His Waterville roots, energy, rapport with people and a ‘calling’ to give back infuse Poliquin’s political perspective.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final profile running weekly in the Sunday edition on the candidates for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat.
CANTON — Moving slowly and often alone, three dozen elderly and sometimes frail residents eagerly filtered into the activity room at the Pinnacle Nursing Home last fall.
They made no secret about why they’d come: ice cream.
Most had been told that morning that U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s sprawling 2nd District, would be stopping by to give some war medals to a 100-year-old veteran who served in U.S. Gen. George Patton’s Army as it chased the Nazis from France. But it didn’t appear they all remembered the congressman was coming.
Instead, they argued a little about whether the chairs had been lined up in preparation for an ice cream social or for some music, a decidedly less popular option.
They wound up getting the congressman, the ice cream and a cake decorated with a Purple Heart.
So everybody left happy, even if some didn’t know where to go. Poliquin carefully steered more than one confused older woman down the hall to aides who could help her find her way.
In between, though, the setting offered a glimpse of the one-on-one touch the former Wall Street executive and longtime Maine businessman used to win an open congressional seat and hang onto it through a bitter re-election battle.
The two-term lawmaker spoke to each resident in turn, chatting warmly about their children, his son, their common French heritage, his mother’s dog, how much he enjoyed the Fryeburg Fair and how to celebrate the birthday of one woman born on a long-ago Christmas Day.
“What do you do? Give two presents?” Poliquin asked, grinning. “Was that fair? Christmas and your birthday — it’s always fair.”
Handing out plates with ice cream and cake, Poliquin bounced back and forth between the residents and the soft-serve machine, beaming.
“This is fun,” Poliquin said.
That honest-to-God joy he showed as he raced around with ice cream for the elderly is perhaps one of his secrets.
“My dad is incredibly fun and funny, something that probably isn’t apparent from his day-to-day job,” his son, Sam, said during interviews with the Sun Journal from his home in Los Angeles.
Being fun and having a good sense of humor are good traits for a person to have, especially when they’re facing another grueling re-election campaign.
A ‘BRUTAL, BRUTAL ELECTION’ LOOMS
Poliquin, who briefly answered only a few questions for this story, has never had an easy election.
His first bid for public office came up short in 2010 when he sought to win the state’s top job. He finished sixth in a seven-person field in the Republican primary that Paul LePage won on the way to serving two terms as Maine governor.
Two years later, while serving as the state’s treasurer, Poliquin tried again — losing the GOP primary for the open U.S. Senate seat that independent Angus King wound up winning.
But Poliquin is not a guy who gives up easily.
In 2014, he muscled through a tough primary to claim Republican backing in a general election to fill an open seat in Maine’s hardscrabble 2nd District, the largest and most rural east of the Mississippi River.
After one of the more contentious and costly contests in Maine history, Poliquin defeated Democrat Emily Cain and independent Blaine Richardson to win the U.S. House seat and his first elective position.
Two years ago, in an even more costly and bitter re-election fight, Poliquin beat Cain by a larger margin than the first time.
This year, it appears he again has his work cut out for him as he squares off against Democrat Jared Golden of Lewiston and two independents, Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar.
Poliquin’s campaign consultant, Brent Littlefield, told supporters at the state GOP convention to expect a “brutal, brutal election” and nothing that’s happened since has made that prediction seem off the mark.
Both of the major parties are gearing up for a major clash in a district that experts rate either “a toss-up” or one that gives Poliquin a slight edge.
It’s close enough, in short, that political action committees and campaign professionals on each side are preparing to spend millions to convince Maine voters that Poliquin should stay — or go.
GROWING UP IN WATERVILLE AND BEYOND
Born on Nov. 1, 1953, Poliquin said he grew up “in a very small ranch home in a neighborhood loaded with kids.”
He lived with his parents, father Lee, a high school teacher, mother Louise, a nurse, and shared a room with his older brother, Jimmy.
