Last week, Cianbro Chairman Peter Vigue, Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, and Gov. LePage ran headlong into Mainers’ complicated relationship with economic development.

Thomas, once the proposed east-west highway’s Senate champion, asked the governor to slow down the private project’s $300,000 taxpayer-funded feasibility study after the political heat from his constituents and Democratic opponent became too hot.

The governor quickly acquiesced to Thomas’ request, giving the senator a valuable — if largely symbolic — re-election lifeline and allowing both politicians to appear outwardly responsive to constituents while actually giving nothing away.

However, more important than the political maneuverings themselves are what those maneuverings portend for economic development in Maine.

As Mainers, we desperately want good jobs and economic growth — polls consistently show the economy is the foremost political issue of the day — but we are also deeply protective of our state and intensely wary of change.

The pervasive and growing distrust of our government institutions, profit-making corporations and the so-called 1 percent adds an additional layer of trepidation toward any significant project in which each has a prominent seat at the table.

Let’s face it, we’re more apt to believe powerful interests are in bed together than assume anyone is looking out for the little guy.

What’s more, our natural protectionism is easily inflamed when internal and external interest groups breathlessly stoke our fears, replacing reasoned discussion with impassioned rhetoric that has more to do with padding the groups’ own fundraising numbers than constructively moving toward solutions.

The collective result is that when projects like the east-west highway are put on the table, our predisposition is to reject them. Reference Plum Creek, Poland Spring, wind power, LNG, Portland’s waterfront development and even the North Woods National Park.

That is not to suggest that the east-west highway deserves universal or unexamined support. The project should be evaluated on its merits. Rather, it means that the highway — and projects like it — begin with long odds in Maine and the near-certainty of a divisive, resource-intensive struggle almost irrespective of their potential value and benefits.

To be certain, Vigue has made some missteps in his fervent advocacy for the highway. First, he has not compellingly answered the question of what’s in it for Mainers who would live with a new four-lane highway in their backyard. Aside from the general potential for increased regional growth, what do local communities and individuals actually get for what they give up?

Second, rather than quietly and painstakingly cultivating a base of support in each affected community, Vigue went big out of the gate, wrongly assuming that his successful history of economic development and leadership in Maine would carry the day.

Those days are gone.

Projects of this size and scope must now be built from the bottom up, necessitating a long, deliberate and often frustrating local outreach effort that has no substitute or shortcut, even for someone like Vigue.

Ironically, Vigue’s top-down approach is the same unforced error that Roxanne Quimby made in pursuing her North Woods National Park, generating similar results even if the goals were radically different.

Vigue must now attempt to wrestle the public debate back to neutral, a potentially Sisyphean task even for a man of Vigue’s optimism and energy.

Moreover, we likely haven’t seen the end of the political maneuverings. This project is young and will generate waves of controversy for years to come.

But I wonder if the east-west highway ever really had a chance. As Mainers, we rather dislike change, even when we haven’t any better ideas. 

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, and U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @CuzziMJ