This is the last in a series of stories about voters in four communities as Maine prepares to elect a new governor. 

WILTON — Nestled in the foothills of Maine’s western lakes and mountains, this former mill town should not be a political swing district – Republicans outnumber Democrats here 5 to 4 and it has turned out big both times for both Paul LePage and Donald Trump.

Yet Democrat Janet Mills managed to eke out an electoral victory here in 2018, in part because of her ties to neighboring Farmington, the hometown she once represented in the Legislature, and because she and her family lived in Wilton for 12 years while she served as district attorney.

“Wilton has traditionally been a Republican town, was that way when I moved here and Janet lived here, but it’s purple now,” said retired paper mill worker Tom Saviello, a former town selectman, state senator and state representative who briefly mulled an independent run in the 2022 governor’s race.

“There are people here who are going to remember she carried us through a very tough time,” he said of the pandemic. “I know some of us disagreed with some of her decisions – I know I grumbled and groaned – but she did the best she could. And she worked with everyone, which matters to people here.”

But LePage, who once called Saviello the “most repugnant human” during a political spat in the Legislature, will strike a chord among conservative Wilton voters who believe the best government is one that simply stays out of the way of private business.


“His base will not leave him in Wilton,” Saviello said. “But his base is not enough to get him elected.”

But it will be more of an uphill battle than before. Like many Maine towns, the number of unenrolled Wilton voters, or independents, has always surpassed the number enrolled in either political party – until now. This year, Wilton Republicans outnumber not just Democrats, but independents, too.

But Saviello, who has been elected here as a Democrat and a Republican, is proof that a voter won’t necessarily pull their party’s lever.

A few days spent in this town of 3,800 souls in the weeks leading up to the election leave no doubt that pocketbook concerns are top of mind for locals buying takeout pizza at Steve’s Family Market, browsing the jellies or jewelry at a Saturday craft fair or ducking into Wilton Congregational Church’s thrift shop.

“It’s all our customers are talking about,” said Sherry Williams, whose husband owns Steve’s. The convenience store and deli is full most days. “I hear it every day. And they’re right, prices are going up, for all of us. People are worried about making ends meet, us included.”

Kelly Burhoe and Barry Hall talk in front of their car outside Steve’s Family Market in Wilton on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As times get lean, beer and lottery ticket sales tick up. A local carpenter buys Steve’s takeout pizza now instead of taking his wife out to eat in Farmington for their weekly date night. A local hunter who stops to chat said he used to donate his venison to the needy at church; he now uses it to feed his own family.


Residents here know how to stretch a dollar. In 2020, the average Wilton household earned just over $50,000 a year – $1,500 less than the county average and about $15,000 lower than the state’, according to U.S. Census data. That data shows one-third of Wilton children live in poverty.

Inside the church thrift shop, volunteers Al Kaplan and Pam Brown said they can feel the rising anxiety among neighbors, church friends and customers, especially when news broke last month of the pending closure of the Pixelle paper mill in neighboring Jay, which employs 230 people in high-paying jobs.

“I don’t think we realize how devastating the loss of that mill is going to be,” said Kaplan.

The town has been through job loss before. In 2019, Wilton lost its then biggest employer, Barclaycard, after L.L.Bean replaced Barclaycard with Citibank as the vendor of its branded credit cards. The company had employed up to 500 people at its peak, and 227 at the time it closed.

Isis Whalen, owner of Cannatopia, outside of her store in Wilton. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Isis Whalen used to work inside the Barclays call center, which now sits vacant next to the Wilton town offices. The lifelong resident has since forged a new career in a fast-growing segment of the economy as the owner of Cannatopia, a medical cannabis shop on Route 2, the town’s commercial strip.

There are at least six cannabis shops already operating in Wilton alone, with at least 30 serving the area in and around Farmington, Whalen said. She is sure not all of the shops will make it – there’s not enough demand to justify that much supply – but she feels energized by the new opportunity.


“LePage didn’t see us as a real industry,” Whalen said. “But we’re a business, just like any other. Some of the people in town, they see us like he did, think we’re trouble, but others are glad we’re here, glad we’re paying taxes, glad we’re creating jobs.”

She said Wilton can sometimes feel split down the middle – between the liberals drawn in by University of Maine at Farmington and the old-school conservatives that dominate the political landscape of rural Franklin County – which may explain why it can swing from one election to the next.

“At the end of the day, though, I think we all know we’re lucky to live in Wilton,” said Whalen, who stood in the front of her shop pointing out toward the skyline. “That way to the lake. Over there, up the road, is another lake. Hiking that way, fishing that way, ski resorts up the road. Beautiful.”

Signs supporting various election candidates on a street corner in Wilton. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Pam Brown also sees potential for Wilton’s rebirth. In the central business district, where her church has stood for more than a century, many storefronts are dark, but a new developer has opened a brewery and hardware store. And the town recently cleaned up and demolished the old Forster Mill complex.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” she said in between a steady stream of late morning thrift shop customers. “We are a community that helps each other out. We get by. We solve our own problems. We’ll figure it all out. And we don’t have to get nasty doing it, like a certain former governor.”

“LePage,” Brown blurted out. “There, I said it. I said I wouldn’t get political, but I am not voting for him.”


Financial anxiety over rising prices can cut both ways: Some blame Mills and President Biden for the rising costs, while others say the $850 rebate checks that Maine sent out saved them from financial ruin.

A pedestrian crosses the road on Main Street in Wilton. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A mother of three young children coming out of the church thrift shop one recent Saturday said the relief checks paid for six months worth of pantry staples and a major car repair that helped her husband land a new job in Auburn after getting laid off from his last one.

