Both major parties made history this month in the primary elections for governor: The GOP nominated its first Franco-American; Democrats chose their first female. Though the canvas on which this year’s race for the Blaine House is painted also includes three independents, the robust competition culminating in this month’s June primary is woven on a tapestry that belongs — at least for now — to the two major parties. 

To be sure, the Democrats’ nomination of Libby Mitchell is not the first time a major party in Maine  has nominated a woman  to run for governor. The Republicans did that by choosing Susan Collins in 1994 in a primary she won over three other women and four men on her way to losing the general election to Angus King.  (Despite the tendency of women to be more partial to Democratic candidates than men in their recent voting patterns, more Maine Republican women than Democrats have actually competed for a party’s nomination for governor:  five GOP women have done so since Sherry Huber became the first in her party in 1982 while only three Democrats, beginning with Georgette Berube, also in 1982, have done the same.)

Moreover, Maine has long been in the forefront of affording women a place at the political table. Maine first sent  that pioneering leader Margaret Chase Smith to Washington in 1940, the same year Helen Knudsen became the first Maine woman to appear on the ballot for governor, albeit as a minor party candidate.  As recently as 2008, the year when Maine became the first state in which a majority of its congressional delegation was composed of women, Maine has been in the vanguard.

Likewise, the Republican choice of Paul LePage is not the only time a major party has nominated a Franco-American for governor.  Democrats have named four of them, but the last such occasion was 62 years ago when then-Biddeford Mayor Louis Lausier won its nomination. (He went on to lose in a landslide to Frederick Payne in the 1948 general election.) This was also a time when the Democrats were not a major force in Maine’s political destiny even though Franco-Americans were among the minority party’s foremost leaders.

Ethnically, the state’s electorate has  been hospitable to other minorities. For 40 of the last 44 years a Greek American has held major political office in the state; Portland’s Peter Kyros, first elected  in 1966 to four terms as a congressman, and Olympia Snowe, first a congresswoman in 1979 and a senator since 1995.

Not to be overlooked is Gov. John Baldacci, whose proud Italian and Lebanese roots have made him the first Blaine House occupant of either group. His main opponent in his first election as governor eight years ago, Peter Cianchette, was also of Italian American ancestry. 

The state’s largest ethnic minority, the 23 percent in the 2000 census identifying themselves as either French or French Canadian, however, has never seen anyone openly identifying with this heritage win the popular vote in a  state-wide election. (Though Margaret Chase Smith’s mother was Franco-American, it was not a feature of the senator’s  background with which she was ardently identified.)

The only major party nominee for state-wide office ever to embrace both female as well as Franco-American identification was Smith’s Democratic opponent in the 1960 election, Lucia Cormier of Rumford. She garnered 38 percent of the vote as Mainers chose instead to award Smith her third U.S. Senate term. 

It is, of course, true that a Franco-American has indeed been Maine’s  governor. That was in 1879, when Lewiston’s Alonzo Garcelon served a one year term.  But Garcelon was chosen by the state Legislature after he had achieved only a third place finish with just 22 percent of the popular vote. Maine law then — as Vermont does now —  required a legislative election when no candidate achieved a majority.  (If such a system had remained in effect in Maine today, seven of the last nine gubernatorial elections would also have been subjected to such a process, one that would likely have denied the Blaine House to such outside-the-Augusta-beltway-players as Jim Longley and Angus King. )

This year, 2010, is the first year, however, when both  a Franco-American and a woman have faced off as major party nominees in the same gubernatorial election. Though the three independents — Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott — will no doubt have their day in the sun, the  precedent setting ethnic identification of the Republican nominee and the historic gender dimension of the Democratic nominee will continue to command attention and interest in what promises to be a fascinating time.       

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached bye-mail: [email protected]

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