Paul Mills: How William Cohen made Maine political history

If the 1970s are to be remembered for anything when it comes to in-person campaigning for political office, it could be the decade it underwent a major transformation in its retail horizons. Among the two pioneering techniques launched at this time were “The Walk” and “Work Days”.

The first in Maine to employ either was William Cohen. The future US senator and secretary of national defense was a 31-year-old Republican from Bangor in 1972 – little known outside of town where he had been a lawyer, part-time prosecutor, school board member and briefly named mayor. During his short public life, he had managed to arouse some anger with his fiscally disciplined outlook on school budget matters. A lawsuit against the region’s main bank and one of its main fuel and timber harvesting companies has also not endeared him to the region’s power structure.

However, Cohen’s stature was about to change drastically.

But first a bit of context.

“The Walk” was first rolled out in a major state campaign in Florida in 1970. In it, an obscure Florida state legislator, Lawton Chiles, became a household name. His 1,000-mile, 90-day journey was the centerpiece of a U.S. Senate election against an eight-term match in state congressional delegation William Cramer.

In the next election cycle, others followed. Chief among them was Illinois political neophyte Dan Walker. As a gubernatorial candidate, Walker rose to prominence on his own 1,200-mile walk across the prairie state, upending the entrenched political machine of Chicago’s Richard Daley in his March 1972 Democratic primary. prelude to his ousting of the incumbent governor from the GOP this fall.

For Maine, Walker’s feat with his feet was the inspiration for Cohen’s 650-mile walk in the summer of 1972. That’s because an Illinois college student, now a prominent Chicago attorney , Bob Loeb, brought the technique to the attention of one of his Bowdoin teachers, Chris Potholm. Potholm had just started moonlighting as the manager of Cohen’s first campaign for Congress in 1972.

As with Chiles and Walker, Cohen started his campaign with a deck stacked against him. Apart from the feathers he had ruffled in Bangor, he had faced stiff opposition in a nasty primary competition against a better-known opponent, Abbott Greene, who had come personally negative against him.

A bloodied Cohen nevertheless managed to secure a primary victory. By contrast, Elmer Violette of Aroostook, the Democratic nominee, whose gentle and deferential temperament had avoided making the kind of waves that beleaguered Cohen’s more contentious time in the Queen City, was in his fifth term in the legislature. of State. He had won nearly 80% of the vote in his own primary and gained positive recognition as the party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate six years earlier.

The Democrats, backed by party strongholds in Lewiston, Rumford, Millinocket and the St. John’s River Valley, had won each of the four previous elections in the district by resounding majorities.

In 1966, Cohen himself was the losing manager of one of the GOP victims in this Democratic juggernaut. In choosing Potholm as principal, he was speaking to an old friend, the valedictorian of his own class Bowdoin who, a few months earlier, had returned to the Brunswick campus as a professor of political science.

The new book, Bill Cohen’s 1972 Campaign for Congress—An Oral History of the Walk that Changed Maine Politics—or simply “The Walk” edited by Potholm and Jed Lyons, is an oral history. Although participants engage in broad discussion of historical and contemporary issues, its northern star is Cohen’s successful 1972 campaign, the first of several major elections in Maine in which a march has been credited with spurred the victory of a dominant Republican candidate. The book is a series of conversations with 13 of the living characters who played a role.

The Walk is a transcription of previously unseen interactions between them. Besides Cohen, Potholm, Lyons, and Loeb, they include Robert Monks, who both recruited and largely funded Cohen. Séverin Béliveau, the renowned Democratic leader, offers a bipartisan perspective.

There’s also David Emery, another Republican who two years later, inspired by Cohen’s example, made a march a centerpiece of his own successful run for Congress, this in the 1st District. It resulted in one of the most stunning upsets of this era, Emery’s overthrow – at 26 – of longtime incumbent Peter Kyros. Emery remains highly respected and influential, particularly for his legislative redistribution work.

The Walk not only celebrates the ingenuity and endurance of what Cohen, himself an accomplished athlete, has done, but also pays attention to the role Cohen and Monks played in helping to preserve a place for moderate Republicans. at the table of political leaders in Maine at once. when Democrats in the aftermath of the 1972 election held all but one of the top five elective positions.

These efforts helped pave the way not only for Emery, but also for the emergence of an array of major figures in the Maine GOP’s future. Among them: the senses. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe as well as Governor John McKernan, all of whom got their start playing roles in Cohen’s 1972 campaign.

The book is a nostalgic reminder of what running — or in Cohen’s case — walking for office, looked like in those more primitive times. For one thing, the breed was rooted in Maine with very little of the kind of nationalized influence that has overtaken most breeds in the district in recent years. No one in 1972 would have ever bet that control of what was then an entrenched Democratic Congress would depend on the outcome of any election in Maine. Even if it was, it was long before the days when major sources of independent external spending were commonplace.

For this reason, a modern comparison to the election in which The Walk takes place is best understood if read in tandem with a remarkable multidimensional account of the 2018 Bruce Poliquin – Jared Golden contest in the same district, Chasing Maines Second, A Fight for Congress in Paradise by journalist Michael Norton.

The Walk also has its share of “Now It Can Be Told” revelations. Among them is Cohen’s previously undisclosed flight to Britain to meet with an Israeli ambassador on his unexpected 1981 vote that provided the margin of victory for the Senate to approve America’s sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

As important as the 1972 campaign and Cohen’s march were in turning the page on Maine politics, the phenomenon of the march introduced to the state ceased to be a staple of major campaigns.

The novelty has not only worn off, but its effectiveness is being blunted by the need for leading contenders to engage in events that tend to have greater fundraising potential and ensure a presence in the new cycle. daily television and social media. The success of the march depended on the recurring attention of the local media. The much more limited resources of the Fourth Estate today, i.e. fewer professional local journalists, would likely significantly reduce the publicity it would be able to generate.

As Potholm himself observes, “A march simply cannot drive the political narrative as it did in 1972.”

Even if it’s not, The Walk is a compelling perspective and commentary that’s an effortless yet inspiring read on a compelling array of topics.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his historical understanding and analysis of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at [email protected].


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