Sam Hunkler, a semi-retired physician who lives in the island community of Beals, is running a low-profile, long-shot campaign to be Maine’s next governor. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When the first question was posed to him at the first gubernatorial debate this month – what would he do as Maine’s leader if confronted with a large budget surplus or deficit – independent candidate Sam Hunkler chose to talk about himself instead.

Everyone already knew the other two people on the stage, sitting Gov. Janet Mills and former two-term Gov. Paul LePage, he pointed out. “Most people in Maine don’t even know there is a third person on the ballot, let alone know who I am,” he continued. “I believe I need to introduce myself a little bit.”

He only had a minute, so he didn’t get very far. He then used his 30-second rebuttal to rattle off the last 40 years of his resume. Thereafter, the moderators insisted he instead answer their questions.

“The fact I’m standing here means that you can do this, too,” he said in his closing statement. “I stand here not because of fame or money or a political party or any other reason other than I was able to go out and get 4,000 signatures from the people of Maine.”

When the lights went down on that Lewiston stage, Hunkler got in his car and drove the three and a half hours back to his home on Great Wass Island in Beals, south of the Washington County fishing hamlet of Jonesport. He has no driver, no staff and no campaign manager. He refuses to accept campaign donations and is running his campaign on the $5,000 he’s put in himself. That’s what keeps him pure, he argues, beholden to no one, an unsullied representative for the people of the state he’s lived in for the past 28 years.

But who is Sam Hunkler and what does he want to accomplish? And why does this newly retired primary care doctor who has never held elective office and has eschewed having a clear policy platform want to be the chief executive of a state of 1.3 million?


“The thing that really pushed me to do it was when I saw the effect one man in a political position had on this country and society and world – Donald Trump,” says Hunkler, 65, who, unlike the former president, declined to get vaccinated against COVID-19. “I don’t agree with much of what he did, but I thought maybe it could go the opposite way, have a very opposite effect. Maybe I could get in there.”

“We have to come together to find common ground – look at the fear in our society,” he adds. “I am standing for respect, kindness, compassion, fairness and integrity. Those are the opposite of what Donald Trump was. But if he could run on a campaign of fear, these are all expressions of love.”

Gov. Janet Mills, former Gov. Paul LePage and independent candidate Sam Hunkler at the Oct. 4 debate at the Franco Center in Lewiston. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Samuel Paul Hunkler was born in March 1957, the eighth of the nine children of an electrical lineman, Mansel Hunkler, and his wife, Virginia Bailey, both of whom were born before the First World War and started raising children during the Great Depression. The Hunklers had lived in Barnesville, a farming community of 1,400 in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, for generations. They were church-attending Roman Catholics with extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins – throughout the area.

The family loved to travel – long road trips ranging as far afield as Arizona, where they would camp out in and around the family van – a trait their youngest boy would embrace. The summer after his junior year in high school, he hitchhiked all the way to Limestone Air Force Base in Aroostook County to visit a brother who was stationed there, returning home via Montreal, Toronto and Niagara Falls. “It was the ’70s,” he says of the 10-day, 2,100-mile round trip. “People used to hitchhike then.”

Hunkler graduated second in his class of 105 at the local high school, a place so close-knit that he is still friends with 20 of his classmates 47 years later. His mother had been valedictorian of the Class of 1931 at the very same school but had to stay home and help her family run their dairy farm. But the family had saved enough for him to attend Oberlin College, a prestigious liberal arts school in northeast Ohio. He had already decided he wanted to be a doctor.


He’s not sure why. Maybe because one of his older brothers had been sent to a frightening mental hospital when Sam was 20 and probably didn’t get the help he needed. Maybe it’s because his sister’s husband had been a battlefield surgeon in Vietnam. Or maybe, he thinks, it was having been raised Catholic and told to do good in the world.

“I’m not sure what it was, but I was very, very young,” he says.

Oberlin was a shock, and Hunkler didn’t feel academically prepared. “Everyone was from the East Coast and had gone to private schools,” he says. By senior year, he decided he wasn’t ready to go straight into medical school and instead volunteered for the Peace Corps, telling them he’d go wherever they wanted.

So in September 1979, Hunkler found himself in Kenya, where he would spend two years in a remote village on the edge of the Great Rift Valley teaching science and English. Those were, by his own account, the most incredible years of his life. Eastern Kenya was still genuinely wild in those days, with monkeys and baboons in the trees all around. He met his future wife, fellow Peace Corps volunteer Kelly Cunnane of South Portland, and when they had time off he’d trek seven hours across the Rift Valley on a 150cc Yamaha dirt bike to the village where she was posted. They left in January 1982, but would frequently return in the decades that followed.

“He’s a very altruistic person and he seems to always want to serve the greater good,” Cunnane said. “It isn’t that he put family second, but he always had this energy that was bigger and responded more to the greater needs. We all do our work and raise our kids and all that, and he did too, but he always had a foot into ‘what can I do to serve the greater good?’”

While Cunnane taught English in Colombia, Hunkler spent a year teaching at a Quaker-founded school back in Barnesville. In 1983, he enrolled in Case Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland, taking time to visit her in Colombia and then China. They married three years later, had their first child and decided to move to her home state of Maine, where Hunkler did his residency at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. “I really loved Maine when I had visited it when I was 17, so I came here willingly,” he says.


