul 2017 08:00:35 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Maine singers’ refrain sends message of finding home Sun, 02 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The heck with the political dissonance. Let’s talk harmony.

Friday morning, while Maine careened toward a government shutdown and President Trump drowned in yet another misogynistic Tweet storm, 24 young women got on a chartered bus in Portland bound for Washington, D.C.

No, they’re not there to march or to chant or to protest all that’s wrong with the world in this summer of our discontent.

They’re there to sing.

“It gives me serenity, it gives me peace. Singing is fun to me,” Nyawal Lia said last week outside the community room of the Riverton Park housing complex in Portland.

Nyawal, 23, is one of the “elders” of Pihcintu – a girls chorus made up almost entirely of refugee immigrants who represent Maine at its finest.

They’ve sung from Harpswell on the coast to Wilton in the western mountains.

They’ve sung for small church groups, for NBC’s “Today” show and for the United Nations’ World Refugee Day.

In a world beset by vitriol and violence that many of them have experienced firsthand, they sing not of war, but of peace, not of enmity, but of love, not of what divides us, but of the common ground we all share.

This holiday weekend, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts celebrates the centennial of President John F. Kennedy’s birth with “2017 Serenade! Washington D.C. Choral Festival.” The assembly of choruses from more than a dozen countries commemorates JFK’s legacy as creator of the Peace Corps.

Estella Mutoni, 15, left, Kethia Ishami, 15, and Doki Yanga, 16, rehearse with the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus in Portland. The chorus, which is made up of young singers from immigrant families, is performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this weekend. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Pihcintu – Passamaquoddy Indian for “when she sings, her voice carries far” – will represent the United States.

It all started back in 2005, the brainchild of Con Fullam, an accomplished musician, composer and producer known in these parts for “The Maine Christmas Song” and, more recently, the TV show “Greenlight Maine.”

His goal: Gather a group of girls, many newly arrived here in Maine from the most war-torn corners of the world, and give them back the one thing they so often lose along the way: their voices.

Brenda Viola, 17, soon to be a senior at Deering High School in Portland, joined the chorus in January. She grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya, where school was nonexistent and a good day was defined as a single a cup of rice.

Yet through it all, Brenda loved to sing. She still does.

“Pihcintu just reminds me of back home, where I’m from, where I lived,” Brenda said during a break from rehearsal last week. So much so, she confided, that she’ll sometimes find herself blinking back tears as she wraps herself in the songs – the majority of which are composed and written by Fullam.

Con Fullam directs the group at a rehearsal last week. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“It is emotional,” Brenda said. “Every time I remember, it just makes me want to cry. It’s like wow, I am here, but how about my friends who are living back there?”

It’s a common refrain: Joy at being alive, worry for loved ones left behind and an unspoken assurance that here, you are safe.

Here, you can laugh, cry and above all, as Brenda put it, “send a powerful message” about finding refuge in a strange place, about finding a new home.

For founder and director Fullam, 69, it’s long been a labor of love. While Pihcintu has attracted generous financial help in recent years from the Davis Family Foundation, The Lunder Foundation and Wex Inc., to name a few, the chorus still hinges on one man’s lasting dedication, infinite patience and faith that when it truly counts, these girls know how to deliver.

“I’ve never had a good rehearsal with them,” Fullam said dryly after last week’s chaotic run-through. “And we’ve only had one bad performance.”

Once a week, he hops into a small Portland Housing Authority bus and makes the rounds among the city’s subsidized housing projects and other low-income neighborhoods. Guitar at his side, he picks up his young singers, ferries them to rehearsal at Riverton Park and then drops them back home.

“Without that bus, it never would have started because I have always and forever had a massive problem with transportation,” he said. “These kids don’t have parents like those in the suburbs who drive their kids to soccer. I have a lot of parent support in terms of the chorus, but these are refugee people. They’re just trying to survive.”

Fullam estimates that since Pihcintu’s founding, more than 200 girls have cycled through the chorus. Some stay a few years; others never leave.

Nyawal Lia, now a senior majoring in political science at the University of Southern Maine, joined Pihcintu as a shy sixth-grader.

Way back then, she said, it was all about the singing. But then one day, Fullam invited her to speak to a church group in Waterville about her childhood – first in South Sudan and then in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

She told the audience of the genocide sweeping her homeland, of a world few Mainers could imagine. She will forever be grateful for Fullam’s gentle prodding.

“I feel like I’ve known Con my whole life. He’s the first person who has ever given me the opportunity to speak up,” said Nyawal, who will spend this summer as a supervisor for the Muskie School of Public Service’s “Gateway to Opportunity,” a mentoring program for high school students.

“It fits perfectly,” she said. “It’s no longer just singing. It’s advocacy.”

Thirteen-year-old Sandy Truong, above, sings a solo part while rehearsing with the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus in Portland. At left, Con Fullam directs the group at a rehearsal last week. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Ekhlas Ahemed, 25, originally from Sudan’s Darfur region, joined Pihcintu when she was 17 and a student at Casco Bay High School. Now, with a degree from USM in sociology and international studies, she’s back at her old high school teaching English as a Second Language and overseeing “Make It Happen,” an after-school tutorial and college-prep program for some 180 multicultural and multilingual students.

Ekhlas also keeps an eye on the younger girls – including a few of her students – in Pihcintu.

She’s stayed with the chorus this long, she said, because it “tells my life story.”

How so?

“A lot of the songs we sing represent emotion, represent the stories where we come from, the pain that we suffered,” she explained. “So, for me, the second I start singing, my head right away goes back home and to missing all of my friends, to the memories. And then we come back and sing a different song and I remember all the peace and beauty that we live in here in Portland, Maine.”

Pihcintu’s itinerary this weekend includes three performances – an appearance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Saturday (where they first performed in 2014), a concert in Baltimore on Sunday, and, on Monday, the grand finale on the main stage of the Kennedy Center’s majestic concert hall.

Along the way, Fullam undoubtedly will be asked to list the various countries of origin for these world-class singers.

His reply: “Here we go: Iraq, Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Burundi, North Sudan, South Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia …”

If the mere mention of such places makes you nervous in these turbulent times, relax. You’re not listening hard enough.

Shy, confident or somewhere in between, these girls and young women are our neighbors now.

And as they ascend to one of the nation’s biggest stages, they’re doing Maine proud.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 01 Jul 2017 22:57:42 +0000
Bill Nemitz: LePage drives Maine toward irrational day of reckoning Wed, 28 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Dear Gov. LePage,

Go ahead. Admit it. Maine’s state government is on the brink of total collapse and you’re loving every minute of it.

I listened, more than once, to your WVOM radio chat with Ric Tyler and George Hale on Tuesday. I tried and failed to detect any regret that, come Friday at midnight, the government over which you preside will shut down for the first time in 26 years.

Instead, I heard anger. I heard bluster. I heard you say, in answer to a slow-pitch softball question from Tyler, that pulling the plug on Augusta is “what I have to do.”

No argument there, Big Guy.

Seven years ago, you introduced yourself to Maine as the politician who hates government. Now, in the twilight of your second term, what better way to prove it than to grind the whole apparatus to a halt.

Yeah, I know. You claim to be digging in your heels against three of the four caucuses in the Legislature, including the Senate Republicans, because only you and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette care about Maine people.

But let’s back up a second here. Last November, a majority of Maine people voted to finally fix state funding for education at 55 percent and to get there by adding a 3 percent surcharge to taxable income above $200,000.

Democrats in both the House and Senate have indicated a willingness to forgo the 3 percent and reduce the extra revenue for education from an estimated $320 million to somewhere around $200 million.

That’s called negotiating. Some of us who voted “yes” in that referendum aren’t wild about it, but it’s how compromise is ultimately achieved.

Republicans in the Senate reportedly have upped their offer to within $25 million of the Democrats, a gap that in normal times would have been closed days, if not weeks, ago.

Again, the Senate Republicans are doing what they’re supposed to do – looking long and hard for middle ground.

Yet here we are, with you and Fredette chained to your hopelessly low-ball proposal of $125 million in additional education funding, your already-defeated demand that Maine’s entire education system be overhauled post haste, your non-starter welfare reforms and (this just in) your out-of-nowhere complaint that land trusts are the cause of rising property taxes.

All of this while the clock ticks inexorably toward zero hour.

“They’re playing chicken with me,” you told your radio pals. “And I’m the worst guy in the world to play chicken with because I don’t veer on either way. I go straight ahead. So, if there’s a collision to be had, it’s coming Friday night.”

Governor, wake up. This is not “Rebel Without a Cause,” the classic 1955 film in which James Dean at least had the sense to jump out of his speeding vehicle while the other guy, his sleeve caught on the door handle, went over the cliff.

This is real life. This will do real damage. This is a road to disaster – both in the short term for those who work for the state or depend mightily on its services, and in the long term for a state whose reputation you’ve already spent the last seven years torching with your far-right flamethrower.

One suggestion: It would be helpful to all parties if you at least spoke coherently.

Instead, you told Ric and George, “They asked me last night, ‘What’s the cost of shutting down?’ The future of Maine. The future of Maine is worth shutting it down.”

Point of clarification, Governor? If the “future of Maine” is the cost of a shutdown, how can the “future of Maine” simultaneously be “worth shutting it down?”

I know, you’re having trouble sleeping. And let’s be honest, if Maine had a dollar for every time you said something nonsensical, we’d be drowning in revenue and everyone would be out stocking up on fireworks for the July Fourth holiday.

Instead, you’re sitting on the mother of all powder kegs, playing with matches.

My guess is that you see this as a can’t-lose proposition.

You either get your way before Friday, which looks highly doubtful at this point, or you seal your legacy as the tough-talking chief executive who rode in on the tea party wave and rode out with nothing but smoldering ruins in your wake.

To some in your base, that’s the ultimate dream come true. If all government is bad and all taxpayer dollars are wasted, what better way to combat it than by blowing the whole thing to smithereens?

But that’s not governing, Governor. That’s political terrorism.

You also seem to think that if and when the smoke finally clears, the consensus will be that this was all the Democrats’ fault, that you’ll walk away with clean hands.

Dream on, Big Guy, dream on.

Remember back in 1991? After then-Gov. John McKernan forced a shutdown by refusing to budge on his demand for worker compensation reforms, legions of state workers and other protesters filled the State House and the park across the street.

“We want his head! We want his head!” they chanted through bullhorns day … after day … after day …

They were talking about McKernan. And a quarter-century later, when that fiasco is recalled, his is the first name that comes to mind.

McKernan, at least, was fighting for something in which he deeply believed. You, on the other hand, have spent the last seven years fighting for the sake of fighting.

You want meaningful school reform?

With an open hand rather than a clenched fist, I suspect you could have achieved it.

You think the 3 percent surcharge is bad?

Don’t just claim that everyone making more than $200,000 is fleeing Maine, as you did once again on Tuesday. Prove it.

Your first priority truly is the average Mainer’s well-being? Then, for once, stop treating us all like idiots.

We can only wait now and see just how far you’re going to take this game of “chicken,” as you so aptly put it.

Will you make good on your threat to take 10 days to veto whatever the Legislature finally produces – and during that time watch real people suffer – out of mere spite?

Will you try to break McKernan’s record of 16 days because, in LePage Land, that will make you Maine’s all-time greatest disruptor?

Are you so stuck to your ideology that you’re prepared to take the ship of state over that fast-approaching cliff?

Move over, “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Make way for “Governor Without a Clue.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Tue, 27 Jun 2017 23:24:32 +0000
Opinion podcast: Is a shutdown inevitable; millennial bristles at avocado toast Tue, 27 Jun 2017 21:45:17 +0000 Is the state shutdown the inevitability that the governor assumes it to be? Editorial page editor Greg Kesich and columnist Bill Nemitz forecast the financial and political fallout from the closure of state services and halting of payroll. They also examine the purpose of the American Health Care Act and how U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ public opposition could affect negotiations.  (Since we recorded, Collins announced her dissatisfaction with the bill and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed the vote until after the July 4 recess.)

Also in this episode, reader Victoria Hugo-Vidal joins Kesich to talk about her letter explaining millennial economics and personal finance. Her frank and funny personal writing earned her the May Letter Writer of the Month crown, which now comes with the offer of a podcast appearance.

Related Stories:

LePage says he believes the government will shut down Friday

Maine Voices: Senate health care bill will put older Mainers, cancer patients at risk

Letter to the editor: Forget avocado toast—many millennials barely surviving

Podcast links:

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

Stream on Stitcher

]]> 0, 27 Jun 2017 19:56:52 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Obamacare’s a lifeline for our smallest hospitals Sun, 25 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Let’s say you live in or near the western Maine town of Bridgton.

You’ve been following this Obamacare repeal business, sort of, and you think you heard something last week about the Republicans in the U.S. Senate finally unveiling a bill that’s supposed to be less “mean” than the one passed last month by the Republican-controlled House.

Now, a question. Have you visited Bridgton Hospital lately?

“Anybody who will listen, I’m talking to,” said David Frum, the hospital’s president and CEO, in an interview Friday. “In the barbershop, I might be getting my hair cut, but I’m still preaching.”

His message: If you’re not paying close attention to what’s happening to health care in this country, start.

And if you’re partial to your community hospital – Bridgton is one of 16 small, critical-access hospitals scattered across Maine that stand to lose big league under the bill released last week by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – you have precious little time to speak up.

“We generally think more people on insurance is a better thing,” Frum said. “Whether it’s a Republican model or a Democratic model or somewhere in between, people being insured means they’re healthier.”

And make no mistake about it. From massive cuts in Medicaid to sky-high premiums on private policies to five-figure deductibles that many Mainers couldn’t begin to pay, the so-called “reforms” circulating on Capitol Hill aren’t just bad news for patients.

They’re a potential death knell for Maine’s small hospitals.

Bridgton Hospital, founded 100 years ago as the Northern Cumberland Memorial Hospital, is no Maine Medical Center.

A tour of the 22-bed facility on Friday took just over 20 minutes. As tour guide Nicki Van Loan, R.N., coordinator for the emergency department, put it: “We’re family. It’s kind of a palpable feeling that you get. We’re happy.”

At the same time, they’re essential.

The hospital logs about 1,100 inpatient admissions annually, while 12,000 people – locals and vacationers alike – seek treatment in its emergency department. Physician office visits number between 35,000 and 40,000 each year.

In addition to the cuts, bruises and those other calamities Nurse Van Loan lumps under “Hold my beer, watch this!” – Bridgton Hospital offers treatment through 17 specialty clinics: a six-chair infusion room for chemotherapy and other treatments, a two-room labor and delivery unit for the 100-plus babies born there each year, a diabetes clinic, medical nutrition, urology … the list goes on.

But here’s the rub: Reduce the number of people coming through the door with insurance cards, as the legislation now before Congress most definitely will do, and some of those clinics will start to disappear.

Drive up the hospital’s “bad debt” via those with no insurance or those with mammoth deductibles that far exceed their ability to pay and, sooner or later, the hospital’s very survival comes into question.

Bridgton, along with the neighboring Rumford Hospital, has been recognized nationally for its efficiency and quality of care. They’re both part of Central Maine Healthcare, which also includes Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, and they both represent community medicine at its finest.

To wit: Last summer, a man who was terminally ill and on palliative care had only one request – and a big one at that – before he died. He wanted to marry his sweetheart.

“So we pulled off, over one weekend, a wedding,” Frum proudly recalled. “The staff found flowers, they got a few key family members together. And it wasn’t a justice of the peace – it was an ordained minister who happened to be the relative of one of our staff members.”

Compare that with being hospitalized an hour or more away in Lewiston or Portland, where everyone is a stranger and visitors are few – if they can make it at all.

Or worse yet, compare it to skipping this week’s infusion therapy, or that life-or-death MRI, because it’s snowing outside and there’s no safe way to get to an appointment, let alone pay the bill.

“There’s a portion of the population that, if the service is not available locally, they just won’t get it,” Frum said.

As threatening as the current political climate might be to the Bridgton area, it’s even more so in the farthest reaches of Maine.

Calais Regional Hospital currently is phasing out its obstetrics department and will shut it down completely by the end of the year.

By the end of this summer, the Jackman Community Health Center will no longer provide overnight emergency service – forcing those in need to drive more than an hour to Skowhegan for help.

And all of that comes before the latest assault on health care – not just in the back rooms of Washington, D.C., but also in a state budget (assuming one ever passes) that cuts Medicaid, or MaineCare, reimbursement rates and ratchets up the state hospital tax.

Jeff Brickman, CEO of Central Maine Healthcare, said in a separate interview Friday that he’s seen the numbers faced by Maine’s most remote hospitals and “they’re quite dire. I don’t know how many of those organizations will be able to survive much longer.”

And should they fall, it won’t just be bad for local folks’ health. The loss of a community hospital – and all the jobs that come with it – also undermines a local economy.

Bridgton Hospital, with close to 350 people on its payroll, dwarfs any other workplace in the entire Lakes Region.

That explains why President and CEO Frum has spent much of his time lately speaking to service clubs, church groups, anyone willing to learn more about this oncoming train wreck.

He urges them, for starters, to get involved: Call Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a pivotal vote in the coming days, and tell her in no uncertain terms that Maine can’t afford to lose Bridgton Hospital – or the 15 others like it.

But in order to do that, Frum said, everyone first must sit up and pay attention.

“Take the time and effort to fully understand the truth,” he implored. “It’s not an issue that can be resolved by a sound bite. It just can’t.”

Sitting behind Frum as he spoke was a large white board, covered with a roughly drawn map of western Maine and all the health facilities in places like Bridgton, Norway, Rumford, even North Conway, New Hampshire.

It was part of a recent strategic planning exercise, Frum explained.

But at the same time, it stands as a stark reminder of how much the “other Maine,” the Maine without a huge medical center minutes away, stands to lose should the Affordable Care Act collapse into a mammoth tax cut for the rich and misery for everyone else.

In the past few years, Bridgton Hospital’s bad debt has more than doubled to $5 million. The hospital is legally required, after all, to treat anyone and everyone, with or without insurance, who comes through the door – but how long can that door remain open?

“In a small setting like this, we truly believe we are a critical asset to a community,” Frum said. “They’re also our neighbors, our family and our friends.”

Forcing a weary smile, he added, “We’d like to have another 100 years.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 25 Jun 2017 07:54:53 +0000
Bill Nemitz: U.S. Capitol changes from the way life should be to armed camp Sun, 18 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 They leaped into the national consciousness last week as bona fide heroes.

U.S. Capitol Police Special Agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner, both wounded in Wednesday’s attack by a deranged gunman during a Republican congressional baseball practice, now symbolize our last line of defense against a world gone mad.

They represent law enforcement officers everywhere who don their uniforms each day wondering what awaits them out there, who among the masses might be the next psychopath with a semi-automatic rifle in his hands and murder on his mind.

“I give them a lot of credit,” said Severin Beliveau during an interview in his Portland law office Friday morning. “They’re far better trained than we were back in those days.”

Most people know him as a founding partner of the law firm Preti Flaherty, a former state legislator, a mover and shaker throughout Maine and beyond who long has thrived at the nexus of law and politics.

What few know is that Beliveau, now 79, was once a U.S. Capitol cop.

It was the late summer of 1960. As John F. Kennedy charmed his way toward the White House, Beliveau, then just 22, began his first year at Georgetown University Law Center.

He needed a job to support himself. And he had three choices, all patronage positions controlled by then-Maine Sen. Ed Muskie and Rep. James Oliver.

“Elevator operator, the Post Office and the police department,” Beliveau recalled.

He chose the latter, working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift as a guard on Capitol Hill.

It paid well at $100 per week, included uniforms that could double (without the jacket) as classroom garb and offered hours of time at a desk – in the pin-drop quiet of the Capitol building – that Beliveau could spend studying his law books.

He did carry a weapon, although for the life of him he couldn’t figure out why.

“They gave you a gun, a .38,” he recalled. “Then they took you to the White House police range and placed a body silhouette 25 yards away. If you struck any portion of the anatomy, you qualified. On my sixth shot, I got the guy in the knee.”

So much for firearms training. So much for bullets, too – more often than not, when he began his shift, Beliveau left his ammunition in his locker.


“I didn’t want to shoot anybody,” he said.

His duties?

He’d direct traffic from 4 to 6 p.m. out on Constitution or Independence avenues.

He’d chat with then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen while they and other legendary lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, poured the whiskey in Johnson’s palatial office at the end of a long day of debating.

He’d even walk May Craig, the legendary reporter for the Portland Press Herald, home to her nearby apartment because “she was a fragile little lady” and much appreciated the escorts by a friendly young man from Rumford.

“Not that there were any problems back then,” Beliveau said. “There were no criminals, no drugs, nothing.”

Not once during his entire nine-month tenure did Beliveau log an arrest. Which was a good thing – his superiors provided him with written instructions on how to write a parking or speeding ticket, but at no point was he schooled in how to take someone into custody.

“The greatest threats were the bums passed out under the bushes,” he said. “We’d prod them along across the street, off into the Metropolitan Police jurisdiction. Then we’d call those guys to come pick them up.”

There were no security stations, no metal detectors, no bomb-sniffing dogs, no surveillance cameras, no machine guns, no automatic lockdowns at the slightest hint – real or imagined – of trouble.

Rather, a law student with a badge greeted late visitors to the Capitol with a handshake, a smile and a wave on through. And if a family on vacation came along, he might take a break from his studies and walk them through National Statuary Hall and then on to the Rotunda.

It was, to borrow an oft-used Maine phrase, the way life should be.

Contrast that with last week.

Special Agents Bailey and Griner, two of more than 2,000 members of a force that numbered not much more than 100 back in Beliveau’s day, were at the baseball practice as part of the permanent security detail for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Scalise remained in critical condition Saturday at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

While others dove for cover under a fusillade of bullets, the two officers ran toward gunman James Hodgkinson, loaded weapons drawn, hollering for him to put his gun down.

