FREEPORT — He’d heard his mother crying behind the closed bedroom door one too many times. She had had a child out of wedlock 18 years earlier. The church had excommunicated her.
He was the child.
Several of his friends had private grievances of their own with the Catholic clergy of Waterville, then a powerful and not entirely accountable force in the Franco-American community they belonged to. They decided to do something about it, something that would set Alan Caron’s life back before it had really begun.
“We went off to every Catholic church and took all of the silk robes of the priests in an attempt to disrobe or defrock them,” Caron recalls, 49 years later. “They had no monetary value – if we were interested in money we would have been taking other things. But as a political statement, it was a dismal failure.”
A few days later, they’d repacked the stolen items so they could be returned, Caron says, when the police raided his apartment. He’d wind up serving eight months in prison, no great start in life for a ninth-grade dropout from a struggling family who’d already suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Yet he turned his life around, became a community organizer, earned a graduate degree from Harvard, helped an upstart politician rise to the Maine House, the state Senate and the United States Congress, and became one of the state’s most sought-after political strategists of the early 1990s. He helped stop the widening of the Maine Turnpike, discrimination against Portland’s gays and lesbians, and abuses by prison administrators. He brought the Brookings Institution to Maine to study how to transform the economy and became a voice for postpartisan politics as an informal campaign adviser to Angus King and as a columnist in this newspaper.
Now Caron, who’ll turn 67 this week, is one of two independent candidates for governor in this year’s four-way contest, the first bid for office of a man who has helped advise so many campaigns. His priorities include expanding Medicaid and broadband internet access; fostering energy independence via renewable technologies; supporting small manufacturers and other entrepreneurs who are trying to grow Maine businesses; offering two years of no-cost higher education to students who stay in Maine; and improving the efficiency of government. The only poll of the race so far, released last month, placed him last among the candidates, with only 2.6 percent of the vote, far behind Republican Shawn Moody and Democrat Janet Mills.
“I’m somebody who has survived and lifted myself out of a series of accidents, bad luck and bad choices,” Caron says. “And the skills that you develop when you have been at the bottom looking up and climbed your way out I think are exactly the kind of skills that will be useful for Maine right now, because in a sense we have to climb our way out of a lot of accidents, bad luck and bad choices.”
A CHILDHOOD ACCIDENT
Alan Reginald Caron was born Sept. 26, 1951, at Sisters Hospital in Waterville, where his mother, Lucille Labbe, had been born. Lucille had two older children from a previous marriage and, when Alan was 19 months old, married Hank Caron, who adopted his stepson. They lived in an apartment on the city’s South End, then a solidly Franco-American neighborhood of millworkers and home to most of Caron’s aunts and uncles.
His mother worked multiple jobs – short-order cook, house cleaner, stitcher of cuffs at the Hathaway shirt factory – and was the first in her family to speak English. His stepfather was a big band jazz musician who had played for Sam Donahue in the 1940s, before alcoholism derailed his career and nearly killed him when Alan was in elementary school.
His sister married when Alan was 8, and his brother was working full time the following year. “And my father was drinking or gone on the road,” he adds. “I grew up having to be really self-sufficient.”
In the summer of 1962 his neighborhood friends hung a rope “Tarzan swing” from the second-floor outdoor stairwell of a triple-decker apartment building. It let go, dropping 10-year-old Alan to the pavement, face first, knocking him unconscious and injuring his brain. Thereafter he had seizures and blackouts and would often wake up on the ground with friends or bystanders trying to restrain him. He says doctors medicated him heavily – anti-seizure medication “and other stuff.” When he was 12, a doctor gave him devastating news.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘You will never be able to work. You should never exert yourself. You will never drive. And I highly recommend that you don’t get married, because it could be hereditary,’ ” Caron says. “There’s probably nothing worse you can say to a pre-teen than that you have no future, and I incorporated the idea that I had none.” Between the drugs and the injury, his school performance collapsed, despite the efforts of teachers and his principal. “By the time I got to the ninth grade, it was senseless to continue.” He dropped out and fell into destructive behavior.
At age 15, the seizures stopped – his brain had apparently healed itself – but Caron says the doctors kept him on heavy medications, dissuading him from dropping them when he would bring it up. He continued his downward spiral. “I did drugs. I did rock ’n’ roll. I got in trouble with the law,” he says. “Everything was crazy. Everything was an expression of anger.”