Their house was on quiet Violette Avenue in Waterville, a street that doesn’t look much different today than it did then — lined with little houses in a residential section that doesn’t have sidewalks or curbs.
Poliquin’s son, Sam, said his grandparents had “a simple yet comfortable old central Maine home” where everything “seemed to come from the 1950s and 1960s: the dishware, the carpet, the furniture and the books.”
When he visited, Sam noted “photos of my dad and my uncle” were all over the place.
“I’ll never forget my grandfather’s raccoon hat or his baseball-cap stretcher,” he said. His grandparents’ favorite activity, he said, “was to sit in lawn chairs outside of the garage and watch the squirrels and chipmunks.”
Sam remembered his grandfather’s mischievous nature — how he would teach what he called “bad habits” to his grandson to get a rise out of his wife.
“For example, he would take me to McDonald’s every Sunday morning for pancakes when I was a kid, and let me throw his empty coffee cups over my shoulder and into the back of the cab of his pickup truck,” he said. “My grandmother would give him such a hard time for doing this.”
He recalls his grandmother’s sense of fun, too.
“When I was a kid I would chase her around the dining room table with a dishcloth, both of us screaming,” Sam said. “Somehow that turned into one of my favorite activities.”
Growing up in that household, the future congressman was “always very smart,” recalled one of his uncles, Ray Cyr of Ormand Beach, Florida.
When he got a little older, Poliquin would earn money by cutting grass or shoveling snow, saving up enough cash to afford his own metallic green stingray bike with a banana seat, the height of cool for kids in that era.
His favorite treat, according to his son, was Bolley’s Famous Franks in Waterville — a place he still frequents, along with Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston and Dysart’s in Hermon. He also loves lobster, plain, without so much as a bit of butter.
Cyr said Poliquin adored sports from early on, especially baseball. He played a number of sports, including the game that his French Canadian forebears had brought with them from Quebec: ice hockey.
Despite his small size, Poliquin displayed some skill on the ice, and proved a pretty tough goalie for teams that generally did quite well. The Waterville High School team that he played on won a state championship.
Then came the sort of lucky break that in retrospect clearly set him on a path that would take him far from the old neighborhood.
As he described it years later, a guidance counselor advised his family to look into boarding schools as the next step toward fulfilling a longtime wish to attend Harvard University.
Based on his smarts and athletic prowess, Phillips Academy Andover in Andover, Massachusetts, accepted him with a scholarship that made it possible for Poliquin to attend by working sometimes in the library and washing windows for faculty members.
One of the school’s many prominent graduates, writer Buzz Bissinger, described Andover at that time as a place filled with “all those young men with all that talent and ambition, where everyone knows who is going to be who in later life.”
“We know who is going to be the great lawyer and the star of Wall Street or the CEO or the great doctor and the great biologist,” Bissinger said.
Las Vegas lawyer Mace Yampolsky, a classmate who hailed from Revere, Mass., said Poliquin arrived at the famed preparatory school as “this boy from a small town” in Maine “and he embraced it. He did everything.”
Yampolsky said Poliquin made friends easily with his humor and his constant smile.
Among the sports he played at Andover were lacrosse and football — on a team that included center Bill Belichick, who went on to coach the New England Patriots.
Yampolsky said he didn’t remember Poliquin as an academic superstar, but pointed out that he must have done well. “He got into Harvard” after all, he said.
Poliquin adored Andover, as he’s made clear on many occasions over the years, including giving classmates a private U.S. Capitol tour one night in 2015.
“I love Andover. This is home to me. This is my family. One of the greatest accomplishments of my life has been graduating from this place,” Poliquin said in a 2016 interview with The Phillipian during a visit to the school.
Poliquin made lots of friends at Andover and found more at Harvard, which also covered most of his costs with financial aid. What it didn’t cover, he earned at jobs that included painting metal roofs, digging sewer lines and working the night shift at the Wyandotte Spinning Mill in Sidney.
Those close to him have never questioned his willingness to work.