Griner took a bullet to her ankle and Bailey sustained a minor, non-gunshot injury before Hodgkinson was finally shot and killed. Had the two officers not been there, many witnesses have said, it would have been a massacre.

“I think the evolution of the Capitol Police department is representative of what’s happened in this country,” Beliveau said. “We’ve gone from a passive guard system to active, professional law enforcement.”

We’ve also become a country where mass shootings – defined by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive to mean four or more victims, not including the shooter – occur at the rate of almost one a day. Wednesday’s was the 154th since the start of 2017.

Will this attack, unlike the hundreds that have preceded it, change anything?

Some say the political bomb-throwing, at least, might give way for a while to a more civil body politic – as it did Thursday evening after Special Agent Bailey threw out the first pitch at the annual Democrats-versus-Republicans baseball game.

But beyond the baseball bonhomie, Washington, D.C., remains, as Beliveau put it, an “armed camp.” Even as his brief stint with a badge, a gun and not a worry in the world remains a gauzy, increasingly distant memory.

“It was collegial. You never felt threatened,” Beliveau said. “Now you go to the Capitol and, because of the overwhelming police presence, you just feel that something’s going to happen.”

Welcome to the new America. Land of the free and home of the wary.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 17 Jun 2017 19:47:53 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Sen. King’s frustration at hearings a reflection of disbelief Thu, 15 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Put yourself in Angus King’s place.

You’re a member of the U.S. Senate, the greatest deliberative body in the world.

You’re looking for answers to questions that go to the core of a scandal rocking our very democracy: Who said what to whom about President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey last month? And when, where and why did they say it?

Yet even as you press ahead, one after another sworn witness from the Trump administration essentially replies, “Sorry, Senator. I don’t feel like answering that right now.”

Now I’ll add my question: In two widely watched Senate Intelligence Committee hearings – one last week and the other Tuesday – was Maine’s junior senator as genuinely ticked off as he appeared to be?

“Yes,” King replied flatly in an interview Wednesday. “I just got more and more irritated that they weren’t answering the questions and had no basis for doing so.”

Some would say that King, whose comfort with the camera goes back to long before he entered politics more than two decades ago, was tailor-made for the daytime TV drama now playing out on Capitol Hill.

Starting a week ago with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers, and then again Tuesday with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, King has drawn widespread praise for telling it like it is to Trump’s three stooges.

His spot-on message: With no justification whatsoever, they’re turning a blind eye to their legal obligation to answer the committee’s questions about Russia’s involvement in last year’s election, as well as Trump’s tampering with efforts to get to the bottom of it.

Rogers famously told King last week, “I feel it is inappropriate” to testify about his communications with the White House. That prompted a visibly irked King to retort, “What you feel isn’t relevant, Admiral. … Answer the questions.”

Then there’s Sessions, who informed King that he was “protecting the right of the president” to assert executive privilege and keep private all communications in question – even though Trump has asserted no such privilege.

Looking back on Sessions’ bizarre claim, King said, “I fully expected going into that hearing yesterday that the first thing he was going to say was, ‘The president has instructed me, under the executive communications privilege, to not answer questions about conversations I may have had with him.’ I fully expected that. But he didn’t.”

Instead, Sessions and the rest of Team Trump are playing King, the committee and, for that matter, the entire country, for idiots.

And they’re getting away with it – at least for now.

Maddening? You bet it is.

Case closed? Not even close.

As King noted, the intelligence committee’s work in recent weeks has mushroomed far beyond well-documented Russian interference with last year’s election (including troubling evidence that they attempted to attack state election systems).

It now envelops a White House stuck in what King calls a “defensive crouch,” for no apparent reason other than to shield its collective backside from rumblings of collusion and/or obstruction of justice.

King likens it to the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” with Trump blurting out startling revelations one minute, while in the next his underlings hide behind the protection of a “privilege” that is as disingenuous as it is transparent.

Take Sessions, for example. Having recused himself from all things Russian, how can the attorney general possibly explain away his involvement in Trump’s decision to fire Comey – when Trump himself has publicly admitted that he canned the FBI director because of the “Russian thing?”

And how can guys like Coats and Rogers refuse to answer questions without clearance from the White House, even while Coats conceded to King last week, “I’m not sure I have legal basis” for doing so?

Which brings us to the stark contrast between the Senate’s investigation into this burgeoning mess and the one underway – at least for now – by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Theoretically, the Senate Intelligence Committee could find Sessions, Coats and Rogers in contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But with a Republican majority in control, don’t hold your breath.

Mueller, on the other hand, can charge tongue-tied witnesses with obstruction – or worse. Tell him you don’t “feel” like answering and he’s likely to ask how you feel about a five-figure fine and a few months in the slammer.

“He has tools more readily available,” King said. “He will get at these questions, I suspect.”

Meaning this show has only just begun.

If you’re looking for a sequel to Watergate, in which a clumsy cover-up dwarfed a two-bit crime and brought down a presidency, stay tuned to Mueller. Nothing, after all, gets people chatting like the threat of a grand jury indictment.

But if you’re looking for something “really dangerous,” as King put it, keep an eye on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Of all the things he’s heard (or not) from the executive branch in recent days, King said, perhaps the most galling is its complete lack of curiosity over what exactly Russia did to us last year.

Sessions actually told King this week that, when it comes to the intelligence community’s rock-solid belief that the Russians meddled in the 2016 election, “I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper.”

(Cue good old Sgt. Schultz, from the classic 1960s hit series “Hogan’s Heroes,” as he backs toward the nearest exit: “I see nothing! I know nothing! …”)

“He said that!” King marveled. “That’s what’s so worrisome to me. They’re so focused on defending themselves that they aren’t focused on the threat, which is very, very real and continuing. This is not a one-off. This is not the Watergate burglary. This is a year-and-a-half-long effort by an adversary to infiltrate and interfere with our most basic democratic process.”

Trump apologists, as always, will call this fake news.

They’ll point to people of intelligence and integrity like King and, just as Trump did with Comey, scream “Showboat! Grandstander! Nut job!”

Let them.

Our country is in crisis. And this is no time to stop asking questions.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 15 Jun 2017 08:30:36 +0000
Opinion Podcast: Budget drama, Governor’s race party shuffle, Angus King’s star turn, and just a little nips Tue, 13 Jun 2017 19:38:53 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich along with columnists Alan Caron and Bill Nemitz discuss who needs to compromise with who in order to get the state budget passed, do some speculating on how Maine’s undefined political soul could lead gubernatorial candidates to switch parties as they try to get through the primaries, take a teeny, little sip from the nips controversy, and admire Angus King’s litigation skills on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Related stories:

Paul LePage ashamed to be part of ‘this government’

LePage moves to end sales of ‘nips’ mini liquor bottles

Sens. Collins, King question Comey in high-stakes hearing

Podcast Links:

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0, 15 Jun 2017 13:02:24 +0000
Bill Nemitz: What’s best for ‘Maine people’ is abiding by their wishes Sun, 11 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Brace yourselves, folks. It’s “Maine people” time in Augusta.

Over the next few weeks, as the 128th Maine Legislature careens toward its legal deadline for wrapping up its business and going home, we’re going to hear a lot from our lawmakers about what’s best for “Maine people.”

For example, Republicans will insist that “Maine people” simply can’t afford a 3 percent surtax on incomes over $200,000 to help pay for public education statewide.

Democrats, meanwhile, will insist that “Maine people” are tired of waiting for the state to meet its 13-year-old obligation to fund 55 percent of Maine’s school costs. Despite last fall’s vote, however, the Dems already have signaled their willingness to dicker on how best to reach that elusive goal.

But here’s the kicker: Even as they wrap themselves in the mantle of “Maine people,” both sides will labor long and hard to ignore us altogether.

The sad irony is that Maine’s people have already spoken.

Remember back on Nov. 8, when “Maine people” went to the polls and passed Question 2 on the statewide ballot?

It couldn’t have been clearer: “Do you want to add a 3% tax on individual Maine taxable income above $200,000 to create a state fund that would provide direct support for student learning in kindergarten through 12th grade public education?”

A majority of voters said yes. And with that, as required under Maine’s 109-year-old citizen initiative process, the referendum became law.

At least that’s what’s required under the Maine Constitution.

Six months later, in the above-it-all chambers of the State House, it’s as if it never happened.

Take, for instance, this email blast on Tuesday to the party faithful in which Maine Republican Political Director Joe Turcotte tiptoed around any mention of Question 2 whatsoever.

“One of our most crucial tasks here at the Maine Republican Party is making sure that Democrats are held accountable for every single choice they make,” he wrote. “Right now, a group of Democrats is threatening a government shutdown if they can’t get a massive spending increase.”

See that? The voters didn’t do it – the Democrats did!

God bless the Republicans. They’re holding those dastardly Dems accountable for their “choice” – even if the choice was, in reality, made by 383,428 Maine voters.

And speaking of Democrats and their choices, where are they as push comes to shove and the Legislature’s statutory June 21 adjournment dates looms ever closer?

They could, for once, show the same spines of steel as their Republican counterparts and say enough is enough, we take our orders from the voter. If that leads to a state shutdown, so be it – it will be the Republicans, not the Democrats, who defied the will of “Maine people.”

Instead, House Democrats unveiled a plan last week whereby the 3 percent surtax will be reduced to 1.75 percent and the $200,000 threshold will be bumped up to $300,000.

And oh yes, they’ll make up the difference by tacking an extra quarter-percent onto Maine’s 5.5 percent sales tax and hiking the lodging tax from 9 to 10 percent.

Translation: Rich people get yet another tax break while everyone else digs a little deeper.

The Democrats argue, as always, that theirs is a winning strategy in the long run: By portraying themselves as the adults in the room, the ones most willing to compromise, they will endear themselves to “Maine people” and thus reap political rewards for generations to come.

Two problems here.

First, like the peacemaker in a bar fight, the Democrats will inevitably end up on their collective keister.

Second, this is not their compromise to make.

As Abraham Lincoln once said back when Republicans stood for more than just entitled self-interest, “The people themselves, and not their servants, can safely reverse their own deliberate decisions.”

Not political parties. Not tone-deaf legislators. The people themselves.

There was a time in Maine’s not-too-distant past when citizen initiatives were considered sacrosanct.

Remember back in 1993 when Maine voted overwhelmingly to impose term limits on the Maine House and Senate?

Lawmakers hated it from the get-go. But despite all their grumbling after it passed, they dared not put their own political interests above the explicit desire of so many “Maine people.”

Contrast that with today, when it’s hard to distinguish between a successful citizen initiative – in other words, a passed law – and any other run-of-the-mill piece of legislation.

Ranked-choice voting drew strong support at the polls before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court opined this spring that in general state elections (unlike primaries and congressional elections), it runs afoul of the Maine Constitution.

So what’s a legislator to do? Here are their current choices:

They can do nothing and let the candidates duke it out, post-election, in the courts.

They can pass a constitutional amendment to allow for ranked-choice voting – a heavy lift requiring a two-thirds majority – and dutifully send said amendment back to voters for their consideration.

They can sidestep the constitutional conflict and at least allow elections not covered under the court’s opinion to proceed via ranked choice.

They can hit the “pause” button and study the issue.

Or they can decide voters didn’t know what they were doing last November and, by a simple majority, scrap the entire ranked-choice law altogether.

The only suspense at this point? How lawmakers will manage to repeal ranked-choice voting on the one hand, and claim they’re looking our for the interests of “Maine people” on the other.

The simple truth is there are two moments in our democracy when our will, the real will of Maine people, should trump all else. Actually, make that three.

The first is through the referendum, that extraordinary moment when we bypass the legislative and executive branches and specifically assert, “This is what we, the people, want to do.”

The second is election to office, when we tell a winning candidate, “Go, represent us on matters large and small.”

And the third?

When, having determined they no longer give a hoot what we think, we return to the polls and throw the bums out.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 10 Jun 2017 17:12:19 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Young man’s character already has passed the toughest test Sun, 04 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If only his mother could see him now.

On Monday, as Gabe Brady graduates from Washington Academy in East Machias and sets his sights on the University of Maine, he’ll bask in the glow of a $2,500 scholarship.

It’s not for academic achievement, although he’s performed well in the classroom.

Nor is for athletic prowess or musical mastery or any of the other talents that typically get kids recognized this time of year.

It’s for character.

“I was forced to grow up much earlier than I should have,” Gabe, 18, said during an interview on Friday in his school’s guidance office. “And I think that after seeing all that I did, I want to help people who are in my shoes. Help kids who have been through domestic violence.”

Gabe is one of four students across Maine who depart high school this spring under the spotlight of Mainely Character. Since 2000, the scholarship organization has awarded $107,000, and counting, to kids who stick out for their courage, integrity, personal responsibility and concern for others.

None is more deserving than Gabe Brady.

He was but 9 years old when, on the night of Feb. 23, 2008, he and his two younger siblings watched their mother’s deranged boyfriend shoot and kill her in cold blood.

Her name was Katie Cabana, although she’s now remembered with the surname Wilder, her mother’s maiden name.

Katie was 29 and a loving mother to Gabe and his younger half-siblings, Autumn and Ethan. But she suffered from bipolar disorder, along with a string of violent relationships to which the kids were all too often the only eyewitnesses.

Gabe became the family caretaker, the protector, the man of the house – if such a thing can be said of a boy at the age of 6 or 7.

But on that awful night nine years ago, when an enraged Richard Widdecombe Jr. showed up at the family’s home in rural Marshfield with a rifle, there was nothing anyone could do.

First Widdecombe shot Katie, who collapsed in the hallway trying to get to her children. Another shot hit 6-year-old Autumn in the foot.

Widdecombe next headed outside, where he shot and killed Aaron Settipani, 41, a family friend who had come to help pull Katie’s stuck vehicle out of a snowbank.

“I ended up grabbing a towel and wrapping Autumn’s foot up,” Gabe recalled with crystal clarity. “There was a lot of blood.”

Before Katie and Settipani died, both had called 911. Gabe called his grandmother, Ray Ann Wilder, long his most trusted first responder.

But Marshfield is close to nowhere. For what seemed like an eternity, there was only darkness, silence and, for two young children and their big brother, sheer terror.

Gabe carried Autumn to his bedroom, with Ethan close behind.

“I tried to get them both under the covers to hide them because I wasn’t sure if (Widdecombe) was going to come back,” Gabe said. “That was probably the worst part of the night – not knowing if we were going to die or not. Not knowing if he was going to come back into the house with the gun.”

Police finally arrived and the rest is that all-too-familiar blur of endless questions, forensic reconstruction and unfathomable grief.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Gabe, recalling how his grandmother and two aunts rushed to the hospital only to learn it was too late – Katie was gone. “But at the same time, I don’t remember being able to cry.”

Police arrested Widdecombe that night at his home in Machias. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and now, at age 35, is serving a life sentence at the Maine State Prison.

The three children went to live with their grandmother in nearby Dennysville. That is until Autumn’s and Ethan’s father obtained custody over them after a protracted legal battle and, just like that, they too vanished.

“I haven’t seen them since,” Gabe said, the loss plainly visible in his eyes. “I grew up with them and seeing all this domestic abuse, all this terror, all of my life, they were kind of … I loved them so much.”

He easily could have drowned in his own anger. Like so many men whose hellacious childhoods devolve into violent and abusive adulthoods, he could have gone on to subject others to the same nightmares once inflicted on him.

Not a chance.

Gabe was no older than 10 when, with the help of his grandmother, he began donating his birthday money and other gifts to the Next Step Domestic Violence Project, which covers Hancock and Washington counties.

Through the project, he helped found “Katie’s Quest,” a fund named after his mother that aims specifically to help other kids still trapped in the maelstrom of domestic violence.

More than once throughout his four years of high school, Gabe also has reached out quietly to fellow students whose home lives leave a lot to be desired.

His unyielding message: Domestic violence is the fault of the abuser. Period.

“There’s no excuse,” he said. “No excuse.”

He still grapples at times with depression. And when the hunters fire their guns in the woods around his grandmother’s home, he struggles to keep the flashbacks at bay.

Still, there’s a reason Gabe is the youngest-ever recipient of the Maine Department of Public Safety Bravery Award. Just as there’s a reason he’ll gravitate toward either nursing or psychology when, bolstered by his scholarship, he heads for the University of Maine this fall.

“Those are jobs where you can basically make other people’s lives better,” he explained.

Little wonder that when Mainely Character’s board sat down this spring to review the 200 or so scholarship applications from the Class of 2017, Gabe’s stood out immediately.

As did three others:

Noa Sreden Courtesy photo by Soggydogdesigns

Noa Sreden arrived at Morse High School in Bath four years ago cloaked in self-consciousness due to a speech deficit.

She leaves a confident young woman who founded Shipbuilders Committed, a student organization that strives to build a culture of success for all. She also started YEL!, which matches elementary-age children with high school mentors.

Katie Waeldner Courtesy photo

Katie Waeldner of Yarmouth is all about fighting hunger.

In addition to expanding the Nutrition Closet for her fellow high schoolers in need of weekend sustenance, she helped Yarmouth Community Services launch Lunch Crunch, a weekend and summer program for younger children without enough to eat.

Caitlyn McNulty Courtesy photo

Caitlyn McNulty refused to look the other way when she saw a friend and classmate at Scarborough High School verbally harassed and then physically bullied because she was gay.

Instead, McNulty spent more than a year gaining school approval for the Gender Sexuality Alliance, which provides a refuge for gay students and works to raise awareness around LGBT issues.

Self-motivated kids every one. As Anne Frank once wrote in her diary when she was but a teenager, “The final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

“You can be a good student. You can get a good job,” said Curtis Mildner, president of Mainely Character’s board. “But these kids are making their community better.”

And, in Gabe Brady’s case, safer.

Among those cheering him on when he ascends the stage on Monday will be Ray Ann Wilder, his grandmother.

In an interview Saturday, she called her grandson “an old soul.”

And yes, she admitted, she’s bracing herself for what will be the most bittersweet of days.

But she’ll see her deceased daughter in Gabe’s face, especially those eyebrows. And she’ll know that out of all that madness almost a decade ago, something truly good has blossomed.

“I’m so proud of him,” Wilder said, “He’s going to be a good man.”

A man of character.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 04 Jun 2017 07:52:33 +0000
Bill Nemitz: An appeal to Ayla’s killer: Listen to your conscience Thu, 01 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 She’s back. More than five years after 20-month-old Ayla Reynolds vanished without a trace, there she was Wednesday once again on the front page, smiling back at a world she no longer inhabits.

Somewhere out there, we can only hope, that photo is driving someone insane.

Ayla Reynolds

The latest news, as always, is maddeningly insufficient: Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds, is asking a probate court to formally declare her daughter dead and thus pave the way to a wrongful death lawsuit against the child’s father, Justin DiPietro.

It’s a tragedy most of Maine can recite by now:

On the morning of Dec. 17, 2011, Ayla was reported missing from her grandmother’s home in Waterville, where she’d been staying with DiPietro, his sister, Elisha DiPietro, and his girlfriend at the time, Courtney Roberts.

Police found the toddler’s blood inside the house. But the three adults there all claimed that she’d been abducted during the night and that they saw nothing, heard nothing and had nothing whatsoever to do with her disappearance.

Investigators, who long have assumed that Ayla was the victim of foul play inside the home, don’t believe them. In a statement six weeks after the little girl went missing, Maine State Police spokesman Steve McCausland said the trio’s claim “doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”

Fast forward to a year ago last week. In an interview with the TV show “Crime Watch Daily,” a tearful Trista Reynolds said, “Part of me always wonders if she was yelling out for me and wondering why I wasn’t there to save and protect her like I was supposed to. … It haunts me every day.”

Indeed it must. Grief, especially for a lost child, never fully evaporates.

Nor does guilt. Assuming Ayla was in fact murdered, what do we make of the person who killed her and, to this day, hides in silence?

Put more simply: Can a murderer have a conscience?

Some would say no. Once someone descends into the depravity of taking another person’s life, this thinking goes, the murderer’s only priority is to evade apprehension and avoid a dark future behind bars.

In most cases, that’s probably true.

But not in all cases.

Two months ago, a full 35 years after he killed 13-year-old Carrie Ann Jopek and buried her under a neighbor’s porch in Milwaukee, Jose Ferreira Jr., now 51, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Long a suspect in the case, Ferriera finally snapped in October of 2015. He confessed first to his wife, then to a crisis hotline, a TV station and finally police.

On the day he was to be tried for second-degree murder, Ferreira waived the statute of limitations and accepted a plea deal on two lesser charges – attempted second-degree sexual assault, with use of force, and false imprisonment.

What drove him to confess?

The victim’s mother, Carolyn Tousignant, in a recent interview with the Huffington Post, shared something Ferreira told her way back when her daughter’s remains were discovered in late 1983.

“He told me, ‘Your daughter’s haunting me,’ ” she recalled. “And I believe she was.”

Next up is Steven Goff.

In April of 2013, the 41-year-old mechanic turned himself in to police and confessed to the 1990 murder of Frederick “Ricky” Hart behind a condominium complex in Galloway, New Jersey.

A hunter tripped over Hart’s decomposed body a year after the killing. The cause of the 15-year-old boy’s death: multiple stab wounds.

Alan Rickel, a friend of Goff’s, later explained to ABC News what compelled the confession.

“He said he’d been living with this since he was 17, 18, having nightmares,” Rickel said. “He sees the kid’s mother in nightmares, saying, ‘How can you do this to my family?’ He had a 1,000-pound elephant sitting on his chest. He said that he had to confess, to tell the truth, and meet his maker.”