But on the completion of his medical residency in 1990, he received a National Health Service Corps scholarship, part of a program that pays off a doctor’s medical school debt if they work for three years in a community with a chronic shortage of key medical personnel. Hunkler and his growing family found themselves in about the most remote place imaginable: the Metlakatla Indian Community on Annette Island, Alaska, a place reachable only via ferry or float plane from another island town, Ketchikan, where their third child would be born.

Hunkler says serving the 1,400 people of Metlakatla – almost all of them members of the indigenous Tsimshian people – was hard and left him with a bit of post-traumatic stress syndrome. “It was a very beautiful and difficult place to be,” he said. “They had lots of trauma, intergenerational trauma. There was lots of alcoholism and domestic violence and drug abuse, and I was there as a fresh medical school graduate.” The first week on the job, one of his child patients died and shortly afterward another. “It was pretty hair-raising. There were suicides, and there were times I couldn’t get people off the island because of weather or because the planes couldn’t fly at night.”

In the summer of 1992, a crew from the “Today” show came to the island and filmed a segment on Hunkler as a real-life version of the fictional television character Joel Fleischman from the CBS hit series “Northern Exposure,” about a doctor paying off his tuition by serving in a remote Alaska community. “I wish I had it that good,” Hunkler told an Associated Press reporter at the time. “He has a social life,” he said of the television character. “I have none. There are no restaurants, no movies, no distractions. … You can’t get more isolated than this. If someone wants to come up here and find something like (‘Northern Exposure’), well, good luck.”

The segment never aired because its broadcast slot was preempted by Ross Perot – an independent who had never held elective office – announcing he was running for president.

Sam Hunkler is refusing to accept campaign donations while facing two of Maine’s best-known politicians. His pitch to voters is that he will listen to them and do what the Maine people want. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


When they finished their stint in Metlakatla in 1994, they moved across the continent to Maine, where they would settle on Great Wass Island, another island linked to the rest of the world via a second island, though in this case by bridge, not float plane. There, in the town of Beals, population 500, he’s lived ever since in a home they renovated themselves while living in a geodesic tent.


Twenty-eight years have passed since Hunkler returned to Maine. He’s worked as a physician the whole time, sometimes as an emergency room doctor at the hospitals in Blue Hill, Machias and Ellsworth, mostly at the Harrington Health Center, 65 miles east of Bangor. He and Cunnane raised their four kids there, and though they divorced in 2005, he says she’s still his best friend. Cunnane is a children’s book author whose work draws on her time in Africa. Over those years, he’s been back to Kenya many times – he serves on the board of a foundation supporting the Samburu people – and spent a six-month stint in New Zealand. He has a small counseling practice in Jonesport that he continues to maintain. He’s never sought or held elected office.

“He’s a quiet man and very self-sufficient and self-contained, and I think that solitude you have up in coastal Washington County, mixed with responding to the community needs there are that have not been addressed, is really fuel for his soul,” Cunnane says.

He decided to retire from medicine last year, in part because his family practice certification was about to expire but also because the state insisted medical professionals be vaccinated against COVID-19. He refused.

“I just don’t trust Big Pharma,” he explains. “They are not making drugs to help people; they are doing it to make money. And the way they market their drugs is so deceitful. And I don’t trust the CDC either, because they’re in bed with Big Pharma and their people go back and forth between working for them and working for the agency.” He trusts his body to fight off the coronavirus. He doesn’t even get annual flu shots.

That’s the real problem when it comes down to it, he says: The country has been bought. “There’s an oligarchy that controls everything, and they control the media, and they keep us at odds with one another to keep the attention off them,” he says. “Imagine if everyone focused on them and how they control the economy and the prices and health care. But they’ve bought the political parties – and with the Republicans it’s just so blatant – and it’s corrupt and undemocratic, and the vast majority of us want something different.”

And so, having seen the damage Trump was able to do, Sam Hunkler decided to run for the top office in the state, to show there’s a different way to do things. He won’t take donations. He isn’t aligned with a party. He doesn’t even have a clear set of policy positions, though he says he wants to give local communities more power.


“Survey each community and ask them what do you need and what do you want and then try to do that,” he offers. “This is something that will probably take more than one term to implement, but it would really be taking it back to these grassroots places.”

Most of all, he says, he would listen and then try to do what his constituents wanted. “We have to get back to the will of the people and build from the ground up, because right now it feels like it’s all dictated from the top down by the experts,” he says.

Can it work? University of Southern Maine political scientist Ron Schmidt says Mainers are fond of independent-minded candidates but that governors operate in a deeply political environment, whether they like it or not. “They need to be able to convince other powerful political figures that working together is the way to advance their own interest as well as those of the executive, which is very difficult to do,” he says. “And even if you were in a system that didn’t have two very polarized parties in place, it’s difficult to do that without claiming a clear agenda.”

Actually winning the state’s highest office as a political unknown without experience, money, or campaign staff is even less likely, says Robert Glover, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. “As a practical matter, modern campaigns are expensive and highly data-driven,” he notes. “A lone-wolf independent typically has none of that infrastructure. Unless they’re already established within the state – like Angus King – it can be extraordinarily hard for them to break through and have any sort of impact.”

Hunkler says he has found it hard to gain traction.

“It’s been a struggle, and they did a poll a few weeks ago that had me at 1.34 percent,” he says. “I’m not getting any media – there are reports about the other two all the time where I’m not even mentioned. I’m finding people every day who said they had no idea there was a third person running.”

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