Despite his middle-class roots, his natural exuberance helped him fit in among a student body filled with the offspring of America’s elite families, many of them wealthy.
Poliquin has always “had that same personality,” Cyr said, calling him “just a wonderful guy” who has lots of friends and loves to have his family around.
On Harvard’s lacrosse team, where Poliquin also tended goal, his hustle and team spirit made him stand out.
“He was an energetic guy,” said William Tennis, general counsel and executive vice president of DiamondRock Hospitality Co. in Maryland, a teammate who graduated with Poliquin. “He showed an enormous amount of spirit to the team.”
Poliquin “was one of the most spirited and energetic players that I ever had the pleasure of coaching,” recalled Bob Scalise, Harvard’s athletic director, who coached the lacrosse team when Poliquin played.
“Although Bruce was not a starter, he was instrumental to our team’s success,” Scalise said. “Opposing coaches would often comment about ‘that kid on the sideline that got your team fired up. He was worth a couple of goals for your team.’”
As graduation rolled around, Poliquin borrowed a suit from his roommate for interviews and had his father mail him the dress shoes the father had worn at his wedding four decades earlier.
His formal education complete, Poliquin, an economics major, snagged a job in Chicago with Harris Bank, where he worked for a few years, and then moved on to a consulting firm in New York City that evaluated corporate pension funds.
He joined a small investment management firm in New York in 1981, Avatar Associates. During the next 15 years, he became one of its managing partners as it grew from overseeing $35 million to handling $5 billion.
One of its partners, Charles White, said the company offered “good professional advice” and “a very conservative” investment strategy that was a good fit for pension funds in particular.
Poliquin, who spent a fair amount of time on the road talking to companies interested in Avatar’s advice, was “very successful” in the business and instrumental in his firm’s growth, White said.
He called Poliquin “a hardworking, dependable guy who cared about every employee in the shop, from the receptionist to the head guy.”
All the while, though, White said he knew Bruce “would end up back in Maine” because he never stopped talking about it.
Then something happened that made it almost inevitable.
MEETING SWEET JANE
To earn some cash to buy textbooks while at Harvard, Poliquin said, he took a job painting metal roofs one summer in Waterville.
Driving an old station wagon for work one day, he got stuck behind “a ding-ding truck” selling ice cream, moving about 2 miles an hour and playing loud, insipid tunes to alert children to its presence.
When it slowed to a stop, Poliquin had to hit the brakes, too.
Then, he said, “out walks this beautiful young lady,” not at all who he expected to see selling cones.
So he hopped out and promptly purchased two Popsicles, whipping out a check to pay for them so she would know his name. He asked for hers at the same time.
That was the beginning of a 17-year fast friendship with Jane Carpenter, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and studied art conservation at the University of Delaware, later working at the Fogg and Peabody museums at Harvard and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Carpenter, whose father founded the art museum at Colby College in Waterville, worked at the Brooklyn Museum’s art restoration laboratory in the 1980s.
When their relationship became more than just friendly, Poliquin said, she finally told him, “Look, buddy, are we getting married or not?”
So they did.
Cyr said they had a nice wedding in Phippsburg. He remembered that Jane was “a very, very smart person” and lovely as well.
“She was just a really sweet person,” White said.
Poliquin told his son “she never said anything bad about anyone, ever.”
After a bit, the couple left New York and moved back to Maine, where they had a house in Cumberland that included a studio for Jane. She gave birth to their son.
They came back to Maine “a year before I was born,” Sam Poliquin said, because his father “didn’t want to raise me” in the elite environment of New York. What he wanted for his son was what he’d had growing up.
White said they were “living the life they had dreamed of.”
Then in February 1992, Poliquin headed for a vacation at the Palmas del Mar resort in Humacao on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico with his wife, 16-month-old Sam and his in-laws.
Surrounded by sunny ocean waters, beaches and plenty of palm trees, the resort offered a respite from winter back home in Maine.
Jane and her father, James Carpenter, decided to take a swim.