Then he and his friends got caught with the stolen vestments. He got probation, married another high school dropout, had two kids and worked as a carpenter. In the fall of 1971 he was charged with stealing cameras, jewelry and a gun – falsely, he says – and the case was promptly dismissed. But Caron was arrested four days later, brought before the same judge, and charged with violating his probation for the incident.
The next day he was delivered to the prison in Windham to begin a one-to-three-year sentence. He spent eight months there, and would later report witnessing staff using prison labor to refurbish their own furniture, repair their cars, or cut hay and firewood on their property.
Caron had a knack for organizing. A bassist, he formed a prison rock band and persuaded the chaplain to let them hold a talent show. The production – they played the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – led the men to organize an inmates’ council, which published a mimeographed newsletter and aired grievances with administrators. It was shut down months later in the aftermath of a minor riot.
Caron, who was by then on work release, says he was the one who got word of the uprising to the press, surreptitiously placing a phone call from his work site to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the federally funded organization that represented poor plaintiffs. Months later he and many of his friends, having finished their sentences, gathered at Pine Tree’s Portland offices to organize a class-action lawsuit to stop the use of unpaid labor. Instead they founded a statewide organization to advocate for prisoners’ rights and prison reform, the Statewide Correctional Alliance for Reform, or SCAR. Caron was its president.
A BRUSH WITH VIOLENT RADICALS
“The sources of crime are rooted in poverty, unemployment, underemployment, competitiveness and pressure,” Caron told the Maine Sunday Telegram in 1974. “People get drunk and commit crimes. But why do people drink? Maybe because they work in fish factories 40 hours a week.” SCAR, he promised, was going to change the system.
The tiny organization had early successes and favorable press. It introduced legislation to guarantee working prisoners received the minimum wage and to allow conjugal visits for married prisoners, and its members testified at legislative and sentencing hearings and organized large outdoor rock concerts to raise money at a farm in Bowdoinham intended to be a future halfway house. Their bills were tabled, but legislators asked Gov. Ken Curtis to set up a task force to investigate prison conditions, to which Caron was appointed. Five months after forming, the group claimed hundreds of members, many of whom were idealistic young people who had never been imprisoned themselves. Caron helped build alliances with progressive legislators and funding relationships with the United Way of Greater Portland, the Roman Catholic Church and the Quakers.
But SCAR had a dark side, a faction led by a hardened convict named Raymond Levasseur, whose own Augusta-based prisoner advocacy group merged with Caron’s in the middle of 1973. With Cameron Bishop, a federal fugitive from the Weather Underground, Levasseur began building an underground guerrilla cell and opened a Maoist bookshop, Red Star North, at 865 Congress St. in Portland. Levasseur’s militancy only increased in August 1974, when the Portland Police Department revealed it had arrested one of its patrolmen and admitted him to a psychiatric ward because, over meetings and target practices, he had been trying to recruit fellow officers into a death squad that would kill ex-convicts and dispose of them outside the city. The group started to shatter.
“We were all hippie dippies, peace and love, but he was hard-edge but very, very intelligent,” Caron recalls. “He slowly, systematically took things over and tried to oust me, brutally attacked and threatened me. I lived in the real danger of being killed for standing up to those guys.”
In March 1975, Levasseur and Bishop were arrested in a Rhode Island bank’s parking lot minutes ahead of an armored truck’s arrival, sitting in a car full of guns. Levasseur posted $31,000 bail with the help of a SCAR girlfriend’s trust fund and went underground. Subsequently SCAR’s founding vice president, Richard J. Picariello, was charged with helping bomb a jet at Boston Logan International Airport and a Massachusetts courthouse. At Picariello’s trial, Caron testified that he had talked another SCAR member, Joseph Aceto, out of a plan to assassinate Curtis, a federal judge and others, The Associated Press reported at the time.
SCAR never recovered from the adverse publicity, and the group disbanded in April 1976. Caron led a series of study groups trying to build a “Maine Poor and Working People’s Party,” but attendees told University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Daniel Chard, who wrote his 2011 history master’s thesis on SCAR, that these were “often incredibly boring and dogmatic,” and the effort fizzled.
Around this time, Caron says, he spurned his doctors’ advice, weaned himself off his medications and began pulling himself together.
“What happened to me since then is that anger gave way over time to other things, affection, all the good stuff,” he recalls. “All these things had to be rediscovered. I had to leave the old circles of friends, because they were destructive. I had this picture on my desk of me at 8 years old, and I knew I had to get back to that kid, I had to remember who I was and go back there, before the (Tarzan) swing, strip it all away.”