As Goff himself later put it to the Press of Atlantic City, “I didn’t develop compassion and remorse until I got older.” But when his guilt finally caught up with him, “it tore into me. It tore into me like razors.”

Closer to home, Steven Cutting, then of Palmyra, wasn’t even a suspect in the 1995 murder of 26-year-old William Greenwood of Westbrook.

Yet there Cutting sat 13 years later, confessing to a relative that he’d shot Greenwood after he’d picked him up hitchhiking in Portland and the two got into a fight.

The relative then told police, to whom Cutting repeated his confession. After he eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter, prosecutors said the case would not have been solved had Cutting not put the spotlight on himself.

And now we have Ayla Reynolds. An innocent child who, if her mother’s request is granted at a probate hearing scheduled for September, at long last will be declared legally dead. Forever gone.

My guess is that the person who killed her, whoever you are, knows all about this latest development.

I’ll bet that every time that cherubic face appears in Maine’s newspapers or on the 6 o’clock news, you have to avert your eyes – not out of anguish, but out of pure, unremitting guilt.

And late at night, while the rest of the world sleeps, I imagine you lie awake, trying to outrun those flashbacks that run roughshod over your memory.

If her mother has achieved one thing these past five-plus years, it’s that Ayla will not soon be forgotten.

That picture – the clear blue eyes, the toothy smile, the sheer happiness at being alive – leaves all of Maine with the distinct impression that she’s looking at each and every one of us.

So go ahead, whoever snuffed out that smile. Have the courage at least to look back, long and hard, at the happy little girl who should now be finishing first grade.

May she haunt you every day of your life.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 01 Jun 2017 10:32:14 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Tending to veterans’ graves still important Sun, 28 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Some families celebrate Memorial Day weekend with a cookout.

Others may take in a parade.

Then there’s the progeny of Henry Rivard.

“I want these flags standing straight,” Ron Rivard, 82, told the two dozen people, just about all of them relatives, gathered Saturday morning in the parking lot of the Southern Maine Memorial Veterans Cemetery in Springvale.

Behind Ron on the bed of his pickup sat bundles upon bundles of small American flags. Next to them rested a pile of “pokers,” simple tools designed to make a perfectly vertical hole exactly 16 inches out from the left-front corner of each headstone.

Holding up a poker, Ron instructed, “When you have it in there, do not wiggle it around because you make the hole bigger and the flag won’t be straight.”

Jerry Rivard, 92, Ron’s older brother, couldn’t resist.

“Do you have any levels that we can use?” he asked, tongue planted firmly in cheek, while the rest of the clan erupted in laughter.

Deadpanned Ron, “You don’t know how to read one, so …”

More laughter.

And with that, the family got to work. They had an entire cemetery to honor.

In a 2011 report titled “The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections,” the Pew Research Center found that American families with a direct connection to the military are at their fewest since the peacetime era between World Wars I and II.

The study also showed that veterans tend to beget more veterans and that the more tethered a family is to the military, the more likely they are to go out of their way to help – or honor – others in uniform.

This is not news to the Rivard clan.

Born on March 18, 1892, Henry Rivard served in the Navy during World War I. He came home to Maine after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, bought a 100-acre farm in Springvale and, along with his wife, Laura, raised 13 children – seven boys and six girls.

All seven boys went on to join the military. Twenty more of their offspring did the same.

None died while serving, although oldest brother Don was twice wounded and twice taken prisoner during World War II. An Army infantryman, he and several comrades finally managed to escape and hid high up in a cherry tree while the Germans searched for them below.

“The Germans never looked up,” Ron said. “They were up there for three days in the tree. And when they saw that the Germans weren’t coming back, they climbed back down and hiked 10 miles to Rome.”

Ron served in the Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga during the Korean War and was spared the horrors of combat – most of his tour was spent in the Mediterranean.

Now, more than half a century later, he’s made it his late-in-life mission to honor veterans – from all branches, from all eras, for as long as he can be of service.

“I’m 82, going on 40,” Ron quipped. “When I get old, I’ll probably join the Y and play shuffleboard. But until then, I’m going to be out here working.”

In his hometown of Shapleigh, Ron and two younger local veterans – Dick Langlais and Curtis Mills – mow, weed-whack and otherwise care for the veterans’ plots across 59 private cemeteries throughout the community. Some sit as far as a half-mile from the nearest road.

One grave dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Another holds Earlsworth Pillsbury, who fought in the Civil War and soon will be honored with a granite headstone now in the back of Ron’s truck – one of three markers awaiting placement and dedication.

“The pastor of the Baptist church helps me with the genealogy,’ Ron said. “He does the brain work and I do the bull work.”

But for all Ron’s labors, it doesn’t get any better than the last weekend in May.

Since its opening in 2010, the Southern Maine Memorial Veterans Cemetery has seen 935 interments. As the World War II, Korean and now the Vietnam veterans reach their final years, it’s not unusual for the cemetery to host five burials in a single day.

That’s a lot of flags. But Ron, who serves as secretary of the all-volunteer cemetery association, has a lot of boots on the ground.

“We’ve made it a family affair,” said Theresa Ouellette, 90, Ron’s older sister, as she planted flags alongside her niece, Cecile Frye.

Theresa’s two sons were in the Air Force. Cecile’s father (Theresa’s brother-in-law) was in the Army, her younger brother was in the Air Force and his son chose the Marines.

What draws them here when they could be out ringing in the summer?

“It’s a time to get together,” Theresa replied. “And to thank God that all our family came back.”

Marianne Theriault, 85, another sister, paused between flag bundles just long enough to share another incentive.

“We keep busy,” Marianne said, her smile as bright as the morning sun. “We don’t have time to die!”

But time does march onward. As Henry Rivard’s children and great-grandchildren darted from gravesite to gravesite fulfilling the family legacy, Betty Rivard stood by herself off in the distance for several moments, staring at one plot in particular.

There lay her late husband, Urbain, Henry’s fourth son. He served on a Navy destroyer during World War II and passed away a year ago in April.

“It’s hard. It’s been a long year,” said Betty, who met her husband while he was working in the Dominican Republic. “He was a good person – and this is an unbelievable family. Such wonderful people.”

Henry’s sixth son, Richard, who served in the post-World War II Army, is also gone.

As is second-oldest brother Paul, a Seabee in the South Pacific during the war. A heart attack took him in 2011 while he cleared brush from Soldiers and Sailors Park across the street from his home in Sanford.

In addition to Ron, that leaves brothers Louis, another Army vet, and Jerry, who rode as a bombardier on a Navy seaplane in the South Pacific. He remains with his wife, Theresa, on the old family farm, where they still grow and sell fruits and vegetables.

“I was 2 when my father bought it and I’ve been there ever since,” Jerry said with palpable pride. “Ninety years …”

Atop the nearby hill, not far from the entrance to the cemetery, a stone memorial to Henry Rivard awaited its flag.

The large slab notes that Henry left this world on Nov. 11, 1958 – 40 years to the day after the end of World War I. Now known as Veterans Day.

“And he died at 11 a.m.,” said Ron, the hour the armistice took effect.

Ever the organizer, Ron had one more instruction for his small army of flag planters.

“For you who are looking ahead to next year, mark your calendar,” he said. “May 26, 2018, at 9 a.m., we’ll be planting the graves again.”

Jerry, now the family elder, couldn’t let such an order go unchallenged.

“And what if we’re not here?” he called out to more laughter.

His kid brother didn’t miss a beat.

“If you’re not here,” Ron promised, “we’ll be sure to flag your grave.”

Correction: This story was updated at 10:37 a.m. on May 28 to correct the spelling of Cecile Frye’s name.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0 Frye, left, and Theresa Ouellette place flags at veterans' gravestones at the Southern Maine Memorial Veterans Cemetery in Springvale on Saturday.Sun, 28 May 2017 10:37:04 +0000
Bill Nemitz: After a few misses, LePage nails argument against nips Thu, 25 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Ever heard of the infinite monkey theorem?

It’s a fancy name for the theory that a monkey, pounding away at a typewriter for an infinite period, sooner or later will replicate a great work of Shakespeare or some other literary masterpiece.

Which brings us to Gov. Paul LePage.

Last week, after flailing away at the Legislature for daring to slap a 5-cent deposit on those tiny bottles of liquor, or “nips,” cluttering Maine’s roadsides, LePage stumbled upon a remarkably sound rationale for banning the little buggers altogether.

“The problem isn’t the waste stream,” LePage said in an interview on WGAN’s morning show last Thursday. “The problem is people drinking behind the wheel with the little nips. They throw them out of the car because they don’t want to keep the evidence in the car.”

Eureka. LePage is 100-percent, hit-the-nail-on-the-head correct.

Of course, he did not come by his Shakespeare moment easily.

He got here only after tripping over himself in search of a good reason to veto the Legislature’s overwhelming approval of the nip deposit.

“This is yet another anti-business vote that threatens jobs, increases costs to do business and puts the state’s financial health at risk,” LePage fumed in a prepared statement two days earlier. “Unfortunately, this kind of secretive backroom deal that burdens the taxpayers is what I’ve come to expect.”

See that? Pure babble.

He also vowed to have overseers of the state’s liquor industry remove, or “delist,” any and all nips from retail shelves. That way, he said, “they are not sold in Maine, and fewer of them end up as litter.”

Warmer … but not quite there yet.

Finally, even as his threat undermined the carefully brokered deal behind the legislation, LePage finally said what too few have during this entire, environmentally driven debate: “This issue is drinking and driving. That’s the issue.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have achieved Shakespeare. To tolerate swilling alcohol in automobiles or to not tolerate swilling alcohol in automobiles, that is the question.

Don’t get me wrong. I get as incensed as the next guy when I head out to get the mail and stoop down to collect the latest crop of empty, grimy, sun-bleached nips of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, Jim Beam Bourbon and Black Velvet Toasted Caramel embedded in the roadside sand.

But of more immediate concern than the litter – at least for those of us crossing the street – should be how all those shots-in-a-bottle got there in the first place.

People inside passing cars drank them and threw them out the window. And in doing so, they broke the law not only by littering but also by having an open alcoholic container, however fleetingly, in their moving vehicle.

Oh yes, and there’s a decent chance they were on their way to operating under the influence.

Testifying at a legislative hearing on the deposit bill back in February, Greg Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, noted that the state’s agency liquor stores sold 8.4 million nips in 2016.

This year, Mineo projected, those sales will jump to a whopping 12 million of the 50 ml bottles – a phenomenon that he said “exists up and down the East Coast.”

Think about that. A product clearly designed for easy, surreptitious consumption while pulling out of the parking lot of the nearest liquor store finds itself in the political spotlight not because it flies in the face of public safety.

Rather, it’s because the numskulls who imbibe while behind the wheel are cagey enough, as LePage so accurately put it, to immediately chuck the evidence out the car window.

(How careful are they? Of the six empty nips I just picked up within 50 feet of my mailbox, three actually had the caps tightly screwed back on.)

Liquor peddlers and their apologists will tell us that we’ve got nips all wrong: They’re for people who need a dollop of liquor for a food recipe, or people who only drink a little, or people who want to try out a particular brand for 99 cents before investing their hard-earned cash in a 200 ml or 750 ml bottle.

Right. And all those little bottles around my mailbox were dropped by drunken fairies.

Mark Brown, the CEO of Sazerac Co., which bottles Fireball Cinnamon Whisky at its plant in Lewiston, told Senate President Mike Thibodeau in a letter last week that Fireball alone accounts for 50 percent of all nip sales in Maine. (That’s no easy feat – the state liquor website lists close to 350 nip brands.)

What’s more, Brown said, nips sales are on their way to comprising 15 percent of the state’s total annual liquor sales.

“While we could have lived with a 5-cent redemption sticker if the state really thought that would solve the littering problem, we can no longer support the legislation while under the threat of having the 50 mls delisted,” Brown wrote.

Translation: Sure, we’ll help you clean up the roadside. But don’t you dare go after our hottest selling product – even if the lion’s share of it is consumed on the wrong side (wink, wink) of the law.

The simple truth is that, deposit or no deposit, every empty nip lying on the side of a Maine road is evidence of a crime that went unpunished.

And so it will continue as long as nips multiply like weeds and companies like Sazerac entice the dimwitted (or addicted) with website sales pitches like this one for their red-hot Fireball:

“If you haven’t tried it yet, just imagine what it feels like to stand face-to-face with a fire-breathing dragon who just ate a whiskey barrel full of spicy cinnamon. Live it, love it, shoot it – what happens next is up to you.”

Or not, assuming LePage sticks to his guns and, after vetoing the nips bill between now and June 2, then moves to take them off the shelves altogether.

So don’t stop now, Governor. Keep pounding away against the clowns who chase the “fire-breathing dragon” down our highways and byways because … they can.

As Shakespeare himself once put it, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Wed, 24 May 2017 23:32:42 +0000
Podcast: Threats to shut down the state and defy the voters, plus why Trump won’t get impeached Tue, 23 May 2017 17:39:21 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich, and columnists Bill Nemitz, Alan Caron and Cynthia Dill discuss the State budget and if conflict over the voter-approved surcharge on high-income earners could lead to a state shutdown. Then they weigh in on why some think it’s unlikely that President Donald Trump will be impeached.

Podcast Links:

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0, 23 May 2017 13:39:21 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Remembering a math teacher whose lessons still add up Sun, 14 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The text message came from my wife on Tuesday.

“It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week,” she wrote. “Who do you remember most – Brother B?”

She meant Brother Bede, who taught me algebra way back in 1968-69 and, as coincidence would have it, died a year ago Wednesday at the age of 95.

And yes, dear, for reasons that have little to do with integers and a lot to do with integrity, he is to this day unforgettable.

You never know which teachers are going to stick with you as the months turn into years and the years turn into decades.

The young, too-cool-for-school teachers often fade as we reach and then surpass their age when we knew them. Yes, they were a blast to be around – but what did they actually teach us?

The taskmasters, if we remember them at all, remind us now of a bad boss. Checking every box and following every instruction to the letter might get you an A – but what did you learn about the balance between getting the job done and cultivating relationships with those around you?

Then there were teachers like Brother Bede.

He arrived at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Massachusetts, a year or two before I enrolled as a freshman in 1968. Standing there at the head of the class that first day in his black cassock, he made an indelible first impression the moment he opened his mouth.

He had a slight speech impediment, compounded by the heavy Boston accent acquired from his childhood days – back when he went by Richard Joseph Benn – in Somerville.

“Brother Bede” thus sounded more like “Bwuddah Bede.” And as he introduced himself and talked about the year ahead, many of us strained to understand exactly what he was saying.

But we got used to it – along with his many other disarming attacks on the language.

“Square root of” became “scootz-ah.” As in “Ten, multiplied by scootz-ah 36, is 60. Got that, gentlemen?”

“Smash” became “smatch.” As in, “Keep up that talking, Billy Nemitz, and I’m going to smatch you!” (As if the man would ever hurt a fly.)

You’d think, in this sea of adolescent insecurity, that Brother Bede would have been an easy target for those who saw nothing wrong with snagging a cheap laugh at his expense. And, truth be told, some kids did.

Yet the mimicry never fazed him as he walked through each day with that eternal, other-worldly smile on his face.

It seemed he knew every kid in the school – and there were close to 1,000 of us – by first name.

When he said hello, it wasn’t just a robotic greeting for the masses with whom he crossed paths each day. Rather, you walked away with the buoyant thought, “Wow, he seemed really happy to see me.”

His motivational speeches were short and not always sweet, but how could you not laugh out loud?

“Don’t shake your head ‘no’ like that,” he’d advise a stumped student midway through class. “We can all hear the rocks rolling around up there!”

Me? I’ve never been a numbers person. As my peers sprinted through algebra, breezed through trigonometry and analysis and set their sights on calculus, I struggled from the get-go – and Brother Bede knew it.

“Let’s try it again,” he’d say patiently after class, as we perused my botched homework assignment. “See here, ‘x,’ which in this case is 12, minus ‘y’ which is scootz-ah-4, which is 2, times ‘c’ cubed, which is 9 times 9 times 9, which is 729 … so that gives us 7,290. OK now?”

“Holy (expletive),” I’d silently marvel. “How did he do that so fast?”

Brother Bede had great respect for the rules of mathematics, although that didn’t stop him from editorializing.

Take what was then called the “new math,” promulgated in the early 1960s by the School Mathematics Study Group, or SMSG. Also known, at least to Brother Bede, as “Some Math, Some Garbage.”

He was, like so many great teachers, a perpetually open book.

And then, as we began our junior year, he was gone. Not to another assignment at another Xaverian Brothers-run high school, but to the Lakota Sioux Rosebud Indian Reservation in the far reaches of South Dakota.

He would teach there, both at the small St. Francis Mission school and later at Sinte Gleska University, for the next 23 years.

A world away from the comfortable confines of suburban Boston, it was nonetheless a fitting destination.

The Xaverian Brothers, or Congregation of St. Francis Xavier, were founded in 1839 in Belgium by Theodore James Ryken, who previously had spent three years traveling in the United States and resolved to create a mission here to educate Indian children.

But when he finally returned in 1854, Ryken instead focused the budding order’s efforts on Catholic schools, largely populated by immigrant children, in such places as New Orleans and Baltimore.

Now, more than a century later, here was Brother Bede devoting what would be a third of his adult life to Native Americans who came to cherish him as much as we had. He became their friend, their teacher, their spiritual adviser and, for many a child born in those years, their godfather.

I got the news via a letter to alumni last May. After returning to Massachusetts in 1993, Bede had gone on to teach for another 16 years at Malden Catholic High School – where he’d previously taught a half-century ago. Finally in 2009, just shy of 90, he retired to the Xaverian Brothers Residence in Danvers.

At the time of his death just over a year ago, he was the oldest surviving member of the Xaverian Brothers congregation. And, as the tributes poured in, perhaps the most beloved.

“Brother Bede brought passion, dedication and energy to every aspect of the Malden Catholic community,” wrote U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, class of 1964. “He was an inspiration to us all.”

Gene Trainor, who worked alongside Brother Bede at my high school and went on to become a Roman Catholic priest, would second that.

“He was no Uriah Heep!” wrote Gene in an email last week, referring to the Dickens character notorious for his false humility.

Recalling the day the entire student body, and then the entire faculty, bade Brother Bede farewell with a loud, sustained and heartfelt standing ovation, Gene wrote: “I was so struck by how this simple-living man was profoundly loved. And he never had to work at it. … His humility became him.”

More than once over the past year, I’ve watched and rewatched a short video produced by the Xaverian Brothers four years ago.

In it, Brother Bede, unchanged but for the gray-white hair, spoke with quiet reverence about his faith, his surprise at having lived so long and his daily prayer that when the time came, he’d be ready.

“I always tell people the good ones die young, you know,” he quipped with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But it’s good, yeah.”

Indeed it was good. As he is impossible to forget.

So, better late than never, Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, Brother Bede.

And thanks for not smatching me.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 14 May 2017 16:52:43 +0000
Bill Nemitz: With nation’s faith at stake, this isn’t the time for caution, Sen. Collins Thu, 11 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 She has a decision to make. And with history’s fault lines spreading out beneath her feet, Sen. Susan Collins best make it sooner rather than later:

Should Maine’s senior senator, already no friend to President Trump, join the call for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian involvement in last fall’s election, now that Trump has abruptly given James Comey the heave-ho as FBI director?

Or should Collins stand fast with her fellow Senate Republicans and insist that Comey’s firing on Tuesday – only the second in FBI history – need not divert this entire mess toward an independent counsel?

“I need to do more research on it,” Collins said in an interview Wednesday. “Obviously, this took me totally by surprise and so I haven’t looked at this issue for years. … I just am not able to give you an answer to that yet.”

Let’s be fair. There are times when such caution is a virtue.

Now let’s be rational. This is not one of those times.

To accept Trump’s claim that he had Comey’s walking papers hand-delivered to the FBI because the director was too rough on Hillary Clinton is to surrender once and for all to the alternate universe that has enveloped the White House these past 112 days.

The man is lying. And with each revelation that undercuts his claim – The New York Times now reports that Comey had just asked for more resources in his search for possible connections between Trump’s campaign and the Russians – Trump looks less like a president and more like a dictator slip-sliding his way toward political oblivion.

Asked if she believed Trump’s claim, by way of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that Comey’s loose lips vis-à-vis Clinton’s emails render him unable “to effectively lead the bureau,” Collins said, “I don’t know what was in the president’s mind.”

But, she added, “If President Trump believes that somehow removing Jim Comey from the job is going to stop the FBI from completing its investigation, or the Senate Intelligence Committee from continuing its investigation, he is completely mistaken.”

Hear, hear. Still, completing investigations is one thing. Finding the cold, hard truth, alas, can be quite another.

The plain reality now is that the entire Department of Justice, including the FBI, is under a cloud.

Yes, the FBI investigation goes on. But no, we can no longer have faith that the fruits of its labor, however rotten they may be, will lead to criminal prosecutions if warranted.

How can we, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuses himself from all things Russian in one breath, only to call for firing the guy overseeing the Russian probe in the next?

As for the investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which both Collins and Sen. Angus King sit, Collins said the pace is only now picking up after weeks of slow going.

Asked to identify the major obstacles thus far, she replied, “It has been difficult to negotiate, with the intelligence community and with the FBI, access to all the individuals and documents that we need.”

Note the word “negotiate.” Special prosecutors don’t negotiate. They compel – and those who stonewall or play cute with them do so at their own legal peril.

Beyond the push and pull among the investigators and their potential targets, there’s an even more compelling reason to anoint a special prosecutor. In fact, Collins herself made that argument quite convincingly as she pondered her next move.