“They were sitting around the pool,” Cyr said, and “she handed Sammy to Bruce” and told him she was going to take one last swim at the beach.
Poliquin gave her a kiss, he told a reporter years later, and told her to be careful.
He never saw her alive again.
A rip current began to sweep Jane away from the beach. She tried to swim against it as her 77-year-old father sought to help. Both drowned.
Poliquin recalled hearing “screams and commotions” and soon learned the pair had vanished. Their bodies turned up hours later on a nearby beach.
“It’s one of the great tragedies what happened to her,” White said. “It still breaks my heart.”
RAISING SAM AS A SINGLE FATHER
The early years after his wife died were “very hard” on his grieving father, his son remembers.
Poliquin “lost his patience a lot,” his son said, surely caused “by the everyday challenges of raising a child” without his wife.
Fortunately, said Sam, grandparents “stayed with us most weekends” to lend a hand and his father “had a group of friends, all of whom were mothers, who gave my dad advice on anything and everything from cooking to discipline.”
It took a while, but Poliquin ultimately got the whole solo parenting thing down, at least from his son’s perspective.
“My dad is a very pragmatic and fun guy, and I think that came through in his parenting style,” Sam said. “I think he was a relatively strict father in terms of chores, rules and consequences,” stuff his son is convinced helped him greatly in later years.
“At the same time, my dad gave me a ton of freedom to explore and grow, in ways that few parents would,” he said. “He supported anything I ever did, whether it was music, art, cooking, writing or playing sports.”
Poliquin’s son recalled that “when I was about 5 years old, my dad was having trouble getting me to eat my vegetables and protein for dinner. I would always complain about what he made.”
So his father “wrote up a ‘menu,’ for lack of a better word, of five options for dinner. Handwritten on a legal pad, the five options were something like pasta with butter, pasta with sauce, meatloaf with peas, chicken with peas, and chicken with broccoli.”
Every option had a check box beside it “so I could choose what I wanted him to make. His hope was that I wouldn’t have reason to complain any more about what I chose for dinner,” his son said.
“Of course there was still plenty reason to complain,” Sam added, because his father “wasn’t that good of a cook.”
He said the two of them “really wanted a pet, but I was allergic.”
They managed to solve the problem, though, when they found a hairless cat named Smiley, who lived for 15 years before her death in 2012.
“Anyone who came over thought we had a rodent infestation when they saw her, but my dad and I loved her so much,” Sam said.
He remembers having a list of chores to do as a kid, which “taught me the importance of earning my own money and being fiscally responsible.”
It was something his father emphasized. For instance, “one time in fifth grade I accidentally spilled acrylic paint on the carpet. My dad freaked out and made me pay for a cleaning service with my allowance. It almost bankrupted me, but I definitely learned the importance of accountability,” Sam said.
He recalled having “a frustratingly small allowance to spend at the mall on clothes” and being “the last kid to get a cellphone in 10th grade of high school.”
During college, when he attended Tufts University, his father would, every semester, have Sam “bring home the tuition bill myself, which we would review at the kitchen table together, along with my grades. He wanted to make sure I understood the expense of my education and wanted to make sure I was going to class and squeezing every dollar out of the experience.”
“To this day, whenever I come home, he reminds me to use only one bath towel for the entirety of my stay,” Poliquin said. “He hates waste.”
In short, “my dad is incredibly frugal, and always has been. He made a point of raising me this way and instilling this in me,” his son said.
The congressman “drives a car from 2008. He wears the same pair of jeans until they wear out. He might have to dress up in a suit for work, but I guarantee you my dad is most comfortable in his sweatpants with his hair sticking straight up,” his son said.
Sam said his father coached baseball “for most of my childhood,” something he kept up for 17 years with enough success that the Portland Press Herald named him Maine’s High School Baseball Coach of the Year in 2003.
His love of baseball obviously spurred Poliquin to coach, but his son said it was more than that.