She is grateful to Mills for extending the free school lunch program to all children, regardless of income – an expansion that helped a family like hers stretch their food budget without telling the world they were down on their luck. She offered up her story on condition that her name not be used.

“I don’t want people knowing, but we’ve been hand to mouth, with me and my husband going without so the girls don’t,” she said, her cheeks darkening. “They say we’re all a paycheck away from homeless and I guess it’s true. But we got the car fixed and he found work so things are looking up.”

She is voting for Mills, but admitted her husband, a big NRA supporter, was reluctant to vote Democrat.

Matthew Levensalor laughs as he plays cribbage with Cory Coolidge at Ambition Brewing in Wilton. The Main Street spot hosts a cribbage night every Thursday and is a popular gathering place for locals. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Matt and Kim Levensalor are on opposite sides of a marital political divide, too. They live in Wilton with two children and work as administrators for LEAP, a nonprofit that supports people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Matt said he is voting for LePage, but not Kim.


The last four years have not been easy for the couple. LEAP has struggled to find enough people to staff its group homes, forcing them to cover extra direct-care shifts in LEAP group homes on many weekday nights and weekends. Government is making it too easy for many people not to work, Matt said.

“As much as some people hate what Trump and LePage say,” Matt said, referring playfully to wife, Kim, “things were better for us when they were in office. We were living pretty comfortably. Now the price of everything is going up. I’m scared. And I’m exhausted. I don’t know how I’ll make ends meet.”

Some of the most talked-about issues of the election cycle, like gender identity politics or abortion, don’t matter as much to Matt Levensalor as how he will survive this winter if he can’t afford to fill his oil tank. Or pick up a weekend shift so he can play cornhole in the backyard with his kids.

LEAP is not the only organization struggling to find workers. Help wanted signs can be found in Wilton shop windows, on factory fences and along the town’s major crossroads, touting jobs ranging from entry level retail clerks and housekeepers to technicians, carpenters and managers earning up to $70,000.

Alison Rainey Welch outside of Dutch Treat in Wilton on Thursday. Rainey Welch was born and raised in Wilton, and her family has owned the seasonal restaurant and ice cream shop since the early 1960s. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It is always a challenge to staff a seasonal restaurant like the Dutch Treat, a popular eatery, ice creamery and local landmark known as much for the windmill on the end of its building as its soft serve, but it got harder under Mills, said owner and manager Alison Rainey Welch, a LePage supporter.

Mills’ decision to extend the amount of time that people could collect unemployment benefits made it hard for Welch to recruit workers, forcing her to hire six 15-year-olds to round out her summer staff. She had to close early because she had no adult employees to work fall weekends.


Welch is now working part-time in the school cafeteria and holding weekend craft fairs at Dutch Treat during the off season to offset rising prices, a shortened season and earn extra cash to make sure she’s living within her budget. Some days she wonders if she is earning as much as she’s paying her workers.

“These are kids, good kids, but still, just kids,” Welch said. “They should be getting a starter wage, a training wage, not minimum wage. Even they can’t believe how much I pay them. Or better yet, stop paying able-bodied adults to stay home … I work two jobs. Can’t they work one?”

The economy is not the only issue on Wilton voters’ minds. Parents waiting in the parking lot outside Academy Hill School one October afternoon talked about the need for a better special needs program and a local urgent care center able to provide non-emergency room medical care on weekends.

Wilton’s local school district, Mount Blue Regional, found itself pulled into a contentious debate over gender identity in public schools this fall. LePage has rallied against Mills’ so-called “woke” education agenda, specifically introduction of concepts of sexual and gender diversity without parental consent.

Two dozen people turned out to a September school board of directors meeting to debate the merits of gender identity posters hanging in middle and high school guidance counselor offices. Kristen Mizoki, Franklin County’s only psychiatrist and a Wilton parent, said the posters could save a life.

“Posters such as the one hanging in our schools can be a lifeline to struggling children,” she said, citing attempted suicide rates of LGBTQ youth as four times that of cisgender, straight peers. “The possibility of changing or saving even one child’s life is worth the discomfort of a few.”


Joseph O’Brien outside of his home on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Retired aeronautics engineer Joseph O’Brien, who has built a private workshop on his Wilton land for students to learn how to design and build robots, said teaching gender fluidity creates distrust between children and parents, children and doctors and is likely the reason for the high suicide rates.

“I don’t have any less compassion for somebody who is homosexual or transgender,” said O’Brien. “To me they are just people and they need to be loved. But let kids be kids. Don’t push it on them. There is acceptance, that’s OK, and then there’s advocacy, not OK … I literally think it’s killing them.”

But for most Wilton residents, even critical social issues like education, abortion and development of Central Maine Power’s hydroelectric power corridor (which area towns opposed, but LePage and Mills supported) pale in comparison to economic ones.

A reflection of Main Street seen in the window of New Great Wall in Wilton. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

According to Perry Ellsworth, Wilton’s new town manager, the challenges facing Wilton are the same that face many other rural Maine towns – lack of affordable housing, childcare and reliable high-speed internet. Still, he thinks Wilton, with its pristine lake and highly skilled workforce, is ripe for rebirth.

The era of economic development home runs is probably over. Multi-million-dollar playmakers don’t just set up shop in Franklin County anymore, he said. For now, Ellsworth will focus on building Wilton one new business at a time. Locals know it will probably be up to Wilton to solve its own problems.

“I think both candidates have a rough road ahead of them,” Ellsworth said. “The town has gone from conservative with LePage to the more liberal side of government with Mills. They know what they’re getting. It will be interesting to see which way it goes, or, in the end, if it even matters.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story