NEW SHARON – The presence of Paul LePage in the governor’s race has raised the question of whether a candidate of French Canadian heritage can triumph in another statewide election.

Mike Michaud, a onetime union official and veteran state legislator, won the state’s second district seat in Congress in 2002, and is running for re-election this fall. But before Rep. Michaud, there were far more losses than wins on the statewide stage. And no elected governors.

Franco-Americans were successful over the years in municipal races. But when it came to running for major office, victories were few despite the fact that close to a third of Maine residents have some French ancestry.

Franco-Americans who were defeated for governor include Georgette Berube, onetime mayor of Lewiston in 1982, and Louis Lausier, a mayor of Biddeford, in 1948.

(A Franco-American, Alonzo Garcelon of Lewiston, did serve as governor in 1879 for a one-year term. Garcelon came in third with just 22 percent of the vote, and the then-law relating to pluralities held that the Legislature would chose a winner. Garcelon was chosen.)

A Franco-American who ran for the U.S. Senate was Lucia Cormier of Rumford, who as a Democrat lost in her race against Margaret Chase Smith in 1960. Dennis Dutremble, a prominent Biddeford Democrat, lost the election for the House in 1994, bowing to Jim Longley Jr.

A Franco-American who lost races for both the House and Senate was Elmer Violette, a popular Democrat from Van Buren, who once served as state Senate minority leader.

In 1966,he lost his race for the U.S. Senate to Margaret Chase Smith. In 1972, he was defeated for the House by Bill Cohen, a rising Republican from Bangor.

Numerous Franco-Americans have been defeated in primary races for statewide office. Curiously, Margaret Chase Smith, arguably Maine’s most prominent politician of the last century (serving in Washington from 1940 to 1973), had French Canadian roots.

Her mother was a Morin, and that side of the family was 100 percent French, but the cautious Smith did not make her heritage known in an era where some Maine voters were anti-Catholic and perhaps anti-French as well.

(Maine had an active Ku Klux Klan for many years, and the Maine Historic Society has several chilling photos of Klan parades in rural Maine after World War I.)

The LePage candidacy is intriguing to political scientists because he is a Republican whose background could be appealing to voters in one-time mill cities that traditionally vote Democratic.

Not only does the Waterville mayor have a French surname, but his life narrative is one that blue-collar Franco-Americans can relate to: He was one of 18 children, left home as a youngster to earn his way, put himself through college and then rose to become an executive at one of the state’s largest retail chains.

“Many Franco-Americans faced struggle in their lives,” said Christian Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College and a prominent pollster and political adviser. “They can appreciate the fact he has overcome obstacles to become a candidate for governor.

“Though LePage is a Republican and many Franco-Americans are Democrats, he is speaking out against the status quo. Many Francos like the idea of him taking the lead in challenging the way things are being done.”

There are several theories as to why Franco-Americans have found it difficult to win statewide elections.

One is that during the first half of the 20th century, Mainers of French Canadian heritage traveled back and forth to Quebec so often that either they did not register to vote, or they were not interested in events outside their communities.

Another theory is that they were too parochial to vote as a block as Irish and Italian immigrants in other states often did. A Franco-American might be running for office, but if that candidate was from another part of the state, he was not “our Franco-American.”

Yet today those of French descent are taking greater pride in their heritage. At the end of the (election) day, the votes in traditionally Democratic cities like Auburn, Biddeford, Brunswick, Lewiston, Rumford, Saco, Sanford, Waterville and Winslow will be crucial in this election.

A French name and narrative could finally be an asset.


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