While she has total confidence in Deputy AG Rosenstein, who has served for 26 years in both Democratic and Republican administrations and now presides over the Russia probe, Collins said his reputation might not be enough for a public now aghast at Trump’s latest bombshell.

“I recognize that the public may feel that anyone who’s high up in the Justice Department is somehow tainted,” she conceded. “It’s the timing of the president’s decision and the chaos that has been caused.”

Ah, yes. The timing: All of the transgressions articulated in Rosenstein’s now infamous memo on Comey took place long before Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Yet the memo is dated Tuesday, the same day Trump lowered the boom on Comey.

So inquiring minds now ask: Is Rosenstein indeed the Boy Scout that Collins maintains, or did he get caught up in, as Angus King has suggested, “a solution in search of a rationale?”

Collins, once again, at least grasps the dilemma.

“Let’s say that the Justice Department gets the recommendation from the FBI and decides that there should not be indictments in this case,” she said. “The question for me is, even if that’s the right decision, will the public perceive it as the right decision? Or will they perceive it as a politically tainted decision?”

Let me go out on a limb here and vote for “politically tainted decision.”

The more Collins spoke, the more she sounded like someone trying to talk herself into a decision fraught with political peril.

After all, only one of her Republican Senate colleagues, Sen. John McCain, had by late Tuesday called for a special committee to probe the Russian connection – an option Collins rejects because it would take at least six months just to duplicate the progress already achieved by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Collins, long assailed by critics who say she talks a good game of bipartisanship only to falter when the time comes to truly stand alone, could change that perception right now. Not with a vote (the decision on a special prosecutor rests with Rosenstein alone), but simply with her voice.

She could continue plugging away from her seat on the Intelligence Committee and, at the same time, ensure that if crimes were committed against our electoral system, they will not be suppressed beneath the weight of Donald Trump’s pathological paranoia.

She could, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell be damned, do the right thing.

“I have a lot of confidence in (Rosenstein) as being professional, a straight shooter, a career prosecutor. The question is, will the public have confidence in him?” Collins wondered aloud. “That’s why I’m looking at those guidelines (for appointing a special prosecutor) – to see whether we’ve reached the tipping point.”

We have indeed, senator. That sound you hear is democracy fast going down the drain.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 11 May 2017 06:59:45 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Earbuds are fitting symbol for ever-silent Rep. Poliquin Sun, 07 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Bruce Poliquin should have stayed in the restroom.

For those who haven’t already heard, the Republican congressman from Maine’s 2nd District fled toward a U.S. Capitol ladies’ room on Wednesday when a persistent reporter tried to ask for his position on repealing the Affordable Care Act.

A short time later, after correcting himself and scurrying into the men’s room, Poliquin hastily emerged wearing earbuds – his clumsy add-on to a pre-existing condition that has afflicted him since the day he first arrived in Washington, D.C.

The poor guy apparently can’t hear, let alone answer, tough questions.

On the same weekend that former President Obama rightfully receives the 2017 JFK Profile in Courage Award, Poliquin stands, now and forever, as Maine’s own profile in political cowardice.

Just as he spent most of last year dodging queries on whether he supported then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, Poliquin literally hid behind his silence for days rather than tip his hand on the euphemistically titled “American Health Care Act.” Or is it the “American Health Care Ax”?

Then, after the moment of truth finally arrived Thursday and Poliquin quietly fell in line to narrowly approve this legislative abomination, what did he do?

Did he fly home, book space at the Portland International Jetport and welcome in the media for a face-to-face briefing?


Did he at least set aside enough time to tackle any and all inquiries about what he did and why he did it?

Wrong again.

He simply put out a statement that was as self-serving as it was misleading: Under this measure, “essential benefits” and “pre-existing conditions” would still be “fully covered,” he promised.

What he failed to acknowledge was that people who are old or sick (or both), should they experience a lapse in coverage, could easily be priced out of an insurance market that is now, by law, blind to those infirmities.

Then, rather than follow up with a full-fledged news conference, Poliquin opted for a phone call with the members of Maine’s media. Some only learned of it indirectly and at the last minute on Twitter.

For those who managed to patch into the call came this twist: Only selected TV reporters could ask questions. The rest were instructed beforehand to keep their traps shut.

Over and over, Poliquin insisted that the Republicans’ repeal-and-replace bill will only impact Mainers who “have Obamacare policies” – as if the health of those 80,000 or so of our neighbors somehow doesn’t count among what he called the “serious problems that are affecting Maine people.”

He’s wrong. In supporting this bill, Poliquin also voted for an estimated $800 billion in Medicaid cuts that would cost Maine’s neediest upward of $1 billion over the next 10 years.

He also said “yea” to scrapping the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all insurers provide 10 essential health benefits, ranging from maternity care and emergency room visits to mental health treatment, prescription drugs and laboratory work.

Access to those services will now be left for the states, two-thirds of which are controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, to decide.

What else didn’t Poliquin talk about?

Well, he dodged the painful truth that he and his Republican colleagues rammed the bill through without at least waiting to hear from the Congressional Budget Office about how much it will cost and how many millions it will leave uninsured.

(Spoiler alert: The last CBO count, before the legislation lurched further to the right, was 24 million.)

Not a peep about how, under this plan, emergency rooms will once again fill up with sick people who waited too long for treatment and can’t possibly pay their bills.

Total silence on the fact that smaller hospitals in rural areas, which must provide that emergency treatment regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, will find themselves in critical financial condition – assuming the hospitals survive at all.

And, oh yes, we’ve yet to hear the congressman’s thoughts on the tax cut the bill awards to wealthy Americans – of which he is one – both on their income and their investments. (Perhaps he could donate his windfall to the National Association of the Deaf?)

Poliquin’s phone chat lasted all of 15 minutes. In keeping with his the-less-I-say-the-better approach to representing Maine’s oldest and poorest region, it was just enough to let him off the hook.

Contrast that with Rep. Chellie Pingree, the Democrat from Maine’s 1st District. After releasing her statement denouncing the Republicans’ “reckless” action, she invited a media throng to her Portland office Friday morning to talk for as long as they wanted about what all this means for a state with the highest median age in the nation.

She decried what she called “a gift to insurance companies” and “about a trillion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthiest people in our country.”

Pressed at one point to comment specifically on Poliquin’s vote, Pingree demurred. While she strongly disagrees with the Republican’s position in general, she said, “You can ask (Poliquin) for his thoughts” on why he voted the way he did.

Except we can’t. And even if we could, he’d bolt for the nearest bathroom.

Among the health advocates joining Pingree at the podium was Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association. He called the Republican bill “a huge step backwards” in making health care accessible and affordable to all Mainers.

“In this bill, the losers are the poor, those who are sick, those who are old, and women,” Smith said. “And in the state of Maine, we have a lot of all four.”

Noting that he’s spent considerable time recently in northern Maine, Smith said the aging communities in those areas “are not in good shape.” Nor, he noted, are the health care providers.

“I don’t know why Congressman Poliquin and I see it so differently,” Smith mused.

No one does. All we can hear is the sound of toilets flushing.

It’s worth noting that next year around this time, Poliquin will be hard at work trying to get himself re-elected – or, if some rumors pan out, attempting once again to weasel his way into the Blaine House.

Either way, here’s hoping that the majority of people he represents, like the rest of the country, will by then have pushed the political pendulum away from blind ideology and toward their own self-interest. That they will at least have started to feel the real pain embedded in whatever emerges from this travesty still in the making.

Put more simply, Bruce Poliquin can and will run.

But unlike his trip to the biffy last week, he’ll have no place left to hide.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Mon, 08 May 2017 11:35:26 +0000
Podcast: Bruce Poliquin’s vote, time zone shuffle, and the Katahdin monument Fri, 05 May 2017 17:04:28 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich along with columnists Bill NemitzCynthia Dill, and Alan Caron discuss three big stories from the week: the House passing the American Healthcare Act and why Rep. Bruce Poliquin kept his vote secret until game time, a provisional vote in Maine to have us join the Atlantic time zone if Massachusetts and New Hampshire do the same, and Gov. Paul LePage’s oppositional appearance in Washington D.C. to discuss the economic impact of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.


Rep. Poliquin supports health bill, says only 7% of Mainers affected. Facts show otherwise

Maine House votes to join Atlantic time zone, if New Hampshire and Massachusetts do the same

LePage, advocate offer dueling testimony in Washington on Katahdin-area monument

Podcast Links:

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0 over 87,563 acres, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument could pull the surrounding area out of its economic malaise by offering diverse recreational pursuits.Mon, 08 May 2017 09:08:48 +0000
Bill Nemitz: LePage just can’t get over Katahdin national monument Thu, 04 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 She couldn’t live any farther from Maine. But U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, sure has a clear view of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

“This is a very unusual situation,” Hanabusa observed Tuesday from Capitol Hill. “Because first of all, let’s all be clear: The 87,500 acres is originally private. In other words, your family foundation is who purchased those lands, correct?”

“That’s right,” replied Lucas St. Clair, representing the Quimby Foundation.

“So, unless I’m mistaken,” Hanabusa continued, “I don’t believe Maine has a law … that would somehow allow Maine to tell you what to do with your lands.”

“It does not,” replied St. Clair.

“Because if you were to still hold it, you could deny access completely, isn’t that correct?” asked the congresswoman.

“We could,” St. Clair agreed.

And that, in a nutshell, captures the utter absurdity of the campaign led by Gov. Paul LePage to undo President Barack Obama’s decision eight months ago to set aside the Katahdin tract for all of posterity.

One last time, let’s review the obvious:

Nobody stole the land.

It was bought at fair market value, St. Clair later noted, “from the timber industry, from willing sellers, and we were willing buyers.”

No government entity seized the land.

The Quimby Foundation, as St. Clair testified, “worked long and hard to put it into the public trust.”

And nobody wants to close off the land.

To the contrary, St. Clair told the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, it’s the only national monument that allows hunting and snowmobiling – a gracious nod to those in northern Maine who weave such activities into the fabric of their lives.

From there, it only gets better. St. Clair explained to the committee how the Quimby Foundation, created by his mother, Roxanne Quimby, has already spent between $8 million and $10 million “rebuilding roads, widening roads, building bridges, building viewpoints, bathrooms, campgrounds, boat launches, et cetera, to make it available for the public.”

What’s more, the foundation has endowed the monument with $40 million for future upkeep because, St. Clair explained, “we’ve seen the backlog of maintenance in other national parks and recognize that they needed to be supported both by the federal government, but also by the private sector.”

So why, with all the challenges facing this state, this country, this entire planet, are we still having this discussion?

Because Gov. LePage’s perpetual anger requires constant fueling, that’s why.

He’s the grumpy old neighbor screaming at the kids to stay out of his backyard – only it’s not really his yard and the kids are full-grown tourists with adventure in their souls and money in their wallets.

This week’s long-anticipated showdown stems from President Trump’s recently ordered review of 26 monuments established by Obama and other past presidents. Ironically, Kathadin is not on the list because it’s too small.

Nevertheless, for two-and-a-half hours, this politically charged piece of real estate occupied center stage. Simultaneously, lawmakers saw Maine at its best and its worst.

In one chair sat St. Clair, poised, polished and well-prepared to fend off tiresome attacks on what by any reasonable measure represents the height of forward-looking philanthropy.

Two chairs down sat LePage, sullen, sour and scornful of any suggestion that northern Maine’s future might hinge on something other than its free-falling pulp-and-paper industry.

During one such myopic moment, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, asked Maine’s governor, “What percentage of your state’s income is based on tourism?”

“I … couldn’t tell you that, sir,” replied LePage. “Between tourism and pulp-and-paper, I’d say tourism probably has a slight edge.”

A slight edge? Try telling that to the paperworkers no longer making paper – or the hoteliers and restaurateurs desperate for more chambermaids and wait staff.

Last month, the state reported that Maine tourism industry revenues grew 6 percent, to $6 billion in 2016 – the fourth annual uptick in a row.

By contrast, the Maine Pulp & Paper Association announced in January that it was going kaput after 50 years. Its stated reason: “As the number of Maine pulp and paper mills have decreased, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain sufficient membership.”

Yet LePage insisted to the committee that the paper industry is poised for “big growth” in tissue, paper towels and wax paper and “I think we should be in the forefront of it.”

Let’s accept, despite all those shuttered mills, LePage’s prediction of the second coming of Paul Bunyan. How does the relatively minuscule Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument stand in the way of that?

It doesn’t. It won’t. It is, to borrow from Maine’s seafood industry, a red herring.

Back to St. Clair.

“This is not a zero-sum game” pitting paper against tourism, he calmly testified. “This is a region that has lost 5,000 jobs in the paper industry in the last three decades. And so attention needs to be brought to the region, both for new forest-products industry jobs and for tourism.”

Back to LePage, who swatted away the increased tourism argument by dividing Maine into two regions – the tourist-clogged coast and the “mosquito area.”

Two problems here.

First, the notion that Maine mosquitoes all live inland is an insult to Maine’s ubiquitous coastal blood suckers.

Second, LePage earlier had testified that Baxter State Park, cheek-to-jowl with the new Katahdin Monument, “is one of the greatest wilderness parks east of the Rocky Mountains.”

Tell us, Governor, how can that be if Baxter sits smack dab in the middle of Maine’s “mosquito area?”

The simple truth here is that the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, controversial as it may have been in recent years, is one of the best things to happen to northern Maine in a long time.

As St. Clair testified and as multiple independent reports in recent months have shown, good things are already sprouting from the monument in the form of increased visitors, rising real estate values and business growth.

At the same time, polling now shows strong support for the monument both statewide and in northern Maine.

In short, it’s working. And the sooner LePage accepts that and moves on, the better for all.

Wrapping up her questioning of St. Clair on Tuesday, Rep. Hanabusa of Hawaii spoke about how, in her tiny state, private-public collaboration is the key to preserving “legacy lands” for generations to come.

And so, she told St. Clair, “I wanted to end by saying thank you.”

As should we all.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 04 May 2017 12:46:04 +0000
Podcast: Trump’s first 100 days, and how to pay for Maine schools Fri, 28 Apr 2017 17:48:44 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich and columnists Bill Nemitz and Cynthia Dill discuss three big stories of the week: President Trump’s 100-day review, the Maine House’s debate over the best way to raise money for the state’s education system, and the U.S.’s role and responsibilities when it comes to escalating and cooling foreign conflicts.


Trump now says being president harder than he thought

Bill Nemitz: In debate over school tax, LePage’s latest gaffe makes a big difference

Two U.S. troops die battling Islamic State militants in eastern Afghanistan

Podcast Links:

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0 proposal before the Legislature would give Maine schools flexibility to enforce truancy laws on enrolled students younger than 7. Reducing absenteeism starts with tracking missed days and working with parents. school bus student childFri, 28 Apr 2017 14:39:07 +0000
Bill Nemitz: In debate over school tax, LePage’s latest gaffe makes a big difference Thu, 27 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 It will be, over the next two months, the mother of all debates:

Should the powers that be in Augusta accept the will of voters, who decided in November to boost education spending via a 3 percent surcharge on taxable income over $200,000?

Or should they ignore the electorate and simply repeal it?

In this corner, we have those who say the people have spoken and, well, enough said.

In that corner, we have folks who argue that the poor voters knew not what they were doing, that the income-tax add-on will spell ruin for a state already on the economic ropes.

Then, way out there, we have Gov. Paul LePage. He just makes stuff up.

Monday evening, after a whirlwind day of bashing the education surcharge in Augusta, LePage headed all the way up to Fort Kent for a town hall meeting.

Among those waiting for him there was Chris Hallweaver of Van Buren, a smart guy with a smart question.

Now that Maine has a healthy surplus after years of whacking away at state government, Hall asked, why is LePage handing it over to the wealthy? Why squander the surplus on yet another proposed income-tax cut and repeal of the 3 percent surcharge, rather than invest back into the state’s economy?

Break out the number crunchers, folks. We’re going into the weeds.

LePage responded to Hallweaver that, thanks to last fall’s referendum, “anybody who makes $200,000 family income, in the state of Maine, pays 10.15 percent, the highest income tax.”

Countered Hallweaver, “No, that’s not correct, because 3 percent of that is only on the incremental revenue above 200,000.”

Advantage Hallweaver: Under the new law, the 3 percent surcharge applies only to taxable income over $200,000. Anything under that is subject to Maine’s pre-existing marginal tax rates, which top out at 7.15 percent.

Now, if we’ve learned one thing about LePage these past seven years, it’s that he’s never found himself in a hole he can’t dig deeper.

“It’s for the full $200,000. It’s 10 percent of the full amount, sir,” the governor retorted. “It’s not incremental, it’s the top dollar. Once you hit $200,000, you are paying 10. If you’re paid $200,001, you are paying 10.15 percent after your deductions. Sorry, that’s the way it works. That is the way it works.”

Sorry, Governor, but that’s not the way it works. And you either know that and are deliberately spreading falsehoods to further your political agenda or you have no business talking tax rates without a certified public accountant whispering in your ear.

LePage’s gaffe makes a huge difference:

The way he spun it on Monday, a Mainer with taxable income of $200,001 would pay 10.15 percent in state income tax on the entire amount. That translates into a whopping $20,300 tax bill.

In reality, however, that person would pay Maine’s marginal tax rates, up to 7.15 percent, on the first $200,000 – along with 10.15 percent on that extra dollar. That’s an estimated $13,192 in state income tax – plus a dime for that extra buck.

Meaning in this case, LePage overstates the surcharge’s impact by more than $7,000.

Hallweaver, in an interview Tuesday, also expressed dismay at LePage’s repeated claims that doctors, lawyers, scientists and other highly paid professionals are fleeing Maine in droves to avoid the 3 percent surcharge.

“In my office this morning, we had hundreds of letters that we gave to the press from the people that had left,” LePage told the crowd.

Hundreds of letters?

Try 37 – including 22 that were actually directed to the governor’s office and another 15 that were submitted to the Legislature as written testimony back in February.

And what exactly do these letters say?

Not one came from someone who actually has left Maine.

Six were from people who said they’re either planning to leave or at least thinking about it.

Eight more said they knew of someone either leaving or considering it. (One writer, for example, was told this by a stranger he met on a plane.)

Some of the remaining letters, while not announcing any moving plans, were nevertheless telling.

“I am tired of people who do nothing to improve their situation, dipping into the pockets of those that do,” complained a veterinarian in Scarborough. “It may be a small amount of luck that gets you ahead, but I’m sure you know that it is more about sacrifice. … I pay more taxes just by earning more money. FLAT TAX!”

A woman from Cape Elizabeth suggested that indentured servitude might balance the scales: “If we have to bear this burden, what are others’ forced contributions? Janitorial services? Volunteer time, maintenance? Nothing. The proverbial finger has been pointed at us while everyone else is clear of obligation. This is infuriating.”

(The proverbial finger? How about the actual finger that LePage & Co. have pointed at Maine’s poor for the past seven years?)

Then there was the widow from Wales who apparently thinks society’s obligation to public schools should fall primarily on those with school-age children.

“Many of us don’t even have children in this system and many have many children and get plenty of welfare,” she wrote. “Enough is enough for this small state.”

What makes LePage’s latest public relations blitz so unfortunate is that there is a legitimate debate to be had here over the 3 percent surcharge.

It was passed, after all, by voters who for more than a decade have watched the state renege on his statutory obligation to fund 55 percent of the cost of education statewide.

Were they hoodwinked, as critics now claim? Or were they simply fed up with a system that always seems to favor those lucky Mainers who live in the land of six (or more) figures?

At the same time, a smattering of the letters in LePage’s paltry pile, while not from professionals bidding Maine bye-bye, are from corporate executives who warn that the surcharge will make it tougher to attract highly paid employees and keep them here.

To be sure, these execs speak out of self-interest – assuming their taxable income falls somewhere north of $200,000. But they nevertheless deserve to be heard.

LePage could encourage this debate. Heck, in a perfect world, he could enhance it with real facts, real figures, maybe even real people.

Instead, he once again undermines it with claims that are blatantly untrue.

And he tops that off with an alleged mass exodus from Maine that’s heavy on fear and light on fact.

Mused Chris Hallweaver after the governor’s latest performance, “Very powerful stuff, fake news.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Wed, 26 Apr 2017 23:30:24 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Scholarships awarded at birth mean no child left in a bind Sun, 23 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Earlier this month, Colleen Quint traveled up to Lewiston to buy a growler of beer for a friend at Bear Bones Beer. She had on a vest bearing the logo of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation.

“The young guy pulling the beer has tats running up and down (his arms) … he’s got the cork thing in the ear,” Quint recalled.

As he poured, the bartender stopped for a moment and squinted at the tiny logo on Quint’s vest.

“Do you know anything about that program?” he asked.

Quint happens to be president and CEO of the foundation. For the last four years, it’s awarded a $500 college scholarship, no questions asked, to every child born in Maine.

“Yeah,” Quint replied to the tattooed beer guy. “I’m involved with that.”

“That is the best thing,” he said. “My daughter is 4 months old and we are so excited about that. And we’re telling all of the family she doesn’t need toys, she doesn’t need clothes. What she needs is her future.”

Pausing at the tap once again, he looked Quint in the eye and said, “It’s a really important thing you’re doing.”


Three years ago in this space, we celebrated the news that the Alfond Scholarship Foundation had taken its Harold Alfond College Challenge universal – meaning parents, rather than formally apply for a free $500 kickstarter grant for their newborn’s college fund, automatically had their child enrolled in the program simply upon registration of the baby’s birth.

The money, which at current rates is expected to grow to between $2,000 and $2,400 by the time today’s newborn reaches 18, can be used to pay for any qualified higher education expense (as defined by the Internal Revenue Service) at any accredited postsecondary school in the United States. The recipient has until the age of 28 to use it, or it goes back to the foundation.