He started a newspaper, the Maine Issue, aimed at organizing working people and forming an organization to effect social change. It failed after a few months, leaving him with a new typesetting machine and payments on the $10,000 he borrowed to purchase it. To support his family — he was raising his two kids alone in an apartment above the business — he started a graphics business that, amazingly, grew quickly before it, too, collapsed in 1980. “We had three graphic artists, printing presses, the whole thing, and we had no idea what we were doing,” he says. “But it was an important transition for me, from full-time activist to someone who had to have a business plan.”
Not long thereafter, Caron walked into the annual meeting of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, just around the corner from his building. Members were complaining about the kids on the streets. “I went up and said, ‘I was one of those kids on other streets. I think I can help here,’ ” he recalls. A year later he was the group’s president.
The association grew rapidly, “from six people around a kitchen table” to 600 members and five staffers in just three years. It won a federal grant to install solar panels on homes, administered a heating fuel club to buy in bulk, and started a housing co-op. “He knew how to find the right allies, to see the fundamentals of what was possible, to break down the challenges into fundamental steps and build an organization based on his values and needs,” says former U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews, who served on the association’s board. “He was very good at all that.”
His life completely turned around. Gov. Joe Brennan, a Munjoy Hill native himself, pardoned him in 1982. “I pardoned a good number of people who made not such smart decisions when they were very young, and I’m proud of those, even when it hurt me in the future campaigns,” Brennan says. “I thought it made sense to give people a second chance.”
In 1983 Caron applied to the Master’s in Public Administration program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. After contentious debate within the admissions committee, he was accepted, becoming the first person ever admitted to the one-year program — where half the students already had at least one graduate degree — without a college diploma. He gained notoriety as the “dropout at Harvard” and was featured on the “CBS Morning News.”
He borrowed $20,000, moved to Cambridge with his two teenagers and adjusted to an academic environment. “In the past I’ve been guilty of doing too much acting and not enough planning,” he told the Press Herald that winter. “Here many of the people are just the opposite — brilliant people, but with theories that my practical experience tells me are really off the wall.” He also said Harvard had given him “time to reflect” about what he wanted to do next.
THE GO-TO POLITICAL STRATEGIST
Caron graduated in 1984 and returned to Munjoy Hill, where he threw himself into helping his friend Tom Andrews win the local Democratic state Senate primary against the sitting state Senate president, Gerry Conley Jr. “We were given no chance in the world of beating him,” says Caron, who had also helped Andrews win his state House seat in 1982.
Andrews won the election and in 1990 went on to win the 1st District U.S. House seat against sitting Attorney General Jim Tierney, this time with Caron as his communications consultant.
“In community organizing, you do so much with so little and you pick up skills in doing that that end up being valuable for an electoral campaign,” says Andrews, a progressive Democrat who’d led campaigns against the Maine Yankee nuclear plant. “In all these races it was an uphill climb, but the key to success was the nuts and bolts of organizing: knocking on doors, understanding people’s concerns and needs, and translating that into an army of volunteers who believe what you believe. Then you have a depth and capacity that others who do not approach politics this way do not have.”
By now, Caron had become the go-to political strategist in southern Maine. He campaigned against nuclear weapons in 1984, led the successful effort to block the widening of the Maine Turnpike in 1991 and helped striking lobstermen win the right to sell their catch at the Portland Fish Exchange. In 1992 he helped the LGBT community defend employment discrimination protections in the city of Portland and served as state political director for a dark-horse presidential candidate named Bill Clinton.
No longer rubbing elbows with Maoists, he represented business leaders like Paul D. Merrill of Merrill Marine Terminal and waterfront condo developer Eastern Point Associates, and fought against the successful 1984 Portland waterfront referendum that restricted non-marine development on the water side of Commercial Street. These campaigns and clients, the Press Herald reported in 1992, “simultaneously boosted his stock in the political mainstream and permanently alienated some of his former comrades.”
At the peak of his influence on electoral politics, he led a group called New Leadership – ’94, which sought to elect progressive Democrats in place of the state’s entrenched party leaders. “There was an exhaustion with Joe Brennan, so this group assembled to interview all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates and Angus King to see if we could come to some agreement around something,” Caron recalls. “It was a fantastic process, but we couldn’t agree.” Stalemated, the group disbanded, and Caron, ironically, signed on with the Brennan campaign as communications director. “I didn’t think anyone could beat him,” he recalls.
He was wrong about that. King defeated Brennan and Republican nominee Susan Collins in a four-way race. Caron emerged from the campaign disillusioned with electoral campaigning.