“He also wanted to teach youth the importance of hard work, focus and having fun to get good results,” Sam said. “I know for a fact that he was a role model for most of his players and a grounding influence in many of their lives.”
Growing up, the father and son had enjoyed themselves.
Hitting a few county fairs every year ranked high on their list of favorite activities, making sure they got on all the rides. One year, Sam said, they managed to hit 10 fairs.
In high school, he said, he dragged his father to Six Flags, where “he didn’t hesitate to go on the upside-down roller coaster with me.”
Every Christmas, they watch the film “Love Actually” together. Sam said his father also “loves end-of-the-world movies, such as ‘The Book of Eli’ and ‘The Road,’” attracted to the latter in part because it’s about a father and son on the move in a bleak landscape
And all along, Poliquin talked about his wife often, telling stories over and over about her.
“Any time something reminded him of her, he would point it out for me,” Sam said.
His father would say things such as: “You know who was an expert on Native American art? Your mother!” or “You know who had an incredible sense of humor? Your mother!”
“And whenever he said he was proud of me, he never failed to remind me that my mom would be proud too,” the congressman’s son said.
“My dad has done an unbelievable job of keeping my mother’s memory present in my life,” Sam said. “I think it comes naturally to him. To this day, it is clear to me how much he loves her and how frequently he thinks of her.”
The two release balloons together on Jane’s birthday, or as close to it as possible if they’re not in the same place. “We never miss a year,” Sam said.
Looking back on his childhood, Sam said he “took for granted how awesome growing up with my dad was.”
“It was just my dad and I, so all the focus and attention was on me,” he said, admitting that “in my adolescent years, that was a lot to handle.”
Sam said he “always wished I had a sibling, but in retrospect, my dad and I formed a very tight bond because of these circumstances.”
“We are incredibly close,” he said. “We talk almost every day.”
That’s probably why Sam can laugh about one thing his father does that makes him cringe.
“My dad knows I hate spiders, so whenever he finds one he puts it in his hand and chases me with it, both of us screaming. This happens at least once a year,” he said.
FROM WALL STREET TO POLITICAL OFFICE
In some ways, at least, Poliquin has never strayed far from his Maine roots.
Poliquin’s official address is an apartment beside 9-mile-long Messalonskee Lake in Oakland where he’s been spending time since childhood. Oakland, located in Congressional District 2, is the next town west of Waterville, which is in the 1st District.
His son said the congressman “has remained best friends with four or five of the kids he grew up with in central Maine” — guys he gets together with for meals, ball games and ice fishing.
It’s the sort of life he wanted for his son, too.
It didn’t take long after his wife’s death for Poliquin to realize that he didn’t want to keep traveling around the country dealing with pension funds for Avatar.
For his son’s sake, and his own, Poliquin had “to find other things to do in Maine” that would keep him close to the home he loved, White said.
So he cashed out of Avatar and plunged into real estate development in Maine.
He had some hits and misses in real estate, but the bottom line is that between his career in finance and his real estate dealings, Poliquin’s personal wealth totaled more than $5 million by 2015, according to his financial disclosure form. OpenSecrets.org, which studies congressional financial forms, estimated he had $11.6 million, putting him well ahead of most House members.
Since then, he sold the Messalonskee Lake property he got from his parents in 2007, not long after they moved to a senior housing place in Brunswick, where they still reside. That netted him another $450,000. He leases an apartment on the property from the buyers.
He also has a 12-acre place on Maine’s south-central coast in Georgetown where he spends time, as well, which has been written up in architectural magazines.
Cyr said Poliquin opens his house on the shore to his cousins, with whom he is close.
“He’s very, very warm to the family,” Cyr said. “I just love that kid.”
Poliquin got a shock in 2006 when his big brother, Jim — a musician and artist — died after a long period struggling with substance abuse. Cyr said Poliquin used to take him to the doctor sometimes, trying to get him help.
The two brothers had been “incredibly close,” his son recalled, and Jim’s death was difficult for his father, who mentions it occasionally as one reason he is determined to try to help deal with the opioid problems afflicting so many Mainers.
