AUGUSTA – When legislators asked Philip Congdon about his economic-development experience, he told them it was “thin.” When he was asked about revitalizing rural Maine, he said he hadn’t thought about it.

It caused some Senate Democrats to oppose his appointment as commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development. But Congdon, who was handily approved anyway, said he does not regret the testimony.

“They asked me a question, I gave them an honest answer — was that the wrong thing to do?” he said recently.

Congdon, 69, was Gov. Paul LePage’s pick to lead the agency charged with economic development in Maine, selected for his private-sector experience and business savvy.

For Congdon, who has built a reputation as a straight talker, common sense and honesty are the best attributes to have.

A few weeks into his job, Congdon openly admits that some of his impressions of what is holding back Maine’s economy were off the mark.

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“I’ll be the first one to scream if there is something that isn’t right, but I just can’t point to that now,” he said.

Congdon believes his extensive engineering background will help him with his new challenge.

“Managing people is just a lot of common sense,” he said. “Most problems are very similar to most other problems.”

CHILDHOOD SUMMERS IN MAINE

Congdon didn’t move to Maine until eight years ago, but he and his family have strong ties to the state.

He was born in the same hospital in Winchester, Mass., as Candy, his wife of 47 years, but they didn’t meet until his senior year at Tufts University, which they both attended. Set up on a blind date at a fraternity pajama party by their roommates, the couple were married in 1963.

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The two had more in common than just their birthplace and alma mater — both had family living in Maine, which meant that while growing up, they each spent many summer days in the state.

“My grandfather came out of south Brooksville. I can’t tell you when that was, but it was a long time ago,” he said in a recent interview. “I never lived there, but I vacationed there and spent time there, in Brooksville and Tenants Harbor. At that age, I liked to swim. I don’t do that anymore.”

Congdon lived in Massachusetts until his early teens, before his family moved to Lynchburg, Va.

“Back then, it was appropriate for children to accompany their parents, so I went with them,” he said, exhibiting his dry sense of humor.

At Tufts, in Medford, Mass., Congdon studied electrical engineering. Growing up, he enjoyed chemistry, physics and electronics. But he settled on electrical engineering because it offered the most promise at the time.

“It was post-Korean War, Vietnam-era and engineering and NASA — there were huge space developments. This was the thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t today recommend that anybody go into it, frankly. I’d go into molecular biology if I was a student today. That’s in the same place electronics was in the 1960s.”

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During his time at Tufts, Congdon worked with Allan Cormack, a physics professor who eventually shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for medicine for discovering the mathematical formula leading to CT scan X-ray technology.

Neither had a clue at the time that he was working on such an important breakthrough, Congdon said.

In 1963, Congdon got his first job at Raytheon, a defense technology company based in Waltham, Mass. He worked there for about 11 years, eventually running its display and data processing design operation for missile and aircraft landing systems.

He left Raytheon to work at a startup company, building optical character recognition equipment, also in Massachusetts.

“I did that for two or three years and then one Sunday morning my wife and I were reading the newspaper and saw that the Legislature in Massachusetts had just reached the point where over 50 percent of their budget was ‘human services,’ ” he said. “We decided it was time to go somewhere else and Texas was about as politically extreme as you could get. I didn’t like the way Massachusetts politics was going and I didn’t want to continue to raise a family there.”

So the couple moved to a Dallas suburb with their young daughter and son, and Congdon got a job at Texas Instruments.

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TI is known for developing computers and semiconductors, as well as defense technology, including missiles, laser-guided bombs and other defense electronics. TI sold off that part of the company to Raytheon in 1997 — a merger Congdon survived, bringing his career full-circle.

Early in his career at TI, during the early to mid-1980s, Congdon said he helped develop what was at the time considered the world’s fastest microprocessor.

Later, he ran a collection of research and development laboratories working on acoustics, satellite image interpretation, intelligence activities, bombs and missiles, he said.

“We probably built 60 percent of the things that dropped down Saddam Hussein’s smokestack; those were our gifts,” Congdon said.

After retiring, Congdon continued to work as a consultant in the industry.

Throughout his professional life, Congdon learned how to be a dispassionate problem-solver — a skill that will aid him in his new position, he said.

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“A lot of people have a real hard time being truly open when they are trying to work problems — people have personal agendas, generally oriented around career advancement,” he said.

SETTLING IN BRISTOL

About eight years ago, the Cong- dons built a home in Bristol and settled down for retirement in Maine. Congdon became active in local politics, volunteering for the Bristol Budget Committee, the Pemaquid Lighthouse Committee and the Damariscotta-Newcastle Rotary Club, where he served as president.

“He’s very affable; he’s the kind of person when he tells you something, you can take it to the bank. There’s no guile or artifice about him,” said John Atwood, a retired Maine Superior Court justice and former commissioner of the Department of Public Safety under Gov. John McKernan. Atwood, who lives in Newcastle, first met Congdon through the Rotary Club.

Congdon earned a reputation locally for being straightforward and thoughtful.

“He’s always been very interested in how government works and always been willing to pitch in and help where it was needed,” said Pat Landry, a former Bristol town clerk who has worked closely with Congdon. “People tend — especially volunteers — tend to get a little over-emotional and that sort of thing and Phil just can cut through that.”

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State Rep. Jon McKane, R-Newcastle, said he would often see Congdon at Bristol selectmen meetings or at the town office.

“He’s got a big knowledge base, he’s just done a lot and he’s not afraid to share his opinion,” he said. “But he loves a good dialogue and he’d offer a very reasonable path to take, a lot of times, if there was some controversy or confusion.”

About two years ago, Congdon began attending meetings with a small group in Waldoboro to study the U.S. Constitution. They called themselves the Constitutionalists of Maine and Congdon recently told a panel of lawmakers that he went to 10 or 12 meetings. That’s where he first met LePage, who came to address the group during his campaign.

“I was very taken with what he had to say — I went home that evening and corresponded with him by e-mail,” Congdon told legislators during his confirmation hearing before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Congdon said he’s confident he will succeed in his new role and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree.

“I think there’s a fairly steep learning curve for all folks stepping into these positions,” said state Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, the committee’s Senate chair. “(Congdon) has substantial business administrative experience and background as an engineer and I think the combination of those things really lends itself very well to some of the challenges the state faces right now.”

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State Rep. Robert Hunt, D-Buxton, another member of the LCRED committee, said he has faith Congdon will do well “because he’s an intelligent individual.”

“His department is less than one half of 1 percent of the entire budget, so working in those parameters is awfully tough, but I’m looking forward to seeing what his ideas for that are,” Hunt said.

Although he’s new to the post, Congdon said he’s already learned a few things and proved he’s willing to speak his mind, even if it runs contrary to what the governor says as his administration pursues a controversial regulatory reform agenda.

“When I came here, I thought that the (Department of Environmental Protection) was the bogeyman and Maine Revenue was right behind them; what I found since I got here is that that’s not the case,” he said. “And I’ll freely admit, I came in with the wrong perception.”

Congdon said his original impression was similar to what a lot of people think, but he’s been convinced otherwise.

“I’ve seen and asked specific questions and gotten answers,” he said. “I think if we can get common sense to prevail that maybe we don’t need to beat so hard on people like DEP. They may be doing things that are over the top, but I haven’t found them yet. “

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Besides making changes to Maine’s tax code and working to lower energy costs, Congdon said the best thing the state can do is provide more regulatory consistency and clarity.

“Those are within our reach, those don’t even require legislative action to correct,” he said. “That’s just attitude.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

 


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