Tuesday, June 18, 2013
By JANICE COOPER
As a candidate for the Maine House of Representatives (District 107, Yarmouth), I have knocked on about 1,000 doors so far this spring and summer, passing out literature and learning far more than I expected.
The conventional political wisdom is that going to constituents' homes in person is the best predictor of success in Maine legislative elections.
Our House districts are small enough -- about 8,600 residents each -- to make it possible for a candidate to try (difficult, since people are often out or busy) to meet someone from most households, to hand them a "palm card" describing his or her background, experience and values, and to engage in a short conversation.
The point is to let the voter look you in the eye, size you up, ask questions and understand that you are willing to make the effort (which is considerable) to walk many miles and spend many hours to talk to neighbors and strangers across the district.
Both Democratic and Republican training sessions drum this message into candidates over and over.
What they don't tell you is that you learn more than you teach.
First, you learn that Mainers are invariably polite and trusting. In the summer, their doors -- both the rarely used front one, and the humble side door -- are usually wide open, to let the breezes in through screen doors. Welcome signs abound (encouraging, since most doorbells don't work, although dogs or cats are usually first to the door, eagerly and noisily greeting you).
Even though candidates usually arrive in the busy early evening or dinnertime, residents welcome you with a smile and friendly curiosity. I have never been treated rudely, even though residents usually don't know me or the reason I am there.
Second, when they do have a question or concern, voters are well-informed and open-minded, even when it turns out that our views are diametrically opposed.
This hospitable attitude reinforces my view that Maine is a very special place, a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family. It's why my family moved here 15 years ago, and why people continue to move here for "lifestyle" reasons.
Third and disturbing, I have seen first-hand that times are tough even for residents of one of the best-off communities in the state.
On virtually every street, I have seen pockets of poverty, sometimes hidden until the door was opened. Every block has a home for sale, and some seem to be in foreclosure, a rarity in this town.
I saw elderly people living alone, lonely and sometimes emaciated, eager to talk but with no one apparently making sure there is food in the fridge, oil in the tank and necessary medicines in the cabinet.
I saw too many obese children and parents, chain-smoking adults and teens, caught in habits that are bound to lead to ill health and shortened lives.
I heard of devastating problems that could be solved if the right intervention is found, and other problems that seem intractable.
I also met people who told me they no longer voted because they thought it was useless.
Candidates across the state are making similar observations. Particularly in smaller, rural communities where traditional jobs have gone overseas, it is not uncommon to see people living in intolerable conditions.
Yet even when Mainers are elderly, poverty-stricken or in poor health, they soldier on, often too proud to ask for help.
It is both the positive and the disturbing lessons that inspire me to continue to "do doors" on hot, humid days, wet days and busy days, to spend hours on the weekend at the dump (or "transfer station," as the authorities prefer to call it) passing out my brochures and listening to folks sound off or quietly note various problems.
These lessons also intensify my desire to make a difference in the Legislature. I want to prove to those disillusioned voters that they are wrong, that elections do matter, that positive changes can be made.
Maine is a great place, but it can and should be taking better care of its people.
Janice Cooper of Yarmouth is the Democratic candidate for House District 107.