“Think of a family living in rural Maine in a trailer somewhere and the kid gets to be 17 years of age – and they’ve got 2,400 bucks in the bank for something. And they can’t do anything with it except to look for higher education,” said Greg Powell, president of the overarching Harold Alfond Foundation. “Having it there, year after year, for 18 years – the studies are proving that it will change the way parents feel about the future of their child.”

Let’s go to the numbers.

Since its founding as a pilot program in 2008 and the switch to automatic enrollment starting in 2013, more than 70,000 Maine children now have Alfond Scholarship Foundation college savings accounts in their own names.

Taken together, those funds now represent an investment of $35 million – and growing.

Add to that the matching funds being kicked in by parents, relatives, some employers and others and, as of the end of 2016, the total investment now exceeds $70 million.

Noted Powell with a knowing grin: “Harold Alfond loved matches.”

Indeed he did. The late Maine industrialist-turned-philanthropist’s legacy is deeply woven into the fabric of Maine’s higher education community, from large campus buildings adorned with his name right down to the toddlers, buoyed by an Alfond scholarship, who will one day walk those very hallways.

Until now, the scholarship program has centered its outreach on the website, which remains up and running to welcome the 12,000 or so infants born in Maine each year.

But the original recipients are now in second and third grades. Noted Quint: “We figure as kids get older, they’re not going to be interested in a website called ‘500forbaby.’ ”


Operated through the Finance Authority of Maine, it’s a place where parents (and children, as they grow older) can easily access their account and check their current balance. At the same time, they can explore setting up a tax-deferred NextGen college savings plan alongside the Alfond account.

Some will undoubtedly scoff at all of this. They’ll point to the soaring price tags for four-year, private college – many now at or beyond $250,000 – and say, “What’s the use? It’s going to take a lot more than $500 in seed money from the Harold Alfond College Challenge to climb that mountain.”

A few important points:

For starters, said Quint, recent reports show that upward of 80 percent of Americans currently enrolled in higher education pursue something other than a four-year, residential degree.

Translation: Applied to a public university, a two-year community college degree or a welding certificate program, that $2,400-plus college savings account becomes a lot more significant – both in getting one’s foot in the door and lowering debt load upon graduation.

(Speaking of debt, it’s also worth noting that the Alfond Foundation recently unveiled a debt-relief program whereby students who work in science, technology, engineering or math jobs in Maine for at least five years will qualify for up to $60,000 in relief from outstanding college loans.)

Powell also notes that the costs of many elite, liberal arts colleges cannot keep skyrocketing forever. He envisions models, by the time many of today’s infants turn 18, whereby the intellectual content developed by such institutions will be much more widely available through individually targeted, online learning.

“I am by nature an optimist,” Powell said. “And what I would say is 18 years from now, the cost of higher education will be much, much lower.”

Now let’s look beyond the number-crunching.

Equally as vital as the actual $500 grant is how the Harold Alfond Scholarship Challenge taps into what Quint calls the “aspirational piece” of the higher education equation – particularly for parents who wish only the best for their children, but are hesitant to say so for fear of raising expectations that they might not be able to fulfill.

The Alfond account signals to that parent, in the most tangible way possible, that “someone else believes in my child. Someone sees potential in my child that I see as well,” Quint said.

Hearing that at the time of a child’s birth, she added, is “an incredibly powerful thing.”

Need proof?

Mounted on the wall in a meeting room at the Alfond Foundation is a huge banner full of handwritten messages from parents to their children.

The foundation saved the mural from the days when parents had to enroll in order for their child to get a $500 grant – these particular messages were scrawled during a sign-up event at a shopping mall.

“To Isaac,” reads one, “Dream big, work hard and the future is yours. Love, Mom and Dad.”

Thanks to Harold Alfond and those who strive to keep his name alive, every kid in Maine now hears that message starting on Day One. And lo and behold, it’s working.

Just ask the beer guy.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 22 Apr 2017 18:23:23 +0000
Podcast: The 2018 gubernatorial race starts to take shape Fri, 21 Apr 2017 14:12:43 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich, and columnists Bill Nemitz and Cynthia Dill discuss the week’s news, including the first official entry into the 2018 governor’s race, the disturbing case of Anthony Sanborn Jr., and Bill O’Reilly’s departure from Fox News.


Prosecutor facing scrutiny over 1992 murder trial agrees to testify

Veteran, attorney Adam Cote files to run for governor as Democrat

Bill O’Reilly is out at Fox News Channel

Podcast Links:

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0, 27 Apr 2017 14:07:39 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Justice removes blindfold that masked facts in Portland murder case Sun, 16 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If it weren’t true, it would be the punch line to a bad joke: Have you heard the one about the guy who served 27 years for a murder in which the sole eyewitness was legally blind?

Yet it’s true. Right here in Portland, Maine.

And now that Tony Sanborn, 44, is a free man out on bail, the state has some explaining to do.

Thursday’s bail hearing in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court would have been stunning enough had it ended simply with the bombshell revelation about Hope Cady’s eyesight.

The state’s star witness testified way back in 1992 that she saw Sanborn, then 16, viciously kill Jessica Briggs, also 16, on the Portland waterfront while Cady watched from a distance.

One problem: Cady suffered from a progressive eye disease that rendered her legally blind, meaning her vision likely was too poor to match her story.

But then this happened:

“Were you down at the pier that night?” asked Amy Fairfield, the attorney who has worked doggedly for the past year to get Sanborn a long-overdue fair shake.

“Not that I can recall,” testified Cady, who was a 13-year-old ward of the state at the time and lived mostly on the streets.

“But you’re certain that you did not witness the murder,” said Fairfield.

“Certain,” replied Cady.

And why, asked Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber in follow-up questioning, did Cady not come forward sooner?

“I was scared,” she said.

Scared of whom?

“Those detectives,” Cady replied.

That would be retired Portland police Detectives James Daniels and Daniel Young, who helped then-Assistant Attorney General Pamela Ames put Sanborn behind bars all those years ago.

The same detectives who, along with Ames, now owe Sanborn, the court and the people of Maine some answers about how they did – or failed to do – the job society expected of them.

To read Fairfield’s 102-page motion to grant Sanborn’s bail – the precursor to her motion to have his conviction thrown out entirely – is to witness a process in which an at-all-costs guilty verdict now appears to have trumped the truth.

It describes how Cady and other witnesses, mostly street kids already known to police, were cajoled, coerced and outright compelled to implicate Sanborn or else they too might find themselves charged with a crime.

Evidence favorable to Sanborn, which by law must be turned over to the defense in its entirety and without delay, was surrendered in dribs and drabs. Or, when it came to Cady’s documented history of vision and hearing problems, it was withheld altogether.

Take, for example, this tidbit involving Gerard Rossi, another witness who claimed Sanborn had confessed to him multiple times. Or did he?

Rossi, older than Sanborn and already on the police radar for allegedly having sex with underage girls, made his claim about Sanborn confessing in an unrecorded interview with Detectives Young and Daniels in March of 1990.

But the day before that, Rossi told a Florida deputy sheriff in a taped interview – over and over and over again – that Sanborn had made no such confession to him.

“He never told me nothing outright,” Rossi told the deputy while the recorder rolled. “Listen, I’m telling you the truth. He never told me.”

And what happened to that tape?

“I put the tape in a box with other case files,” said Daniels in an affidavit submitted to the court last week. “I had never listened to it.”

Nor would the prosecution turn the transcript of the tape over to the defense until February of 1992 – almost two years after the interview took place.

Why the delay?

“It was an oversight and housekeeping issue with case management for which I take complete responsibility,” Daniels said in his affidavit.

Right. Just like Daniels failed to listen to the tape the moment the Florida detective gave it to him because “I did not take it as relevant.”

According to Fairfield, Rossi ultimately fingered Sanborn for one very good reason: In exchange for his testimony against Sanborn, the prosecution team promised, he’d be off the hook when it came to any charges involving sex with the young girls.

The detectives’ response?

Daniels: “Det. Young and I have both made it a personal policy not to make any promises to anyone.”

Young: “I have never made a deal in any criminal case and in fact often tell defendants that only the prosecution can talk to them about a deal.”

Young went on to say he did not recall “the facts about Gerry Rossi or any other witness, however, any issue of threats to a witness are not true and never occurred.”

How convenient. He can’t remember all of the facts involving Rossi, but he hereby swears that any and all allegations of coercion are not true.

The unraveling goes on and on. More than a dozen times in their affidavits, the two detectives use the phrase “I don’t recall” or the equivalent.

But trust them, they now tell us, their investigation was by the book and virtually flawless.

And where is former prosecutor Ames in all of this?

Assistant AG Macomber, who served as her second in the Sanborn trial, told the court last week that Ames, now a private attorney in Waterville, hadn’t had time to prepare an affidavit of her own in time for the hearing.

(When I called Ames’ law office on Friday, the woman who answered the phone told me to “Have a nice day” and hung up.)

So where does this go from here?

Well, Macomber cryptically claimed in court last week that he may have to recuse himself from further proceedings because he has firsthand knowledge that Cady’s recantation is false and he thus may have to so testify as a witness.

But even if she is now lying, Cady’s credibility is shot. Ditto for two other prosecution witnesses whose affidavits were submitted to the court by Fairfield last week – a woman who says she “lied on the stand” and a man who says his statement to police, made under duress, was “99-percent false.”

All of which adds up to one inescapable conclusion: This case stinks to high heaven. And the sooner the court vacates Sanborn’s conviction and offers him a full apology, the better.

Perhaps more astounding than last week’s courtroom drama, after all, was the grace – and utter lack of bitterness – that Sanborn displayed as he wiped away his tears, embraced his family and supporters and traded in his jail jumpsuit for a set of everyday clothes.

In all his time in prison, even as he steadfastly maintained his innocence, not once did Sanborn commit a disciplinary violation.

Rather, as Fairfield told the court, he’s served almost half of his 70-year sentence as a “model prisoner,” tutoring his fellow inmates, counseling those in crisis, even volunteering to train at-risk shelter dogs in need of a second lease on life.

In short, Fairfield told the court, the man convicted of murder has behaved like a “saint.”

Back in 1993, before Sanborn was sentenced, Nicholas Trout, a volunteer at the then-Maine Youth Center, wrote a letter to the court expressing how “shocked and deeply saddened” he was at the guilty verdict.

Trout had met weekly with Sanborn for more than two years. Throughout it all, he wrote, Sanborn “displayed an uncanny optimism that the truth would see him out of jail.”

Now, more than a quarter-century later, the truth is finally emerging.

Anyone can see that.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 16 Apr 2017 10:07:26 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Getting pardon from LePage not as easy for human Thu, 13 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When it comes to evoking the sympathy of Gov. Paul LePage, Sarah Whynaught suffers from one distinct disadvantage.

She doesn’t bark.

“We all have to own up to what we did – and most of us do,” Whynaught said Wednesday. “But if a dog gets a second chance, then why can’t I?”

She’s 51 and lives in the western Maine town of Peru. Long, long ago, before she singlehandedly raised three children to be fine, upstanding citizens, before she started her own business, before she earned not one, not two, but three college degrees, Whynaught became a convicted felon.

But she’s no Dakota, the combative Husky who late last month fetched what may well be the first gubernatorial pardon of a dog in Maine history.

Try as she might, Whynaught can’t persuade LePage to grant her a pardon and thus help her get off the often-maligned “cycle of dependency” and on with her life.

Her story:

Way back in 1990, after growing up an only child in the tiny town of Bryant Pond, Whynaught fell in with a bad crowd in nearby Rumford.

They did drugs. They bought and sold drugs. And when a task force of local, state and federal law enforcement officials finally moved in, there was Whynaught with a quarter-ounce of cocaine in her possession.

She pleaded guilty to furnishing a schedule W drug, a Class C felony. She served 11 days at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, paid an $850 fine and successfully completed 18 months of probation.

Fast forward to 1998. Pregnant with her second child, Whynaught and her boyfriend found themselves under siege from a previous boyfriend who would sometimes show up at her home with a baseball bat.

The second boyfriend, fearing for his life, brought an unloaded handgun into the home – unbeknown to Whynaught – and hid it in the drawer of a bedroom night table. No ammunition, mind you, just a gun to pull out as a deterrent should ex-boyfriend go completely off his nut.

Enter the police again – this time acting on unsubstantiated claims that Whynaught was again dealing drugs.

They found not a speck of drugs. But they did find the gun – prompting them to charge Whynaught with being a felon in possession of a weapon. Another felony.

Whynaught, fearing a long prison term, again pleaded guilty. That got her 16 days in the Oxford County Jail, a $450 fine and another clean stretch of probation.

In the ensuing years, she had another child and singlehandedly raised all three kids to be model citizens. No drugs, No arrests. No trouble whatsoever.

She supported her family by building a summer rental business on property she inherited from her father in Bryant Pond. Life was, at long last, good.

But then the financial collapse hit in 2008, leaving Whynaught suddenly under water on a mortgage and investment property she’d picked up along the way.

“I lost everything,” she recalled. “So at that point, I decided to put myself through school.”

She earned an associate degree in digital communications, followed by a bachelor’s degree in business systems, both online from the University of Phoenix.

When it came to finding work, though, the two degrees weren’t enough to counterbalance the two felony convictions. So Whynaught enrolled at Kaplan University in Lewiston and got her master’s in business administration.

Since then, her life has been an endless procession of resumes, hopes raised and dreams dashed.

“I’ve applied and applied and applied for jobs,” she said. “I’ve had great interviews.”

But then, near the end, prospective employers invariably ask if she’s been in trouble with the law. Whynaught always answers yes, explains what happened and, with that, the job goes poof.

So there she sat in late 2015, volunteering at her local food pantry while living off disability payments stemming from a serious car accident that shattered her ankle 17 years ago.

She and her youngest, a 17-year-old daughter, also receive $148 per month in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and $198 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Proud of how she’d forged ahead with her life yet frustrated with the perpetual roadblock to employment, Whynaught gathered all her records, hired a lawyer, and applied for a pardon to the Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency.

She thought she was a good candidate – and others thought so, too.

“Sarah has done well in educating herself and doing her best to become a creditable person,” wrote state Rep. Fran Head, R-Bethel, in a letter to the board. “She has worked very hard to turn her life around and I believe she should be given every consideration in this clemency decision.”

Echoed Whynaught’s counselor at the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Vocational Services, “Sarah wants to work and have a career and would shout it from the rooftops if she thought anyone would listen.”

But despite those and other endorsements, the board said no. As did LePage after Whynaught sent him a two-page letter expressing her sincere belief “that I am a worthy candidate for a second chance in life.”

“I want to know that if I grant a pardon, the recipient is truly worthy of it,” LePage wrote back. In her case, he concluded, “my decision to deny you a pardon stands.”

Whynaught knows better than to try again as long as LePage is in office. (Petitions for a pardon can be resubmitted after a year.)

Still, she wonders how he can prattle on as he does about the need for welfare recipients to get out there and get a job, only to turn a deaf ear when she pleads with him for help in doing exactly that.

“The governor wants everybody to go to work. Well, here I am,” she said. “If anybody wants to get off the (welfare) system, it’s me.”

Back to the dog.

Imagine Whynaught’s surprise when she turned on the news two weeks ago to find that LePage had granted a “full and free pardon” to Dakota. A judge had ordered the Husky from Waterville put down after it attacked and killed a neighbor’s dog and later went for the throat of the same neighbor’s new pup.

That action, like so much of what LePage does, was of dubious legitimacy at best.

On Wednesday, Waterville District Court Judge Valerie Stanfill flat-out ignored LePage and ordered the dog put down within 48 hours – the decision is now on hold pending the dog owner’s appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

It’s all a bit much for Whynaught.

Last year, upon being told by the governor that she was not pardon-worthy, Whynaught asked her lawyer about going public with her story – not just for herself, but for others like her who have earned another chance.

Her lawyer’s response: “Don’t rock the boat.”

“But to give a full pardon to a dog?” Whynaught said. “You know what? I’m going to rock the boat.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 13 Apr 2017 10:23:13 +0000
Bill Nemitz: It’s a sure bet that casino proponent rigs the deal Sun, 02 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Say what you will about casino flipper Shawn Scott, the man knows how to write a bio.

“He is a visionary who sees value where others do not, and understands how to formulate plans that unlock that value,” reads the nugget under Scott’s name on the website of Bridge Capital LLC, the Saipan-based-firm that wants to bring another casino to Maine.

Scott, who more than a decade ago brought us Hollywood Slots in Bangor and immediately sold it for a cool $51 million, sees value where others do not, all right. And Lord knows he’s adept at unlocking that value.

But here’s the part he doesn’t brag about: When it’s all said and done, that value tends to end up in his pocket.

Last week, in what was unquestionably one of the wackier hearings in recent memory, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee gathered to talk about the citizens initiative that calls for a new casino in York County.

Not just any casino, mind you. The measure headed for the statewide ballot in November is worded in such a way that Shawn Scott, and only Shawn Scott, can build this money-sucker.

So where was Scott when the committee decided to hold its hearing on Wednesday?

My guess is that he was sipping an umbrella drink on his island in the western Pacific, paid for by the fortune he siphoned out of Maine back in 2004.

That’s when, upon spending a few million dollars to obtain voter approval of the state’s first casino in Bangor, Scott immediately sold the place to the gambling behemoth Penn National and vamoosed with his mega-jackpot.

Which brings us to Dan Riley, an attorney and lobbyist from Portland.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, an email dropped into Riley’s inbox informing him he was now the paid mouthpiece for Bridge Capital.

Off Riley went to Augusta, where he would be the only person to speak in favor of the York County casino initiative. Sort of.

“This is one more example of the current law providing an investment opportunity and that’s, as I understand it, what my client has been involved in – taking advantage of that investment opportunity,” Riley told the committee.

Beyond that, it being his first day on the job and all, Riley wasn’t able to say much.

“This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Augusta,” said the committee’s House chairman, Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, in an interview Friday. “Sitting in there, you feel a little bit powerless because our options are pretty limited.”

He can say that again.

The casino referendum made it to this fall’s ballot via Horseracing Jobs Fairness. Over the past two years, the shell signature-gathering organization has spent more than $4 million trying to ram another casino down Maine’s throat.

(When it comes to outright deception, the group’s name hits the trifecta: There’s nothing requiring the casino to be anywhere near a horseracing track. Its promise of 800 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs has no factual basis whatsoever. And since when is anything having to do with casino gambling fair?)

Because it’s a citizens initiative, the Legislature can only approve the proposal outright (fat chance), pass it on to the voters (a sure bet) or come up with a competing measure to appear alongside Scott’s on the November ballot (more on that in a minute).

So why have a committee hearing at all?

Because, Luchini explained, he and his co-chairman, Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, at least wanted to shed some light on who’s behind this thing. Prior to Wednesday, the $4.2-million money trail behind Horseracing Jobs Fairness began and ended with Lisa Scott of Miami, Shawn Scott’s sister.

“We all suspected that (Lisa Scott’s) brother and one of his corporations were behind it secretly,” Luchini said. Still, he added, “I was surprised they took this approach and came out and said they were.”

Maybe that’s because back in January, the state of Massachusetts slapped Bridge Capital with a $125,000 fine – the state’s second largest ever – for not revealing that it was funding a referendum to build a casino in Revere. That measure failed last November by a whopping 61 percent to 39 percent.

So at least now we know, for the record, that Shawn Scott is at it again.

We also know that if he succeeds in slipping this one past us, he’ll immediately collect his winnings from the highest bidder for his York County casino rights and laugh all the way back to Saipan.


Because, as a 2003 report for the Legislature noted, Scott avoids answering the tough questions, has questionable business connections and presides over companies “which have demonstrated sloppy, if not irresponsible, financial management and accounting practices over the years.”

More recently, there’s the seizure in 2015 of a Bridge Capital casino by the government of Laos over alleged corruption there, which prompted this quote of the week from co-chairman Mason at Wednesday’s hearing: “I would just say that if the government of Laos thinks you’re corrupt, we have a major problem.”

Bottom line, Scott is adept at getting casino proposals on ballots. But he’s far from casino-worthy.

“Once you admit that these guys are behind it, then there’s really no other option but to flip it,” noted Luchini. “Because these guys would never get licensed in any state in the country.”

Some say this is yet another example of how badly the Legislature has blown it when it comes to casino gambling in Maine.

Without a statewide, carved-in-stone policy on all casino gambling here, the argument goes, we’re perpetually vulnerable to characters like Scott and their highly paid, shamefully deceptive (yet ultimately successful) signature gatherers whose only objective is to get their scheme on the ballot.

Luchini begs to differ.

“When they say we lack a policy, I take issue with that,” he said. “Because in Maine, the policy has always been we don’t want casino gambling. That’s a policy in and of itself.”

Fair enough. Perhaps, then, the problem lies in how easily outside interests circumvent that no-casino policy and line their pockets by manipulating Maine’s citizens initiative process.

But that’s a debate for another day. For now, let’s double back to that competing-measure option that the Legislature still could deploy.

My suggestion?

Put an identical casino proposal on the ballot, with one extra caveat: If the measure passes, the “visionary” Shawn Scott must stay put and work in the facility’s parking lot.

“That,” Luchini laughingly agreed, “would be perfect.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 01 Apr 2017 16:32:04 +0000
Podcast: Paul LePage evolves on healthcare. Casinos again? Trump changes politics, but how? Fri, 31 Mar 2017 16:44:05 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich, and columnists Bill Nemitz, Alan Caron and Cynthia Dill start by talking about Paul LePage’s apparently fluid views on healthcare as expressed in recent radio interviews. They wonder if America can get a real independent investigation into Trump’s Russia connections and from whom, How Post-Fact politics will change the country and re-shape the political center, and finish by previewing upcoming columns about tipping, casinos and reasons for optimism.