Around that time, in perhaps the most surprising decision of his life, Poliquin decided to leap into politics, taking aim at the governor’s office.
Sam said he never thought his father would seek elective office.
“I knew that current events and political issues interested him but never thought he would become a public figure,” he said.
“But in retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me,” the congressman’s son said. “My dad has always had the desire to help people.”
Sam said his father likely waited until he went off to school out of state because he “didn’t want the job to be a distraction when he was raising me, or have it impact my life when I was growing up.”
In his campaign, Poliquin talked about the hardship of running a business in Maine and the need to bolster the state’s economy so young people could stay instead of heading off to more locales with more opportunity.
He got shellacked in the race. But after a stint as state treasurer and another losing race, for U.S. Senate, he jumped at the chance to run for the U.S. House seat four years ago and notched his first win.
On Election Night in 2014, Cyr hugged his grinning nephew during the victory party at Dysart’s, a moment that wound up on the front page of the Bangor Daily News the next morning.
“I was very thrilled about it,” Cyr said, and glad that Poliquin would get a chance to serve in Congress.
‘A HUGE BELIEVER IN AMERICA’
Poliquin, who rarely makes himself available to the press, paused for a while after talking to seniors in Canton to talk to the Sun Journal, to explain why he enjoys serving in a Congress that only one American in six thinks is doing well and even fewer actually trust.
“I’m a huge believer in America. I love our country. I love our state,” Poliquin said, before adding that he’s worried about what will happen to his 27-year-old son’s generation.
He said lawmakers have a responsibility to protect the nation, its families, its veterans and its seniors — especially those in places such as Maine where many are largely isolated in rural areas where help is hard to find.
Poliquin said he knows he faces a lot of criticism, particularly on a controversial health care bill that he favored last year, that Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine played a key role in blocking.
But, he said, he doesn’t listen to “the noise” because to get anything done for his district he has to “block out the distractions” and focus on the tasks at hand.
Poliquin said he learned the importance of doing what he can for his community from his parents.
“We always gave back,” he said. “I know who I am. I know who my family is.”
Through the years that he worked in business and raised his son on his own, Poliquin said, he always looked for ways to lend a hand to others.
“It’s a calling I feel I have,” Poliquin said, one that fits perfectly with what he sees as the honor of serving in the House.
He said it’s the job of legislators “to fix things that are broken” and ensure that the “very special place” that is Maine remains a community that can nourish the dreams of a new generation.
To do that, the congressman said, takes “constant vigilance.”
Poliquin said his business skills help, but government really isn’t like business.
Congress, for example, is “designed to be slow” and to make incremental changes that allow people to adjust over time, Poliquin said. For people in the business world, that plodding pace is frustrating, he said, but it’s what’s required in government.
Poliquin said patience is one of his best skills, along with the ability to listen to what people tell him.
He said he wakes up every morning ready to get to work.
“I don’t have an apartment or a house” in Washington, Poliquin said, pointing out that he sleeps on a pull-down Murphy bed in his congressional office, showers at the congressional gym and focuses from morning to night on doing what he can “for the folks in the 2nd District.”
This is the fourth and final profile of the candidates for Maine’s 2nd District congressional race.
Sept. 2: Tiffany Bond, independent
Sept. 9: Jared Golden, Democrat
Sept. 16: Will Hoar, independent
Today: Bruce Poliquin, Republican
Bruce Poliquin’s childhood home at 30 Violette St. in Waterville. (Photo provided)
Bruce Poliquin, pictured in the 1972 Phillips Academy yearbook, the Pot Pourri.
Maine U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin greets female veterans last month in Bangor. He had invited the women to talk with U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who is the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs. (Steve Collins photo)
Bruce Poliquin celebrating his son Sam’s fourth birthday. (Photo provided)
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, talks with Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale, right, and Director of Public Affairs Clara McConnell in Auburn on August 29, 2018. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine (AP file photo)