Magazine | August 11, 2014, Issue

The State of Maine

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Not all lobster bibs and brisk swims

Portland, Maine — Arriving at the airport, you see a sign: “Portland, Maine. Yes. Life’s good here.” The state at large has a slogan: “Maine: The way life should be.” Mainers are proud of their state. Indeed, they have an almost Texan state pride. At a hotel, the sign does not say “Have a Great Day.” It says “Have a Great Maine Day.”

Mainers have a couple of charming linguistic habits (more than a couple). They tend not to say “Maine” but “the State of Maine.” “That’s simply the way we do it here in the State of Maine.” Even while they are talking with fellow Mainers, they will not say they come from Bethel or Brunswick. They’ll say they come from “Bethel, Maine,” or “Brunswick, Maine.”

Yes, life is good here. Scrappy kids romp through blueberry patches, go for a swim, and scarf lobster. That sort of idyll really exists. But there are severe problems in Maine. Life is tough all over, true — but Maine has some special challenges that are miserable to meet.

It is an interesting state, demographically. There are just 1.3 million people in a very roomy state. Maine has the lowest population density east of the Mississippi. It is also the whitest state — with some 95 percent being Caucasian. It is also the oldest state — with a median age of almost 43.

Tucker Carlson, the journalist and entrepreneur, has long lived part time in this state. He says, “Maine is like Oregon: a poor, rural, conservative state, dominated by Portland.”

Portland is a liberal city, filled with people who come from elsewhere. It is a classic (and beautiful) “latte town.” On a busy street, there is a shop pushing “fair trade” coffee. Its slogan is “Changing the world through coffee . . . one cup at a time.” That sums up the spirit.

Interrupting the idyll is a large and new Somalian population. I think, “They must be very grateful to be here.” Today’s Somalia is one of the worst places on earth, along with North Korea, Syria, and a few others. No doubt, many Somalians are grateful to be here. But they brought with them some of the maladies of the Old World.

These include gang warfare and brutality toward women. The Somalians are stressing the police, the welfare system, and everything else. Anti-integrationist Somalians can make life hell for those Somalians who wish to integrate — who wish to become Americans. A friend in Portland tells me, “Racism in this town is being stirred up.”

Another friend, Carlson, makes a sardonic observation: “Racial strife is the only problem we didn’t have in Maine, so we had to import it.”

The heart of Somalian Maine, so to speak, is northwest of Portland. As California has L.A., Maine has an L-A — Lewiston-Auburn, twin cities, divided by the Androscoggin River. Lewiston in particular is a “little Mogadishu.” I will have a look at it in due course.

L-A is just 35 miles from Portland, but, for some Portlanders, it might as well be in another state. There is Portland, an anchor in the southeast, and then there’s the rest of Maine. I ask a young woman in Portland, “Have you ever been to Bethel?” (which is 70 miles away). “No,” she says, “I don’t really go up to Maine.” Then she catches herself and says, “I mean, to northern Maine.”

In truth, Bethel is in the southwestern part of the state — but I know what the young lady means: Virtually no one lives above what you might call the 50-yard line of Maine.

There is more than one divide here. In addition to Portland-and-the-rest, you have coastal versus inland. Coastal Maine tends to be prosperous and postcard-worthy: “Vacationland,” as the state’s nickname has it. (Maine has two nicknames, actually. The other is “The Pine Tree State.”) Inland Maine is grittier, more Appalachian.

Maine has always been a poor state. It has high levels of welfare dependence. It has also been a booze-soaked state. Why? Another Maine friend of mine says, “We’re remote, cold, and dark.” And that adds up to alcohol — as in Russia, Finland, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, etc.

In recent years, Maine has been very hard hit by drugs. A headline in 2011 read, “Maine tops nation in prescription drug abuse.” On the heels of prescription drugs are heroin and meth. Dealers from New York and other points south find a ready market here. People are overdosing in increasing numbers — dying.

#page#Politicians and others speak of an “epidemic,” and that is not an exaggeration. All the New England governors are devoting more and more time to this problem, this crisis. In fact, there was a gubernatorial summit on drugs in Waltham, Mass., a few weeks ago.

Traveling around Maine, and hearing about it, I think, “This is a textbook example of what Charles Murray is talking about.” Two years ago, the famed political scientist wrote Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. It is about economic and moral decline. Of course, there are textbook examples all over the country.

Earlier this year, I was in rural Michigan, visiting Hillsdale College. Someone told me that local stores have trouble getting and keeping help: Too many citizens are hooked on meth. A little later, I was in Nebraska, doing a story from a lovely farming community. My host pointed out all the meth houses.

When did America become a continental ghetto?

In his state-of-the-state address last February, Maine’s governor spoke of the drug epidemic. “It is tearing at the social fabric of our communities,” he said. “While some are spending all their time trying to expand welfare, we are losing the war on drugs.” He went on to say that “927 drug-addicted babies were born last year in Maine. That’s more than 7 percent of all births.”

The governor is Paul LePage, a conservative Republican. He is the most controversial, colorful, and quotable governor in America. His political incorrectness is spectacular. The liberal press doesn’t know whether to be outraged or amused. Politico ran a story titled “How Did Mild-Mannered Maine Get America’s Craziest Governor?”

A long way from crazy, LePage knows many things. Poverty, for one. He was born in Lewiston in 1948. The family was French-speaking, and Paul was the first of 18 children. His father was a mill worker and a drunk. He beat the hell out of Paul, who escaped home at age eleven. He lived on the streets for two years. With the help of some caring and responsible adults, he rose.

LePage has an advantage that few politicians do: You can’t out-poor him. You can’t lecture or guilt him on the subject of poverty. His tongue is amazingly free. In his state-of-the-state address, he said, “There is no excuse for able-bodied adults to spend a lifetime on welfare at the expense of hard-working, struggling Mainers.” He is trying to crack down on welfare abusers.

I think of the Rockefellers, some of whom went to poor states to have their careers: Winthrop became governor of Arkansas; Jay became a U.S. senator from West Virginia. If a Rockefeller tries to reform welfare, the headline may well read, “Rockefeller Snatches Bread from Urchin’s Mouth.” Try that with LePage: He is the urchin.

What Lewiston looked like when LePage was a kid, I don’t know. It’s fairly sad now. This is not postcard Maine, not Camden (though Bates College is charmingly New England). Just about the only thing that enlivens one neighborhood is the garb of the East African women. It is gay and multicolored, contrasting with the general gray.

Outside a community center, Somalian boys are playing a rowdy game of basketball. They look pretty much like other American kids, enjoying an American game. Will they become Mainers? Downeasters? Are they already? A lot depends on the answer to that question. The nature of their lives, and the life of the society they inhabit, is at stake.

Maine is a state that young people leave in droves. They have pride, yes, but they also need opportunity. LePage wants to foster conditions that allow them to stay, if they want. He is doing his damnedest to make Maine business-friendlier, in the face of a social-democratic culture. Two years ago, I interviewed another governor, Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Like LePage, she is a conservative Republican. She said that New Mexico was a state that young people felt they had to leave, to get ahead. She wanted to change that.

True to the nickname, Maine is Vacationland. But I wonder whether that designation is insulting, or irksome, to the natives. It is Vacationland for others, but the place where they live. And it can be very hard.

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