Subscribe to the Portland Press Herald Podcast to make sure you never miss an episode

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

]]> 0, 31 Mar 2017 12:45:55 +0000
Bill Nemitz: How can we throw away perfectly good food? Fri, 31 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Eat your plate,” my mother used to say. “No dessert until you eat your plate.”

She didn’t mean the actual plate, although that didn’t stop me and my seven siblings from occasionally putting on goofy faces and mock-chomping the family dinnerware.

She meant the food. All of it. Right down to the last wayward pea.

I remembered Mom’s mealtime mandates this week upon reading that South Portland and Scarborough soon will become Maine’s first municipalities that collect food waste, separate from the rest of the trash, at the curbside each week.

The pilot programs aim to divert the household food waste from our rubbish stream and ship it to an “anaerobic digester” in the northern Maine town of Exeter, where it will be converted into electricity, compost and animal bedding.

Fascinating stuff. But here’s the part that hit me like an overripe tomato: According to a 2011 study by the University of Maine, 28 percent of Maine’s household trash consists of food waste.

That’s a ton of food waste. Or, to be more accurate, about 150,000 tons per year.

Granted, not all of it is edible – at least by 21st-century American standards: apple cores, eggshells, coffee grounds, potato peels, the “garbage” list goes on and on …

But what about that quarter-full box of stale crackers? The hot dogs that are a few days past their “sell-by date”? The bluish-looking lump in the rear of the refrigerator that started off as leftovers but morphed into a paving stone?

How often, and how easily, do we take a sniff or a tentative nibble, make a face and chuck it in the trash?

Put more bluntly, when it comes to the millennia-old correlation between having enough food and living to eat another day, do we have a clue how lucky we are?

For the past six years, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has studied food loss and food waste globally. Its findings paint a stark contrast between the world’s haves and have-nots.

In the United States and Europe, the FAO reports, consumer food waste – that is, food that makes it to your kitchen or pantry but is never actually eaten – averages between 210 and 250 pounds per person each year.

Compare that with sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia, where per capita food waste runs between a paltry 13 and 24 pounds per year.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all start gnawing on cantaloupe rinds or creatively squeeze one more serving out of that fuzzy thing in the Tupperware container.

But as the Natural Resources Defense Council notes in “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” the relatively low cost and widespread availability of food in this country clearly “has created behaviors that do not place high value on what is purchased.”

Meaning we don’t plan well enough when we buy food, we’re haphazard when we store it, and, the moment it begins to look even a half-shade less than perfect, we have no qualms whatsoever about giving it the heave-ho.

“That’s so far removed from my thinking, I can’t even relate. I just can’t even fathom that,” Dixie Shaw said. “I can’t even imagine that people would throw away perfectly good food.”

Shaw runs two food banks in Aroostook County for Catholic Charities Maine. She’s an expert at finding perfectly edible food that retailers and farmers might otherwise throw out and funneling it to needy families via 24 food pantries scattered throughout northernmost Maine.

One of her biggest peeves? Those “expires on” or “use by” warnings, stamped on everything from a box of Triscuits to a jar of Ragu, that far too many people take far too seriously.

“It’s nothing but a marketing tool because they want you to buy more,” Shaw said. “People sucker right into that. They fall for that.”

Down in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has been trying for the past year or two to bring some sanity – not to mention frugality – to the not-so-exact science of determining just when “old” becomes “too old” for whatever lurks in the back of the fridge or food cupboard.

The Food Date Labeling Act, proposed by Pingree and fellow Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, would establish actual time lines for food expiration and adopt universal labels that differentiate between, say, peak quality and downright dangerous.

“In everyone’s household, there’s the person who picks something up and says, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this label. We’ve got to throw it away!'” Pingree noted in an interview Thursday. “And the other person says, ‘Oh, no. This is perfectly good. We can still eat this.'”

(Little wonder that the proposed legislation, which Pingree says has already drawn widespread support from food manufacturers and retailers alike, has been dubbed the “Domestic Harmony Bill.”)

Still, our elected leaders, food bankers and curbside collectors can only do so much.

At some point, reducing food waste comes down to you and me and those 21 tomatoes that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, every man, woman and child in America discards every year.

One exception: A few years back, Shaw met a Maine family that would never do such a thing. They called her to say they had a truckload of canned food to donate if she’d come pick it up.

She’ll never forget the long, winding driveway, the cameras on every other tree, the disembodied voice in the doorway that said “I’ll be right there” the second she rang the doorbell.

“They’re survivalists,” Shaw said. “They hunker down 10 years at a time. And they pack food in for The Great One, whatever that is, whatever disaster might be coming or the end of the world or World War III, whatever it is that they’re surviving. They pack food in for 10 years.”

Shaw loaded the “cases and cases and cases” of food into her van, only to realize later that they were indeed a decade old and thus well outside the limits of her food banks. (She draws the line at three years.)

“So I gave it all to a bear hunter,” she recalled. “And he gave me a $50 donation, and I said, ‘Thank you. Now I’ll go buy some real food.'”

Still, Shaw said, it does make you wonder …

“If they’re right, and it’s nine years and 364 days and the end of the world comes and that’s all that’s left to eat?” she mused. “I’m eating it.”

Somewhere, my mother just smiled.

Correction: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 31, 2017 to correct the total amount of Maine’s household food waste.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Fri, 31 Mar 2017 15:47:03 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Do my words bother you? That’s OK – you didn’t hear them from me Sun, 26 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 First, let’s get one thing straight. I did not write this column.

I know, that’s my name up there and that’s my picture right next to it and any reasonable person would therefore conclude that these are my words and I can thus be held accountable for everything that follows.

Wrong. Never wrote it. Never said it.

How can I make such a ridiculous claim?

Easy. I just did.

It’s the latest thing in public discourse these days, brought to us by our chief executives both here in Maine and in what’s left of Washington, D.C.

Up in our neck of the woods, Gov. Paul LePage did it with remarkable aplomb during a town hall forum in Gorham on Wednesday.

A woman in the audience asked why he vetoed a politically charged solar-power bill last year, yet signed another bill granting a $13 million bailout for Maine’s biomass-to-electricity industry.

Timely question: Just the day before LePage’s town hall, Portland Press Herald staffer Ed Murphy reported that struggling loggers have stopped delivering biomass to Stored Solar of West Enfield, one of two companies receiving the state subsidy.

Their problem? According to the loggers, Stored Solar stopped paying them for their deliveries weeks ago – adding fuel to many a critic’s prediction that the bailout would end up benefiting only the corporations.

So there stood LePage with this hot potato of a question on his hands and what did he say?

“I did not sign that bill,” he replied flatly. “It went into law without my signature.”

The crowd lapped it right up. But sitting off to one side, Maine Public State House reporter Steve Mistler’s ears went up.

The ever-observant Mistler followed the biomass bill closely last spring and distinctly remembered LePage reluctantly signing it. He even remembered double-checking and seeing the actual signature on the actual document.

And so Maine Public immediately ran with Mistler’s story, headlined “LePage Says He Didn’t Sign $13 Million Biomass Bailout (He Did).”

It was hardly LePage’s first head-on collision with the truth. But unlike many of his past whoppers, this one wasn’t about some distant memory or some story that could never be fully vetted.

No, this was a flat-out denial of a recent signature that’s still there, plain as day, for all to see. This was the preschooler solemnly swearing he didn’t eat the cookies, oblivious to the Oreo chunks still lodged between his teeth.

So how did Team LePage contain the damage from this one?

They didn’t. No pushback, no clarification, no claim that the governor, once again, was taken out of context. Not a peep.

Lie? What lie?

Damage? What damage?

I’m telling you, folks, you just can’t go wrong with this look-people-in-the-eye-and-lie strategy. I mean, you literally can’t go wrong. Ever!

Cut to Washington, D.C., where President Trump has spent the last few weeks drowning in his made-up claim that the Obama administration had “wires tapped” in Trump Tower during last year’s presidential campaign.

Umm … nope. Never happened.

Yet still Trump clings to this fabrication. It’s only a matter of time before he tweets that he heard about the wiretap from none other than the Man from U.N.C.L.E. … or was it Agent Maxwell Smart?

Then, late on Friday, Trump one-upped even himself.

While the repeal and replacement of Obamacare went down in flames all around him, a strangely serene president told a gaggle of reporters in the Oval Office: “You’ve all heard my speeches. I never said repeal it and replace it within 64 days.”

Correct, Mr. President. As the Washington Post points out in a delightful, rat-a-tat video montage, you repeatedly said “one of my first acts as president” would be to deep-six the Affordable Care Act “immediately … starting on Day One.”

Foiled again? Fuggedaboutit. It’s time, Trump now tells us, to move on.

So this is what we’ve come to, folks.

While fake news swirls through the gutter in the stiffening political winds, our highest elected officials no longer obfuscate, equivocate or prevaricate.

They just flat-out lie.

There is no ink on that piece of paper.

There is no video on that screen.

There is no unassailable truth. Reality itself is now up for grabs.

And while those smart enough to have not voted for them in the first place watch these “day-is-night, night-is-day” twisters in utter amazement, Trumpists and LePage loyalists nod along in blissful agreement with whatever spews from their heroes’ mouths.

In LePage Land, there simply is no signature to what’s starting to look like yet another shameless corporate giveaway of millions in taxpayer dollars.

In Trumpworld, repeal and replace was … meh … somewhere down there on the to-do list. (A fantastic to-do list, by the way. Totally fantastic. Terrific list. …)

So now I get it.

Facts are facts, until they’re not. What happened happened, until it didn’t.

Memory is in the eye of the rememberer – perhaps best illustrated by the time on “Get Smart” that Agent Max took a fire extinguisher to the head of the Chief.

“I said I was sorry,” Max later told Chief. “You just didn’t hear me because you were in a mini-coma.”

There’s a lot of that going around these days. Indeed, considering how high LePage and Trump have risen, maybe this complete lack of accountability for what comes out of one’s mouth is the new normal.

I don’t know about you, but I find that strangely liberating. Kind of like not having your cookies and eating them too.

Tempted to give it try? Allow me.

Paul LePage is a fraud. He’s disgraced his state, squandered millions on boneheaded ideological crusades and, one year after trying to organize a Republican coup against then-candidate Trump, now fantasizes about the call from the White House that will come … someday?

Donald Trump is beyond a disgrace to the office of the presidency. He’s supremely unqualified, has no leadership acumen whatsoever and poses a serious danger to the entire planet.

Say what?

You didn’t like that?

Not my problem.

I didn’t write it.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 26 Mar 2017 04:29:52 +0000
Bill Nemitz: A sermon for those on the mound, from one who’s been there Thu, 23 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Dennis Eckersley, the onetime closer and now TV color commentator for the Boston Red Sox, once said, “I can’t recall too much about pitching, but I was anxious to get it over with.”

I, on the other hand, remember every agonizing second of my brief career on the pitcher’s mound. And like Eckersley, I wanted only for it to end.

It lasted all of one-half inning.

Memories of my long-ago trauma were tweaked this week with the news that all over Maine, high schoolers are scraping off the winter rust in anticipation of the start of baseball season on April 12.

Pitchers, who began throwing this week, will face a new set of rules this year: Per order of the Maine Principals’ Association, they face a limit of 110 pitches per game. Also, should they throw more than 95 pitches in one outing, they must get four days of rest before taking the mound again.

All of which got me thinking: Nowhere in team sports is there a position so lonely as that of the pitcher.

Throw well and you’re the hero.

Throw poorly and you’re the goat.

Throw somewhere in between and you’re at best a glutton for punishment, not to mention a candidate for psychotherapy.

It happened 50 years ago this summer.

Having just turned 13, I was too old to play Little League that year.

But when I heard about a summer league being formed for kids my age and slightly older, I jumped at the chance to reclaim my familiar – and often terrifying – corner at third base.

That is until the coach, whom I’d never met, saw me throw and asked, “Have you ever pitched?”

Yeah, right.

Me? … Pitch? …Was this guy crazy or what?

“Uhh … no,” I replied. “I play third.”

“Take the mound,” he said. “Let’s have a look.”

Fast forward to the first inning of our first game.

My Dad is among the smattering of fans on the hill behind our bench. Normally, he’s the one who gives me the thumbs-up and yells something mortifying like, “Go get ’em, Bill!”

But Dad’s strangely quiet on this day, just watching. His kid is … pitching?

For the first time ever, I take the mound. It’s all so unfamiliar: the beat-up rubber, the sticky rosin bag, the fact that everyone, on and off the field, is suddenly focused exclusively on me …

I wind up, feeling clumsy. I let the first pitch fly, thinking all the while, “Am I doing this right? … Do I look stupid? … Where’s it going to go?”

Ball one.

Again, I go through the unfamiliar motion. “Geez, that strike zone looks so tiny from up here,” I think midway through the wind-up.

And then, as I release the ball, “Dear God, please don’t let it hit him!”

Ball two.

Balls three and four come in rapid succession.

Same for the next batter – four balls in a row, and suddenly there are runners on first and second and no outs.

Same for the batter after that – and now the bases are loaded.

My teammates, full of chatter just a few minutes ago, have all gone silent.

I look to the bench, where my new coach halfheartedly claps his hands in encouragement. I see his hands come together, but I don’t hear any sound.

I look to the hill behind the bench. There sits my Dad, helplessly calm.

Did he just nod – or is he looking down because he can’t bear to make eye contact with his sudden failure of a son?

I want to run away, but I’m trapped by the simple reality that baseball, for better or worse, tends to frown on simply giving up. The ball weighs a ton. The next kid up to the plate looks more scared than I am.

And then, out of nowhere, I get angry.

“You want it? Here, take it!” I mutter, rearing back and throwing, eyes closed, as hard as I can. Only when I hear the “pop” in the catcher’s mitt do I look.

Strike one.

I’m still mad. I hurl it again, same way, without a thought for what I’m doing. If I kill the poor kid cowering at the plate, so be it.

Strike two.

I go on to strike out not just this batter, but the two who follow.

I walk off the mound to cheers, pats on the back from my teammates, a thumbs-up from my Dad. Yet I make a beeline for my coach.

“I’m begging you, please don’t make me go back out there,” I implore him. “I’m not a pitcher. I play third. Please!”

Coach relents. My pitching career – three walks, three K’s, no earned runs, a lifetime of nightmares about rosin bags – mercifully comes to an end.

These days, after the snow surrenders our soggy diamonds, I often pull over to catch a minute or three of a Little League or high school game in progress.

My eyes, like all eyes, go directly to the pitcher.

One kid, all by himself, with the outcome of the game literally in his hands.

Behind him, an entire team, poised not to act, but to react: A good pitch requires nothing of them. One bad pitch, however, and they must keep it from becoming a catastrophe.

And the batter, these days all swagger and Big Papi preparation, also waits. Go ahead, he tells the pitcher with his eyes, go ahead and try …

Bob Feller, a Cleveland Indians mound legend, once observed, “When you make a bad pitch and the hitter puts it out of the park and you cost your team the game, it’s a real test of your maturity to be able to stand in front of your locker 15 minutes later and admit it to the world. How many people in other professions would be willing to have their job performances evaluated that way, in front of millions, every afternoon at 5 o’clock?”

And so here’s to the pitchers – the good, the bad, those who command and those who collapse.

You truly are a different breed.

You work alone, even as you’re surrounded by others.

You stand atop a small hill, the better for the rest of us to watch you succeed or fail.

To do that well – heck, to do it at all – takes just a little bit of crazy.

That and a ton of courage.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 23 Mar 2017 09:08:30 +0000
Bill Nemitz: State cutting programs for mentally ill? She minds Sun, 19 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Donna Deigan sat in a downtown coffee shop Tuesday morning as the blizzard bore down on Brunswick, her materials neatly arranged before her on the table: a checklist of issues to discuss in our interview, her recent testimony to the Maine Legislature, a single dollar bill.

“This right here is a piece of paper,” she said, picking up the dollar. “It is not living, it is not breathing. But we put so much value on it.”

Putting it back down, she continued: “I’m a living, breathing person. And I may have a mental illness, but I still have something to contribute to the world. And that is sharing my story.”

It might be easy to lose Deigan in the rising tide of Mainers whose mental health services are once again under siege in Augusta – if not for one thing.

She refuses to disappear.

Deigan, 50, has long struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder – none of which was properly treated until she finally underwent intensive treatment with Sweetser, a statewide behavioral health care provider, just over three years ago.

She grew up in Cleveland, where she was verbally, physically and sexually abused as a child. She remembers coping with a dysfunctional household by becoming “Robin,” her imaginary twin, “in order to try and pretend I was somebody else because I hated the way I was being treated.”

She’s been raped three times over the course of her life.

She’s been hospitalized during mental health crises.

More than once in her tumultuous past, she’s attempted suicide.

Even now, if she forgets just one thing in her morning routine – get up, shower, brush teeth … – it’s likely to throw her off balance for the entire day.

Yet she refuses to disappear.

Last spring, Deigan was one of more than 400 clients of Merrymeeting Behavioral Health Associates who were thrown into a tailspin when the agency abruptly shut down with no apparent thought to those who relied on its services for case management, therapy and community-based support.

At the same time, she was one of some 8,000 Mainers rocked by changes in Maine- Care rules that now limit intensive community support services to those with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and other acute mental health impairments.

That crackdown continues under the broader effort by Gov. Paul LePage to cut taxes at the expense of Maine’s most vulnerable: Under a proposed rate change by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, reimbursements to agencies that provide support services to the mentally ill would be pared by close to 25 percent.

As a DHHS spokeswoman put it in January, LePage’s budget aims to shrink “the size and cost of state government” by targeting “short-sighted welfare policies that have perpetuated dependency.”

Still, despite such demonizing rhetoric, Deigan refuses to disappear.

Last month, she listened to LePage’s State of the State address – the first one she’d ever heard – and shook her head when she heard the governor thump away at the “Do No Harm” theme of his budget.

” ‘Do no harm.’ He kept repeating that,” she said. “But he’s harming people. And at what point do you draw the line between governing a state and actually hurting your citizens? At what point do you draw the line?”

Deigan draws it at the emergency room entrance to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

There, working for a local mental health agency, she now provides peer counseling support for those with no place else to turn.

Late last month, nerves shaking her like a leaf, she stood up before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees to talk about her work. No, make that her newfound calling.

“What happens when a person has a heart attack?” Deigan asked lawmakers. “They go to the emergency room and are treated!”

Not so for mental health patients, she continued, listing 10 teenagers, elderly folks and others in between who have showed up in crisis on her watch and waited for days to be routed to proper treatment – or, in some cases, to just be sent home.

“Physical trauma is treated immediately,” she testified. “Why does trauma of the mind, which is part of the body, get delayed, cut off and ignored?”

Last summer, working with state Rep. Joyce McCreight, D-Harpswell, Deigan co-founded the Behavioral Health Coalition for Maine. It’s a group of about 20 mental health providers, substance abuse experts and law enforcement officials leaning into the winds of blame and shame on behalf of those too scared, or too caught up in daily survival, to do it themselves.

Refusing to disappear, Deigan now chairs the group.

On Tuesday, she’ll speak to lawmakers about mental health recovery at a gathering of the Legislature’s bipartisan Behavioral Health Caucus, organized by McCreight to counterbalance LePage and Co.

In an interview Friday, McCreight marveled at the change she’s seen in Deigan since the two first met a year ago amid the unfolding MaineCare cuts and the Merrymeeting closure.

“She’s amazing,” McCreight said. “It’s been so inspiring to see her do this.”

That said, McCreight added, Deigan remains a person in need of her own mental health help – and she knows it.

Last June, the death of Deigan’s mother – they’d reconciled in recent years – drove her into a deep depression.

She climbed back out.

Then in December, issues with her estranged brother – her lone surviving direct relative – touched off a crisis so severe that she actually contemplated suicide for the first time in years.

Again, she survived.

“She’s one of those people who are very good about reaching out when she needs help – and we’re not all very good at that,” McCreight said. “All along the way, I see her getting more confident, stronger.”

Back at the coffee shop, Deigan explained what it’s like to be in a mental health crisis without readily available support:

“You’re in a very … dark … tunnel. Alone. You cannot see the light. And there’s a huge rock pile. The rocks are all over you. And you’re weighted down. And you cannot move those rocks on your own.”

As she spoke, the visibility outside dropped by the minute with the incoming storm.

Deigan reached once again for that dollar bill.

“It takes a village, it takes a state,” she said. “It takes people to choose to understand, not just take away a piece of paper and say, ‘We’re taking this dollar away from you because it has more value than you do.’ ”

In the coming weeks, the powers that be in Augusta will fight tooth and nail over that dollar. But win, lose or draw, one thing will not change.

Donna Deigan, living proof that mental health treatment creates a stronger, sounder, more compassionate society, will keep standing tall. Not just for herself, but for thousands of fellow Mainers just like her.

They will not disappear.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 18 Mar 2017 19:05:50 +0000
Bill Nemitz: One comma left out gives judge pause in Oakhurst overtime case Fri, 17 Mar 2017 02:16:00 +0000 Grammarians rejoice! The Oxford comma survives.

Chances are you’ve never heard of this arcane little punctuation mark, considered by many a useless piece of clutter amid the complexities of proper English usage.

Only, it isn’t. In fact, the absence of an Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, could soon cost one Maine company a ton of money.

“For want of a comma, we have this case,” began Judge David Barron of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a unanimous ruling handed down Monday.

The decision reopens the door for a class-action lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy by its drivers, who claim in a case dating back to 2014 that they illegally were denied overtime pay.

Not so, countered Oakhurst, arguing that state law specifically exempts the drivers from eligibility for overtime compensation.

That would be the same state law that’s apparently missing a serial comma.

The law states that overtime is not required for employees engaged in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

We’ll get back to that in a second.