“I’d always functioned with what I was passionate about, with hopefulness, and then I found myself locked in with people lobbing missiles at one another and attacking each other, and these professional industry people who were paid assassins and mercenaries,” he recalls. “I had friends who had been along the same steps as me and went on to be national political consultants, and I didn’t want that.”
He decided to make some money, pivoting Caron Communications to strategic consulting work for Bath Iron Works and other companies. The transition wasn’t entirely smooth. In 1997 he was slapped with a short-lived federal lien for $53,717 in overdue taxes — payroll tax liability, he says, garnered because he hadn’t had the heart to lay off employees as quickly as he should have. But business picked up thereafter. He bought a waterfront home in South Freeport in 1998 and stabilized his finances; this year he and his wife loaned $485,000 to his gubernatorial campaign.
In 1999 he joined Freeport’s planning board, where an interest in smart growth policies was kindled. Freeport was in the midst of an effort to combat sprawl — low-density development that eats up open spaces and makes provision of services inefficient. He researched the issue and rose to chairman by 2001, championing ordinance changes that would encourage denser, village-like development and protect streams and other environmental features, a plan that would improve the town’s finances, foster growth, and protect the town’s brand and quality of life. Much of it was passed by the town council, but not a plan to create an entirely new village west of Interstate 295.
“I came to believe we needed a single statewide organization that could bring all the folks together working on land use protection and smart growth,” he says. In 2002 he convened a meeting of 30 of those very folks at the home of the late Maine Times founder Peter Cox, the result of which was the creation of GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit intended to take the lead on fighting sprawl.
Caron, the group’s president, responded to a call for proposals from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which was looking for cities and regions to partner with. There were a dozen competitors, but GrowSmart had the winning proposal, including $1 million in philanthropic commitments to underwrite and promote the Brookings study. “He was a superb coalition builder, very strategic about messaging and execution and clearly understood the different networks within Maine,” says Bruce Katz, who directed the Brookings program at the time. “He was one of the best I’ve met in my life, and really able to capture what makes Maine so special.”
The resulting 2006 report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” shaped discussion of Maine’s economic future for several years. Its central pitch: Improve government efficiency and invest the savings in a $200 million R&D fund and other measures to jump-start an innovation-driven economy. But the Great Recession of 2008 and the 2010 election of Paul LePage — whose administration showed little interest in many of the recommendations — left the study on the shelf.
During this period, Caron met Kristina Egan, executive director of a similar organization in the Bay State, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. “I was intrigued by his ideas, because he was really bringing the economic development piece into how we make our communities stronger, and many of our colleagues weren’t doing that at the time,” says Egan, who is now executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. “So we had this great philosophical and intellectual relationship before the rest.” They married in 2009 and have a son.
The 2008 recession dealt a brutal blow to GrowSmart, however. In June 2009 it announced it was scrapping a follow-up report, laying off six of 12 staffers, and would need $60,000 in short order to avoid a complete shutdown. Caron, who says donors had reneged on $110,000 in pledges over a two-week period, stepped down. “It shocked me that people could do a written pledge and then reverse them,” Caron says.
Maggie Drummond-Bahl, a staffer who took over as interim CEO, says the parting of the ways was amicable but had also been driven by tensions between the board – which had signed on to an anti-sprawl outfit — and Caron’s increasing interest in wider economic development issues. “The organization wasn’t ready to continue down that road,” she says.
Caron did, however. He started Envision Maine, a one-person nonprofit that spearheaded efforts to implement the Brookings plan. He published and co-authored two books, “Reinventing Maine Government” in 2010 and “Maine’s Next Economy” in 2015, which made detailed recommendations on government efficiency and how to create an innovation-driven economy respectively. (Disclosure: In 2011 this reporter worked on the early phases of the second report and wrote a chapter on Maine’s historical context.) But Caron admits the broader effort hasn’t lifted off the launch pad.
“I’m not sure we have deliverables, which is part of the problem and is why I’m running,” he says. “People ask all the time how we do it, but we can’t with leadership that’s looking backward and resents the future.”
Independent gubernatorial candidate Alan Caron talks with a man who caught sight of Caron’s campaign RV in Waterville on Wednesday. Caron refers to the RV as The New Maine Express and is using it as a mobile office as he travels around the state campaigning. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)
Independent gubernatorial candidate Alan Caron listens to a student while campaigning at Selah Tea Cafe in Waterville on Wednesday. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)