First, let’s look at how a serial comma – used before the final item in a list of three or more things, just before the conjunction “and” or “or” – can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

With a serial comma: “We invited the strippers, Trump, and Putin.”

Without a serial comma: “We invited the strippers, Trump and Putin.”

(Full disclosure: A long-cited version of the above, commonly found online, uses the names “Kennedy” and “Stalin.” I updated it because, well, it just felt more relevant.)

In the first example, the serial comma makes it clear that the invitees include Trump and Putin, along with the strippers.

In the second, however, the lack of a comma suggests that Trump and Putin are, in fact, the strippers.

Now that we’ve burned that image onto your brain, back to the lawsuit.

At issue before the Court of Appeals was the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” the various perishable products.

Oakhurst claimed, and a lower court agreed, that “distribution” means the company’s drivers and thus exempts Oakhurst from having to pay them overtime.

Not so fast, countered the drivers.

Without a serial comma before the word “or,” both “distribution” and “shipment” flow directly from the phrase “packing for …” Since they drive the trucks and don’t pack anything, the drivers argued, they are not included among the list of exempted jobs.

Put another way, had the statute read “storing, packing for shipment, or distribution,” the drivers would have been out of luck.

Judge Barron, bless him, spent 29 pages examining the absent comma from every conceivable angle.

He looked at the 214-page Maine Legislative Drafting Manual – yes, there is such a thing.

Right there on page 113, it specifically advises, “Although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series.”

Aha! Case closed … or not.

Barron also noted this overarching advice from page 114 of the drafting manual: “Be careful if an item in the series is modified.”

Meaning, without a serial comma, both “shipment” and “distribution” easily can be seen as modifiers for “packing for …” As in “packing for shipment or (packing for) distribution.”

That may be bad news for packers who work more than 40 hours a week. But because the drivers pack nothing whatsoever and are not set apart by a serial comma, Barron reasoned, they still get their overtime.

The judge also plunged bravely into gerunds, which are nouns formed from verbs by adding “ing.” (See: “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing …”)

Because neither “shipment” nor “distribution” is a gerund, noted Barron, they are notably out of sync with the other exempt jobs – further supporting the notion that lawmakers used those words only to modify the job of “packing for …”

(Of course, one could counter that the average Maine legislator doesn’t know a gerund from a gerbil. But hey, the law is the law.)

What really tipped it for the court, however, was existing case law requiring, when ambiguity is found in Maine’s wage-and-hour laws, that they “should be liberally construed to further the beneficent purposes for which they were enacted.”

Because overtime laws are intended to benefit employees, the judge essentially ruled, a tie in this case goes to the drivers.

Augusta attorney David Webbert, representing the drivers, said in an interview Thursday that Judge Barron certainly “earned his paycheck” with this lengthy, erudite decision.

“This is an example of the rule of law actually working for the average person – not the rule of law designed to protect the powerful,” Webbert said. “I think it was a really well-written decision. I was really proud of the Court of Appeals for not taking shortcuts.”

The case now will proceed either to settlement talks – ultimately, this week’s decision could benefit upward of 125 drivers – or additional court proceedings to, as Webbert put it, “add up the money.”

But when that’s all said and done, a timeless lesson will remain: Language without proper punctuation is like a highway with improperly placed road signs. One missed comma and you simply can’t get there from here.

Webbert, who once chaired his local school board and was dismayed to learn that grammar wasn’t taught as a stand-alone subject, sees this as a wake-up call not only for lawmakers, but for us all.

“It’s not just about grammar,” he said. “It’s about communicating well.”

Just ask those strippers, Trump and Putin.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Fri, 17 Mar 2017 11:59:06 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Threats make films about Jewish life more vital than ever Sun, 12 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Two Jews are dispatched to assassinate Hitler during the height of World War II.

Acting on a tip, they hide outside his home one evening, waiting for him to appear.

A half hour goes by. Nothing.

An hour passes. Still nothing.

Two hours. No Hitler.

“Gee,” one Jew finally says to the other, a look of concern clouding his face. “I hope nothing happened to him!”

Welcome to “The Last Laugh,” an 85-minute documentary that asks and offers a variety of answers to the seat-squirming question, “Can humor be found anywhere in the Holocaust?”

Wednesday marks the 20th rollout of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, which over the next two weeks will screen more than 30 films – dramas, documentaries, comedies, shorts, you name it – at venues in Portland, Brunswick, Lewiston and Waterville.

Never been? Well, considering the headlines these days, there’s no time like the present.

Last week, in an alarming sign of the times, another wave of bomb threats targeted Jewish Community Centers and day schools in six states.

Here in Maine, a threat laden with anti-Semitic slurs emptied the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine back in January – one of nearly 150 such acts of cowardice that have traumatized Jewish populations throughout the United States and Canada since the start of 2017.

“I think that in fact we see ourselves as an antidote to that,” said Barbara Merson, executive director of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, in an interview at her Portland office last week. “Because generally speaking, anti-Semitism is very often based on a lack of knowledge. And our films are about the global Jewish experience. So if you come and watch them, you will be entertained, but you will also learn something about Jewish communities all over the world and issues that resonate in Jewish communities.”

It all started back in the mid-1990s with a few videos shown on a TV screen at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland.

That eventually led to a weekend of screenings at The Movies on Exchange Street in Portland, recalled David Connerty-Marin, the festival’s co-founder and first executive director.

“We sold out every single one,” said Connerty-Marin, who now lives in Washington, D.C., but will travel to Portland next weekend for opening night. “And we knew that we were filling a need.”

They still are. Nothing gets people talking, after all, like a good movie.

The cornerstone of this year’s festival is “The Women’s Balcony,” a provocative, often humorous tale of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem where one day the women’s balcony collapses during a bar mitzvah.

The accident leaves the rabbi’s wife in a coma, which in turn renders the shocked rabbi unable to perform his duties.

Enter new, young Rabbi David with his unexpectedly fundamentalist views, including the notion that the women’s immodesty contributed to the collapse. Thus, much to the shock of the women in the congregation, the newly repaired synagogue includes no balcony – banishing the women to an anteroom.

Good luck with that plan, Rabbi David.

The documentary “Freedom Runners” focuses on a group of students in Israel, all African asylum seekers. They came under the wing of a young Jewish teacher in Tel Aviv, who helped them form a competitive running club.

The runners excelled all the way to national Israeli competitions. There they hit a brick wall: Their lack of Israeli citizenship prevented them from receiving the trophies and other honors they so clearly had earned.

Merson screened the film recently for the high school track team in Lewiston, which includes a number of African immigrants.

“The situation really resonated,” she said.

Then there’s “An American Tail,” the 1986 animated film about the Mousekewitzes, a family of Jewish mice emigrating from Russia to religious freedom in the United States.

Merson has showed that film in Lewiston, too. And while that audience also was far from all Jewish, she said, it hit home.

“The idea of coming over on a boat and being in a strange place – that resonates with a lot of people,” she noted.

“Bogdan’s Journey” is the true story of Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic from Poland who persuades people in the Polish city of Kielce to confront an ugly chapter of their past: the pogrom, or organized massacre, of 40 Jews seeking refuge there in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Bialek, along with the film’s co-directors, will attend the preview of the film at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the CTN studio on Congress Street in Portland. The trio will participate in a panel discussion after the film – one of many such post-screening discussions throughout the festival.

The list goes on: “For the Love of Spock,” created by Adam Nimoy, son of the legendary Leonard Nimoy; “Freedom to Marry,” a timely look back at the struggle for marriage equality through the eyes of Evan Wolfson, founder of the group Freedom to Marry, and Portland civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto; the Oscar-nominated documentary “Joe’s Violin,” about a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who donated his violin to a 12-year-old girl from the Bronx and thus changed both of their lives.

For the complete lineup of films, tickets, show times and locations, go to

And if you’re still wondering whether a Jewish film festival might be worth a few hours of your time, consider your options over the next couple of weeks.

You can sit by yourself, night after night, in front of the mind-numbing cable news on your living room TV.

Or you can take in something truly different with a roomful of fellow Mainers. And then, even better, linger for a while to talk about it.

“We provide a common experience,” said Merson. “It’s a way of having civil discourse on potentially difficult issues.”

And just maybe, now and then, a good chuckle.

UPDATE: Let’s hear it for late-winter thaws.

Back on Feb. 23, I wrote about Robert Banks, a disabled Maine veteran who was en route from one federal job to another when President Trump’s federal hiring freeze kicked in and left Banks unemployed.

Thanks to the dogged work of Kate Simson, who works in the Portland office of Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Banks is headed for his new job after all at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island.

He starts a week from Monday.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Mon, 13 Mar 2017 15:55:40 +0000
Podcast: Is a LePage vs. King race in the offing? Panhandlers and the Pope. Fri, 10 Mar 2017 20:32:29 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich, and columnists Bill Nemitz, Alan Caron and Cynthia Dill talk about: What the Pope had to say about giving to panhandlers, and what Paul LePage is up to in Washington, Angus King’s central role in the Russia scandal, late-night TV in the Trump era, and what they’re reading.

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0, 10 Mar 2017 15:35:05 +0000
Bill Nemitz: As Portland addresses panhandling, pope offers inspiration Thu, 09 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Here’s a radical idea guaranteed to make heads explode: Rather than twist ourselves up in knots over Portland’s legion of panhandlers, we should give to them freely, frequently and without worry about what they might do with the money.

Relax, restive masses. This is not the brainchild of Mayor Ethan Strimling, Progressive Portland or any of those other socialist types plotting to take over the People’s Republic of Portland.

It comes from Pope Francis.

“There are many excuses” for ignoring people who beg on the street, Francis told the Italian magazine Scarp de’ Tenis (Italian for “Tennis Shoes”) in an interview last week, one day before the start of Lent.

But giving to such people, the pope said, “is always right.”

What’s more, Francis said, just “tossing money and not looking in (their) eyes is not a Christian” way to practice charity. Instead, you should reach out and touch the person, treat him or her like a fellow human, show some real compassion.

The pope made his remarks to the magazine, which serves the homeless and other outcasts in the Italian city of Milan, in anticipation of a visit there later this month. But in just over a week, his words have gone global.

The Catholic News Service first picked it up, followed by an editorial Friday in The New York Times that concluded, “Maybe compassion is the right call.”

It’s a timely issue for Portland, where solutions to the “panhandling problem” have been bandied about for years.

City Hall’s latest proposal: creation of the “Portland Opportunity Crew,” a 36-week pilot program through which panhandlers will be offered the opportunity to work for six hours a day in exchange for two meals, water and the city’s minimum wage of $10.86 an hour.

But that $42,000 project, however well-intentioned, can only do so much – for now, the works crews will be limited to five people per day and will be deployed only two days a week.

The rest of the panhandlers, from those who can’t work to those who decline the work to those who don’t get asked, will still be out there. What’s worse, they’ll all suffer the stigma of having turned down honest labor, whether it’s true or not.

So back to the daily dilemma: Do you give sometimes, all the time or never? And if you do, how do you reconcile your kindness with the real possibility that your donation will go no further than a tall can of Anheuser-Busch Natty Daddy?

Scarp de’ Tenis asked Pope Francis that very question – although (it being Italy and all) they referenced a “glass of wine.”

The pope’s response: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?”

He also suggested you consider that “you are luckier, with a house, a wife, children” and thus should directly shoulder some of the responsibility to help those less fortunate.

All of which got me thinking about my dear wife, Andrea, who came home one evening last fall with a remarkable story.

She’d stepped out for a breath of fresh air during the afternoon when she came across a man on Exchange Street with a lengthy sign.

It stated that he’d just found work, but had not yet been paid and needed money for food for his two kids. Without it, he later explained, the Department of Human Services caseworker who occasionally stopped by might notice the bare cupboard and take the children away.

Call her naïve, but after speaking with the man for a few minutes, Andrea believed him.

The problem was she had no cash in her purse. So she walked down to the Cabot Farmer’s Annex on Commercial Street, purchased some cheese and sausage and brought it back to the guy.

Then they walked up to Monument Square, where she ran up to her office and brought back a bag brimming with baby carrots that she keeps for workday snacks. A co-worker had tossed in a box of crackers.

The man, having already stuffed his sign in a trash can because “I don’t want my kids to think I’m a bum,” couldn’t have been more grateful.

More recently, while she walked up Preble Street one morning to her office, Andrea crossed paths with another lost soul who looked her in the eye and asked, “Do you have any spare change for a warm beverage in exchange for a song?”

She told him the song wasn’t necessary. But he insisted.

“It’s only eight lines long,” he promised.

She relented.

“I wasn’t always homeless,” he first explained, recalling how he’d worked as a tanner in Sanford and how one morning he awoke to find his girlfriend on the floor, dead from pneumonia.

Finally, in a pitch-perfect voice, he began to sing. The song was about dreams, Andrea later recalled, and when he finished, they both had tears in their eyes.

“All I had was a five,” she said. “So I gave it to him.”

“Whoa!” the man said. “Are you opposed to hugs?”

“No,” replied Andrea with a smile.

With that, these two strangers embraced for a moment, formally introduced themselves, wished each other well and went on with their vastly different lives.

“You’re lucky you weren’t mugged,” I told her that evening.

“No,” she protested. “It really wasn’t like that. Besides, there were other people around.”

I thought about that hug this week when I about the pope’s insistence that helping someone in need cannot be an afterthought. “One can look at a homeless person and see him as a person or else as if he were a dog,” he said. “And they notice this different way of looking.”

Far better to truly connect with the beggars among us, Francis said, “by looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”

Me? I confess I’m not quite there yet. I still can’t shake the memory of the con artist who breathlessly stopped me on the sidewalk three times in the same week, each time claiming he’d just run out of gas and needed to get to his kids and blah … blah … blah …

(The first time, I gave him a buck. The second time, I lied that I had no money. The third time, I told him to take a hike.)

Still, all this talk about panhandling – from Portland City Hall all the way to the Vatican – leads me to two revelations:

Pope Francis, for all his simplicity, is one provocative pontiff.

And I think I married a saint.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Wed, 08 Mar 2017 23:28:43 +0000
Bill Nemitz: In Westbrook, young eyes focus early on the college prize Sun, 05 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Heads up, Unity College. Allison Liberge has her eye on you.

“Instead of living there, I’m just going to get an apartment,” Allison, scholarship firmly in hand, said last week. “If you live on campus, it costs a lot more money. And I’m not saying I don’t have the money, because I do. I have a college savings account.

“Yes, it would be easier to live on campus and get to my classes. But it would probably be better to live in an apartment – maybe with my friends, maybe with a pet or something. If I live on campus, there’s like a lot of people and if roommates have friends, then their friends all will come over and their friends’ friends will come over and … I could just have it way easier if I just stayed in an apartment.”

Allison is 10.

She’s one of 42 third- and fourth-graders from Westbrook honored on Wednesday with $100 Maine College Aspirations Scholarships by the Maine College Circle. Over the past 15 years, the Yarmouth-based nonprofit has nudged more than 60,000 kids from 115 Maine communities toward the dream of higher education, starting as early as Grade 3.

This year, almost half of Westbrook’s 400 or so third- and fourth-graders took part in workshops and wrote application essays for the scholarships.

Young Westbrook students are awarded scholarships for college after submitting essays. Students gather on stage after receiving their Future of Maine college aspirations scholarships. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Wednesday’s ceremony at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center, attended by fellow students, teachers and scores of proud parents and grandparents, mirrored the Academy Awards: Winners’ names and faces flashed on the big screen while Bob Stuart, executive director of the Maine College Circle, summoned each student down into the spotlight with a lengthy recitation of his or her accomplishments, and, in more than a few cases, short lists of target schools.

“Before they called my name, I almost had a heart attack,” confessed Allison. She’s a fourth-grader at the Oxford-Cumberland Canal School, where Cara Colgan, her teacher, has called her “Spectacular Allison” since the first day of school last September.

Her mother, Ashley Clark, took time off from her shift at Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street in Westbrook to be there, flowers in hand, when Allison’s name was finally called.

“Allison’s had a pretty rough life,” Clark later said, fighting back tears.

We won’t go into details here, other than to say Allison, her two sisters and their mom live in a small apartment in Westbrook. Her father, as Allison put it, “is out of the picture right now. And so I am trying to make my mom happy.”

She wants to be a veterinarian because, as she wrote in her essay, she once rescued a baby bird that had fallen from a tree and tried, with the help of Mom and her grandmother, to nurse it back to health. The bird lived for only a few hours.

“We didn’t really have a lot. We just had a cardboard box and the internet,” Allison recalled. “But if I become a veterinarian, I’ll have a bunch of things like medicines … and animals that aren’t wild. I’ll also have my brain. And knowledge.”

Allison first heard about Unity College during a video presentation on Maine schools.

“Me and my friend were like, ‘Hmm … let’s just write that down,’ ” she recalled. “There’s things you can do there with animals and it’s really about nature and a lot of outdoorsy stuff.”

Leeroy Peppers, whose essay was about becoming a zookeeper, gets a hug from his grandmother Sharlene Beesley after receiving his Future of Maine college aspirations scholarship. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Third-grader Leeroy Pepper, 9, wants to become a zookeeper via the State University of New York System. He even titled his essay “Leeroy the Zookeeper.”

The moment Leeroy heard his name called on Wednesday, he took off at a dead sprint for the stage – much to the delight of the audience.

You see, when master of ceremonies Stuart urged the kids not to dally when their names were called, Leeroy took it to mean get down there pronto or no scholarship.

“So that’s all I thought about,” he said. “I’m never going to change my mind from being a zookeeper.”

He’s already got the course titles down: mammalogy, herpetology, animal development, aquatic entomology, behavioral biology …

But what about interacting daily with lions and tigers? Might that not give him pause?

“Lions and tigers? I ain’t scared,” replied Leeroy.

So what does scare him?

“Probably nothing.”

Canal Elementary School student Abdul Abdullahi gives the thumbs up while walking to receive his Future of Maine college aspirations scholarship. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Fellow third-grader Abdul Abdullahi, 8, has two goals: One is to become a doctor. The other is to work as an interpreter, just like his father, who immigrated to this country from Somalia and now works in the Lewiston school system while also studying at the University of New England.

“Imagine me being a doctor,” Abdul wrote in his essay. “I know I can do it.”

Abdul has his sights set on, among other schools, Yale University. But he had a question.

“So if you’re a kid, can you go to a college and have a tour?” he asked.

Yes. And the scholarship money, raised through local businesses and such corporate sponsors as Unum, Dead River Co., University Credit Union, United Way of Greater Portland and the University of New England, can be used to defray the travel costs.

“Good,” said Abdul. “I’ve got about … nine more years.”

Then there’s Benjamin Augustino. While only 8 and still in the third grade at Canal School, he knows this much: He loves football and sees himself someday crushing it with the University of Miami Hurricanes.

Canal Elementary School student Benjamin Augustino, who wrote about attending the University of Maine, looks at a projected photograph of himself after receiving his Future of Maine college aspirations scholarship. taff photo by Derek Davis

Benjamin’s inspiration? Trevor Bates, who played for the Westbrook Blue Blazes, the University of Maine Black Bears and now the New England Patriots.

“Trevor Bates is a name known by kids in Westbrook,” wrote Benjamin in his essay. “Someday I hope I could be like him and kids will know my name too.”

But Benjamin’s ambitions extend far beyond football. He also wants to become an architect and, along the way, enroll in the University of Miami’s Reserve Officer Training Corps “so I could serve our country.”

Benjamin’s presentation included a letter from the Westbrook High School coaching staff, who caught wind that he wants to follow in the footsteps of linebacker Bates.

“Trevor is an inspiration to us all,” the coaches wrote. “And now, so are you.”

And so it went, for two solid hours. Applause … teary-eyed parents … more applause … lofty dreams … and underlying it all, the realization that college is an achievable goal for any Maine kid who dares to think big.

Like many hardworking parents, Ashley Clark, Allison’s mom, had to rush back to her job at Dunkin’ Donuts after watching her daughter, poised and oh-so-prepared, accept the first of what undoubtedly will be many honors.

But Clark will not soon forget how it felt to watch an entire community tell Allison what she’s been telling her little girl all along.

“I’m a single mom. I have two other daughters besides her. And I work my butt off. And sometimes it’s really early nights for us,” Clark said. “But I tell her, ‘You know, Allison, if you keep getting good grades, you can learn your way through college. You can get scholarships on scholarships. Don’t focus on the price. Don’t let that hold you back.’ ”

As for the Maine College Circle, what can she say?

“I can’t express enough how grateful I am that they have this program,” Clark said. “I think it’s wonderful. A mother can never have too much help.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 05 Mar 2017 06:42:38 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Police body cameras are useful tools, but they can distort the truth Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Three cheers for Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.

“I am saddened, I’m disappointed, and I’ll tell you I’m disgusted by any use of a tragedy to further some kind of political agenda around body cameras,” an angry Sauschuck said Tuesday – one day before a protester at City Hall called him “murderer” to his face.

The source of the chief’s frustration: painfully predictable demands for body cameras on Portland police officers – right now – after last weekend’s fatal police shooting of Chance David Baker in the Union Station Plaza parking lot on St. John Street.

According to police and eyewitnesses, Baker, 22, brandished what looked very much like a rifle. It turned out to be a pellet gun.

Witnesses said he randomly aimed the gun at passing vehicles before putting it down, apparently to adjust his pants. Then, against police orders, he picked up the weapon and was shot in the forehead by Sgt. Nicholas Goodman.

Enter Mayor Ethan Strimling, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the fledgling, shoot-from-the-hip activist group Progressive Portland, all of whom quickly called for the accelerated implementation of an existing plan to put body cameras on every cop in Portland beginning in July 2018.

The implication: Had body cameras been in use last weekend, we’d all know a lot more about what happened and why.

Or not.

Meet Professor Seth Stoughton. He’s a former Special Response Team officer for the Tallahassee Police Department in Florida and now teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

He’s also an avid researcher of body cameras, which he supports with certain caveats, and has shared his expertise in recent years with thousands of judges, prosecutors and others throughout the country.

“I often compare body cameras to hammers,” Stoughton said in an interview Friday. “There are a number of jobs that the hammer is a perfect tool for. If you need to drive a nail, it’s great. If you need to pull a nail out and it has a claw on it, then it’s a pretty good tool.

“But if you’re trying to put a screw through a piece of wood, you’re only going to make things worse using a hammer. It doesn’t work so well.”


“What worries me about body cameras is the tendency that we have to assume that they will be a perfect tool to solve a large number of problems in a very holistic way,” Stoughton continued. “And just like a hammer, body cameras are limited tools. They’re really good for some things, and they’re not going to be very good for some things.”

Stoughton has produced a series of videos – shot close up from a body camera and simultaneously from a distance – to demonstrate his point.

In one, the “officer” (played by Stoughton) approaches a vehicle occupied by a noticeably agitated African-American man.

Without warning, the driver’s door suddenly swings open. The man jumps out and runs. The officer falls to the ground. It’s all over in seconds.

The body-camera angle suggests that the man knocked the officer down and fled. But the footage taken from a distance shows that neither the man nor the car door touched the officer, who simply fell down.

And the reason the man was so freaked out in the first place?

There was a bee in the car. (If you listen closely as the officer first approaches, you can hear the man hollering, “Bee! Bee! Bee!”) He’s simply trying to avoid getting stung.

In another body-camera video without audio, the officer and a man appear to be engaged in a violent confrontation inside a parking garage.

From a distance, it turns out they’re dancing to salsa music.

Then there’s the body-camera video Stoughton did with Jeff Rossen of NBC News. It shows the officer approaching a despondent Rossen and suddenly, for no apparent reason, wrestling him to the ground.

In reality, as the longer-range shot shows, there was a darn good reason for the takedown. Outside the narrow range of the body camera, Rossen had a fake handgun and stuck it point-blank into the officer’s abdomen.

Stoughton maintains that the closer a body camera gets to the person being confronted by a police officer, the less useful it becomes.

“As soon as there’s physical movement, so that the camera is bouncing around on the officer’s clothing, you effectively lose all or almost all of the value of that camera,” he said. “In the wrong set of circumstances, body cameras can be misleading. It can give people a false perception about what happened.”

And it’s not just commotion that can distort the real picture.

Because body cameras are worn on the chest, the viewer typically looks up at the person in front of the officer. That often makes the subjects look much bigger than the officer – even when they’re of similar size.

“When you look up at someone, they look taller, they look broader, and that’s more threatening,” Stoughton said. “So if all we had was the (body camera) video, people would say, “Wow, this guy’s much, much taller than the officer.’ And they would be very confident of that. They’d be wrong, but they’d be confident of that.”

Which brings us to one final concern: Videos, unlike written statements or court testimony, powerfully impact the viewing public to the point where they consider themselves actual eyewitnesses to an event.

And to that elevated status each of us brings all of our own biases – including support or suspicion of our local police.

Thus, cautions Stoughton, “it’s important to recognize the limitations of the information the video can actually provide. And it’s also important to recognize the limitations of our ability to interpret the information provided via the video.”

Equally if not more important, Stoughton said, is for police departments to take the necessary time to carefully develop policies – with ample input from the community, the courts, prosecutors, private attorneys and police officers themselves – on exactly how and when to use body cameras.

(And then to make those policies public – a lesson learned the hard way last month by South Portland’s police department when it initially kept its body-camera policy secret. After a loud outcry, the four-page policy was released.)

Stoughton believes such policies should reflect the delicate balancing of three benefits: signaling to the community that a police force is striving to be open and transparent; using body cameras to promote greater civility among both police and the public; and providing evidence, however useful it may or may not be, that otherwise would not exist.

Add to that, he noted, stringent enforcement of the policy once the body cameras have actually been deployed.

All of which takes time.

“It is much more important to do it the right way than it is to do it quickly,” Stoughton said. “If you do it quickly and you do it the wrong way, not only will it not have short-term benefits, but it can have long-term costs.”

Clearly, Chief Sauschuck intends to do this the right way, starting with a pilot program.

That’s one reason why, shortly after he was called a murderer by one of a dozen young protesters who see the world only in black and white, the Portland City Council on Wednesday applauded Sauschuck for being named Maine’s 2017 Police Chief of the Year.

He’s more than earned it.

And knee-jerk reactions aside, Portland is lucky to have him.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:14 a.m. on Feb. 26 to clarify that the time frame for Chief Sauschuck’s pilot program is not yet certain.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sun, 26 Feb 2017 08:15:37 +0000
Podcast: The debate over body cameras exposes city hall conflicts Fri, 24 Feb 2017 19:57:53 +0000 Portland Press Herald Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich, and columnists Bill Nemitz, Alan Caron and Cynthia Dill talk about a new poll on the makeup of the electorate; How police body cams became a hot topic in Portland, exposing divisions in city hall, and if Bernie Sanders’ supporters are unfairly blaming Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump.

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0, 24 Feb 2017 15:57:55 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Trump’s hiring freeze means disabled vet from Casco’s out of a job Thu, 23 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 One minute, Robert Banks was happily moving from a good job with the Veterans Administration to a better one with the Department of the Navy. The next, he was run over by the Trump Train.

“I don’t want to rag on the presidency,” Banks said over a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts in Windham on Monday, which happened to be Presidents Day. “But he’s making some really stupid decisions.”

Banks, 44, lives in a summer camp owned by his parents in Casco. He’s there not by choice but by necessity: Thanks to President Trump’s month-old federal hiring freeze and a colossal case of unfortunate timing, Banks just went from a proud, disabled veteran with a bright future to a casualty in the crusade to Make America Great Again.

A little history:

Three months after he graduated from Morse High School in Bath back in 1991, Banks enlisted in the Army. He remained on active duty for eight years, serving in the Persian Gulf War and, among other deployments, at Camp Eagle in South Korea.

It was there, while transporting a load of 50-caliber machine guns to be calibrated, that his Humvee collided with another vehicle. Banks, who was in the back, sustained serious injuries to his neck and spine – a primary contributor to his 90-percent, service-related disability rating.

Upon leaving the regular Army in 1999, Banks joined an Army Reserve unit in Auburn for another five years.

During the same time, he went to work for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office – first as a corrections officer, then as a patrol deputy, and finally as the department’s internal affairs investigator and human resources officer.

Feeling burned out from more than a dozen years in law enforcement, he left that job in 2013 for work at the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus. A year later he snagged a position with the Department of the Navy as a logistics management specialist at Bath Iron Works.

But Banks needed a change of scenery. Long divorced, with a daughter preparing to enter college and a 10-year relationship that had just ended, he pulled up stakes last year and headed for Colorado and a job helping disabled veterans with prosthetics at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center.

“I got to help a lot of veterans, and I liked the job. Half your job is talking. The other half is providing a service for them,” Banks said. “It was very enjoyable, but I missed home. I missed New England. I missed my daughter.”

So back he went onto the federal job sites and, lo and behold, he spotted an opening as an administrative/technical specialist at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I.

He got the job.

“We look forward to your acceptance of this offer and are certain that you will enjoy a challenging and rewarding career at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Division Newport,” said the letter from the Navy dated Jan. 11.

Banks’ start date was to be Feb. 6. Rather than move all his belongings across the county, he sold almost everything he owned, hopped into the 2017 Toyota Tacoma pickup he’d recently purchased and headed back East.

It was somewhere in Pennsylvania, while watching a Fox News broadcast on a hotel TV, that he first heard of the hiring freeze.

“But I was hired. I went through my emails and I went through the acceptance letter, you know, saying ‘Congratulations…’ The VA had released all of my personnel records to (the Navy), which is like the end game,” he said. “I slept well that night. I wasn’t worried so much. I thought I was good.”

He thought wrong.

The next morning, Banks dashed off an email to Newport to confirm all was still on track.

“Unfortunately, due to the recent hiring freeze, we are not able to establish a start date at this time,” read the email response from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. “All hiring actions are on hold until we receive further guidance.”

This despite an exemption to Trump’s memorandum – for job offers that were accepted before Jan. 22 (Banks had accepted his almost two weeks earlier) and had start dates before Feb. 22 (Banks has email correspondence indicating his start date would be Feb. 6).

No matter. Banks suddenly found himself with no job in Colorado (he’d already resigned) and no job in Newport (where they now maintain he was never formally hired).

His Plan B – another civilian job he’d been offered with the Navy in Pennsylvania – also evaporated (or froze) right before his eyes.

So here he sits back in Maine, unemployed and understandably in shock. He’s applied for some 20 positions since he arrived back home, but the moment most non-government employers hear the words “veteran” and “disabled,” well, let’s just say no one is beating a path to his door.

Banks, a libertarian, didn’t vote for Trump, mostly because he had trouble trusting him. But he accepts Trump as his president and respects the office as much now as he did throughout the 13 years when the chief executive was his commander in chief.

Still, he wonders if the guy now in the White House truly grasps the impact of what he’s doing.

“I’m not sure if he is thinking things through,” Banks said. “He seems to just want to fulfill his promises he made with no regard as to its effects.”

More than anything, though, Banks feels shortchanged. His military service, his time in law enforcement, his additional years serving his government as a highly skilled civilian … and now this?

“I’m not the swamp. I’m not the person that needs to get drained,” he said. “I work. I’m a good worker. I’ve put my time in – I always have. I’m the one you want to keep.”

Finishing his coffee, he added, “And here I am on the sideline.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 23 Feb 2017 12:22:21 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Think millennials are lazy? Meet the guy who helps keep Maine’s roads clear Sun, 19 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The next time someone complains that young adults can’t get out of Maine fast enough, that there’s nothing to keep them here, that too many of them are more interested in whining than in working, refer them to Joe Somerset.

“People say we millennials don’t work. We’re lazy. We just want everything handed to us. And for a portion of the population, that might be true,” Joe said last week during a break from his job at Hydraulic Hose & Assembly Inc. in Gorham. “But at the same time, there’s just as many of us out there that are busting our backs, earning a blue-collar living.”

A week ago this evening, while snowplow drivers far and wide went about beating back the second of three storms that dumped 3 feet of snow or more on much of Maine, Joe grabbed his sleeping bag, hopped in his pickup and headed for work.

Sunday is normally the one day of the week he can call his own. But heavy snow means an armada of snow plows on the road – each relying on a maze of hydraulic lines to maneuver the massive blades up and down, side to side … and whatever you do, don’t lose track of that wing plow.

Problem is, hydraulic lines break. And when they do, a snowplow is essentially kaput until a new line, with precisely the right fittings at each end, can be fabricated — not tomorrow, not next week, but right now.

Joe Somerset fixes a broken hose at Hydraulic Hose & Assembly. He gets plenty of work when snow plows are running around the clock and says he gets his work ethic from his father, who rises at 2 a.m. to drive a dairy truck. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Enter Joe Somerset.

He’s 22. He lives with his parents in Buxton in the same house where his mother grew up.

But when necessary, he sleeps on a cot in the loft overlooking his workbench at Hydraulic Hose & Assembly. Or tries to sleep, as was the case last Sunday night.

“I was up for like 31 hours,” Joe recalled. “I came in, I did some stuff around the shop, I made some hoses. By the time I climb upstairs into my cot and started to fall asleep around one o’clock in the morning, the phone’s ringing to come back down, make some more hoses, let the guy in who’s come to pick them up. So I might have maybe caught 20 or 30 minutes of sleep that night … but not really.”

Much has been made in recent years about the shortage of able-bodied young Mainers who can drive the state’s economy forward while the rest of us grow older and less productive.

Many say, quite correctly, that the state’s future hinges on the energy and talent of immigrants and young adults who come here from away searching for quality of life – offsetting the steady drain of native Mainers who vamoose upon reaching adulthood and never look back.

Overlooked in all that hand-wringing, though, are the young men and women who are born here, grow up here and actually stay here because, well, they know a good thing when they see it.

Joe is one of those people.

“I probably will never leave Maine,” he said. “I love this state.”

He first went to work when he was a 14-year-old at Bonny Eagle High School. John and Ramona Snell, owners of Snell Family Farm in Buxton, knew from the start that this kid was a keeper.

Eight years later, he still is — in addition to his full-time job making hydraulic hose assemblies, Joe spends as many as 30 hours a week with the Snells, tilling the fields, planting and harvesting and, of course, fixing the farm equipment when it breaks down.

“He is energetic and ambitious, determined to get ahead and not expecting anyone to hand him things in life,” Ramona Snell said in an email last week. “He’s immensely helpful to us.”

Joe Somerset’s work gloves wait for him at Hydraulic Hose & Assembly. Somerset, 22, works there full-time and also works at Snelling’s Farm. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Then there’s the carpentry, roofing and other construction work Joe does with his dad, Mike Somerset, who rises around 2 a.m. each day to drive a truck for Oakhurst Dairy.

“That’s where I get my work ethic from,” Joe said. “My dad just drives, drives, drives, drives and drives. He’s always working.”

To Joe, hard work is not something to be endured. It’s a way of life — sometimes for money, sometimes not.

Just last week, shortly after he got out his towing straps and yanked two vehicles out of the snowbank on River Road in Buxton, Joe logged onto Facebook.

There he saw people complaining that the school bus stops hadn’t been adequately cleared of snow, forcing their kids to wait for the bus in the street.

“Well, none of these people who are complaining about the bus stop not being shoveled out went out there and shoveled out a bus stop,” he noted. “They just complain about it. You’re going to complain about it, but you’re going to let your kid stand in the street?”

Ditto for the wags who see a fire crew out there shoveling out hydrants while the fire engine idles nearby.

“People say, ‘Hey that’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to be driving around in a half-million dollar firetruck,'” Joe said. ‘Well, it’s right across from your driveway. Why don’t you go and shovel out the fire hydrant?”

Shaking his head, he grinned out from under his thick red beard. “I think we do live in a world where people might complain a little too much.”

A registered Republican, Joe’s too busy to get bogged down in the red-hot rhetoric now radiating from Washington, D.C. There’s too much “pissing and moaning” on both sides, he thinks, and not enough energy being put into “coming up with actual solutions to the problems.”

Little wonder that more than once over the years, people have told Joe he’s “an old soul.”

Maybe that’s because he’s teaching himself the art of blacksmithing (in his spare time) or dreams of one day owning a chunk of land and starting his own farm.

Or perhaps it means that this rural millennial who last week spent the wee hours doing his part to keep the plows running – the Snells now call him “an unsung hero in the snow removal business” – embodies the fabric of Maine.

Unlike so many of his peers, there’s simply no place on Earth he’d rather be.

Joe Somerset wipes the oil from his hands after fixing a hose at Hydraulic Hose & Assembly. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“For the ones who stay, you kind of grow up and realize one day that your pickup truck doesn’t run off hopes and dreams,” he said. “So you start working and you realize, ‘Hey, it ain’t bad here. I’m making a living. I’m not living paycheck to paycheck. I’ve got gas in my tank, a roof over my head, food in my belly.'”

Break time was over. Time to get back to work.

“For some people, they realize that’s enough,” Joe said. “They don’t need to run away to a different state to find that. It’s here.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0 Somerset in the workshop at Hydraulic Hose and Assemblies. Somerset makes hydraulic hoses and has been working on a farm since high school. He usually clocks somewhere between 60-70 hours of work a week.Sun, 19 Feb 2017 16:41:03 +0000
Podcast: Maine’s delegation engaging in politics in Washington. Fri, 17 Feb 2017 07:00:41 +0000 After a week off due to poor weather, Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich, and columnists Bill Nemitz, Alan Caron and Cynthia Dill return to the podcast to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing our elected representatives in Washington.

Will Bruce Poliquin ever take a stand?

Are liberals too critical of Susan Collins?

Will Angus King be on TV a lot?

and what’s up with Paul LePage?

Download this episode

Press Herald Podcast RSS Feed

Subscribe to the Press Herald podcast on iTunes

Subscribe on Android

]]> 0, 18 Feb 2017 09:47:12 +0000
Bill Nemitz: Even under fire, Collins remains best hope for Senate sanity Sun, 12 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 And the understatement of the week goes to … Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

“These are not easy times to be in public office. They really aren’t,” Collins said Friday as she traveled home for the weekend from the nation’s capital, also known as the District of Calamity.

Collins should know. From the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s new education secretary to the reprimand of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren under the Senate’s now infamous Rule 19, Collins is to the current national angst what a lightning rod is to a bolt from on high.

The harder she tries to straddle the Great Political Divide, the more she winds up getting torched.

Let’s start with the DeVos nomination, which Collins opposed in a 50-50 deadlock broken only by the highly unusual intervention of Vice President Mike Pence.

Conservatives, including Gov. Paul LePage, were furious with Collins for breaking ranks with her party and announcing well in advance that DeVos would not get her vote.

At the same time, liberals lambasted her for letting DeVos escape the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (giving it the best acronym on Capitol Hill: HELP) with a favorable report to the full Senate.

Had Collins gone the other way in the committee’s 12-11 party-line vote, these critics say, she could have prevented the DeVos nomination from ever reaching the Senate floor.

Not true.

Several times in recent years – see: Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork (Supreme Court justice); John Tower (Defense secretary) and John Bolton (United Nations ambassador) – presidential nominees have emerged from their confirmation hearings with either an unfavorable vote or no recommendation by the oversight committee.

Their fates before the full Senate ranged from approval (Thomas) to rejection (Bork and Tower) to stalemate, followed by a presidential “recess appointment” (Bolton).

Collins, who joined fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in ultimately opposing DeVos, offered this explanation for the apparent contradiction between her committee and floor votes:

“I truly believe that presidents are entitled to considerable deference in putting together their Cabinets. And that, to me, means that each and every senator should have a voice in deciding whether or not to support the nominee. It’s not something that should be shut off early in the process, particularly not at the committee level.”

Disagree with that if you must. But to those who insist that Collins would have stopped DeVos in her tracks by voting “no” in committee, history begs to differ.

“They’re just mistaken about that,” Collins said.

On to the Warren rebuke.

To recap: Warren, in a floor speech opposing the certain confirmation of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, read quotes from two historical giants: the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Upon reading Kennedy’s decades-old description of Sessions (at the time a U.S. attorney nominated for a federal judgeship) as “a disgrace to the Justice Department,” Warren was warned by the Senate’s presiding officer to refrain from further besmirching the senator from Alabama.

Warren went on to read the equally critical letter by King. That’s when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suddenly appeared and, to Warren’s clear surprise, invoked Rule 19.

The rarely invoked rule states, “No Senator shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

The presiding officer sided with McConnell. Warren appealed. And with that, the entire Senate was summoned to vote on whether to silence Warren.

Enter Collins.

Approaching Warren prior to the vote, Collins asked if they could speak privately. Warren agreed and they headed for an anteroom just off the Senate chamber.

“My goal was to be the peacemaker,” Collins said. “We talked for, I’d say, 15 minutes.”

Collins declined to reveal details of the private chat, but essentially she told Warren that the enforcement of Rule 19 would be bad for the Senate and if Warren agreed to rephrase her remarks, Collins would work on McConnell to back down as well.


“I will plead to being unsuccessful,” Collins said.

In other words, the two women found themselves on opposing courses that were, by then, impossible to alter?

“I think that’s fair,” Collins replied. “On both sides.”

The conversation ended. Warren went out of her way to hold open the door to the Republican side of the chamber for Collins, who is still hobbled by a broken ankle she suffered last fall.

“So there were no hard feelings there, for lack of a better word,” Collins recalled.

Collins then voted to invoke Rule 19 against Warren because, she said, the Senate’s nonpartisan parliamentarian had found Warren in violation and that was good enough for Collins.

“I think invoking Rule 19 is a big deal,” Collins said. “We do have rules in the Senate, we do have norms, that are intended to prevent the Senate debate from spinning out of control. It’s an attempt to have civility.”

So what about last year’s arguably worse violation by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who stood on the Senate floor and called McConnell a liar?

(That contradiction, it’s worth noting, was a tipping point for Maine Sen. Angus King. In a thinly veiled reference to Cruz, he asked the presiding officer if calling another senator a liar would violate Rule 19; after being told it would, King voted against silencing Warren.)

Collins noted that Cruz’s comment came late one night when virtually the entire Senate had gone home – not exactly the hyper-politicized atmosphere in which Warren sounded off.

That said, she added, “Absolutely, Rule 19 was definitely violated when Ted Cruz called Mitch McConnell a liar. And it should have been invoked.”

In retrospect, the Rule 19 smackdown probably helped Warren more than it hurt her – starting with the T-shirts now selling like hotcakes with McConnell’s tone-deaf quote, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” printed across the front.

“(McConnell’s) protest was to try to make people say, ‘She should not have violated the Senate rules,’ ” mused Collins. Yet “among (Warren’s) supporters, the reaction was, “Yay! She violated the Senate rules!’ So it is fraught with irony.”

As is this: To roundly condemn Collins for a committee vote on DeVos that made no difference, or a procedural wrist slap that ultimately amplified Warren’s declaration of conscience, is to overlook Collins’ larger role in these dark times.

Love her, hate her or pray quietly that she sees the light, Maine’s senior senator remains one of the nation’s most hopeful counterbalances to Trump & Company once the wheels truly fly off. And fly off they inevitably will.

Tighten your seat belt, Sen. Collins. This ride has just begun.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 15: Images of Portland Press Herald news reporters and columnists, Wednesday, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Sat, 11 Feb 2017 22:23:44 +0000