A Pine Tree Watch Special Series
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, shown here on a mid-September campaign stop in Farmington, has been District 2’s representative in Washington since 2015. Photo by Sarah Rice.
Planning to stay put
Seeking a third term, Bruce Poliquin leans on his Maine roots in one of the nation’s most hotly contested U.S. House races
That may have something to do with his personality – Poliquin is affable and energetic. He often launches into his next sentence without fully finishing his last, as if simply too excited to get to his next anecdote or to further illustrate the point he’s making.
Poliquin’s name recognition and energy are being tested like never before as he attempts to keep his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for a third term. Most see his race as a two-way fight against Democratic challenger Jared Golden, a state legislator from Lewiston. Even with ranked-choice voting playing a role in this year’s election, the two independent candidates – Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar – are not expected to draw significant percentages of the votes.
The phrase I’ve heard about him the most is ‘happy warrior.’ He’s always outgoing and positive. … I don’t know many people who can keep up with the man.”
— Jason Savage, executive director, Maine Republican Party
The race is so tight – recent polling shows Poliquin with a slight lead over Golden – that it’s drawing large amounts of out-of-state money from political action committees supporting both candidates. District 2 is one of only two districts in New England to back President Trump in 2016, so this contest is being watched closely to see if the district will remain a conservative stronghold. Democrats see the district as toss-up race that might help them regain control of the House.
Poliquin, who lives in Oakland, is no stranger to tight races that have a potential national impact. He earned his House seat in 2014 by defeating Democrat Emily Cain by 14,752 votes (45.2 percent to 40.2 percent). Running as an incumbent two years later, Poliquin had an easier time against Cain, winning by almost 34,000 votes (54.8 percent to 45.2).
“I think you can make a pretty good argument that (the last two races) went to Poliquin for reasons unrelated to Poliquin (because of ballot measures aimed at hunters, firearm proponents and outdoorsmen: Question #1 in 2014 and Question #3 in 2016,” says government Professor L. Sandy Maisel, who chairs the Colby College political science department. “He’s raised the money as an incumbent, but for first time he’s facing a candidate that was designed for this district.”
Mill closures spark an interest in finance and politics
Poliquin, 64, seems far from worried about the race as he speaks about the mills that helped build Lewiston and other District 2 cities and towns, and what their closure has meant to his home state.
After making his fortune in finance and returning to his home state in 1989, Poliquin’s life was shaken by the tragic death of his wife, Jane, who along with her father, drowned during an ocean swim in 1992. Poliquin stayed in Maine to raise their son, who was 16 months old at the time of the accident.
More than once, he insists that his “career is not politics,” pointing to his past life as a pension fund manager for Avatar Investors Associates Corporation and as a real estate investor in Maine.
He has been in the public arena since 2009 when he campaigned for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, a race he eventually lost to Paul LePage. In 2010, Poliquin found himself working with Lepage as Maine’s treasurer. Poliquin points to his involvement in reorganizing the state’s debt and to Public Law 90, which deregulated some health insurance markets and created a state subsidy for high-risk healthcare members, as successes during his time in Augusta.
Poliquin grew up in Waterville, in a time when nearly everyone in the community worked at a mill or at a business that supported a mill, and prosperity was widespread in Central Maine, he says. During his college years at Harvard, Poliquin started to witness mill closures and the massive changes they brought.
“Seeing [mills] disappear had a huge impact on me,” Poliquin says. A student of economics, he wondered why the closures were happening, and his conclusions informed his political convictions.
“The government is a big part of determining the foundation upon which our economy is built,” he says. “The government determines the rules by which the job creators (and) our small businesses have to function.”
Poliquin blames red tape and overly burdensome regulations for the decline of industry in Maine. He points to bipartisan work he’s done to fight illegal Chinese trade practices or unfair tariffs on Canadian paper that hurt Maine foresters. Tackling imbalances to create a level playing field for Maine businesses is something Poliquin is proud of and is what he hoped to do when he first ran for office.
I work only for 650,000 2nd District Mainers who I love and respect.”
— Bruce Poliquin
Elected to Maine’s 2nd District in 2014, Poliquin has co-chaired several caucuses, including the Rural Hospitals Caucus and the Paper and Packaging Caucus. Poliquin has also made a name for himself by testifying frequently before the International Trade Commission (“I do it every single time I’m asked.”)
And he has increased the visibility of state companies like New Balance, whose American-made shoes he has fought to put on the feet of U.S. soldiers. To do this, he lobbied the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee constantly and made good on his promise to him that “I ain’t going away.” After two years, troops now wear New Balance sneakers.
“The phrase I’ve heard about him the most is ‘happy warrior’,” says Jason Savage, head of the Maine Republican Party. “He’s always outgoing and positive. (Most of his staffers) are much younger than him, but I don’t know many people who can keep up with the man.”
Not everyone thinks his hard work has made a positive impact on the 2nd district, however. Mike Tipping, spokesman for the left-leaning Maine People’s Alliance, an organization that has been aggressively backing Golden, believes Poliquin is out of touch with the Maine citizens he represents.
“People were willing to give Poliquin a chance,” says Tipping. District 2 has a history of supporting moderates such as Olympia Snowe, he notes. But “in his two terms, we’ve seen (Poliquin’s) not that politician … I hear even from Trump voters that he is disconnected.”
Still, on a sunny afternoon in downtown Lewiston, an interview with Poliquin is interrupted several times by passersby who greet him by his first name and stop to chat.
When asked if he gets tired of the interruptions, Poliquin issues an emphatic denial: “I love it. We’ll be up in Madawaska and we’ll be at an ice cream place and (I hear), ‘Bruce, how you doing?’ It’s like, great. I work for them. They’re my customers.”
Q&A with Bruce Poliquin
Pine Tree Watch: You came to politics from a background in finance. Could you describe your business career and what motivated you to serve?
Bruce Poliquin: When I was a kid, Central Maine was an absolute beehive of Industry. (Mills were) a massive employer and most of the kids you went to school with, a lot of them, mostly their dads, worked over at the mill. My grandmother was a great seamstress and worked at Hathaway shirts on Water Street in Waterville. That’s closed. Scott Paper’s closed. My brother worked at the Cascade Woolen Mill in Oakland. Closed. I worked the night shift at the Wyandotte spinning mill in Sydney. Closed.
I lived during a time when these mills were thriving. You had very little need for public assistance. The churches were full. The schools were full. The neighborhoods were teeming with kids. … And then (the mills) start to close. And they started to close when I was teenager. When I was a kid, they had two dozen paper mills. That’s just paper. We had textile mills, shoe factories, we had tanneries, all these things. We have six paper mills left.
I was sick and tired of throwing my tennis shoe at the TV and said ‘I want to help.’ This is not my career. Politics are not my career. I’ve had my career. My career’s been in creating jobs and running small businesses. But I said I want to help, and the best way to help is to try to bring some sanity back to government so they help businesses, because when the economy grows, it’s like the tide coming in – all ships rise.
So I ran for governor, came up short, became state treasurer. And then we started working on fiscal issues because the state’s finances were a mess. We started tackling this unfunded pension liability for state workers and teachers. You notice you haven’t heard anything about it in about eight years? Because we fixed it. And then this open seat came up and I ran for this in 2014 and we’re sitting here now.
PTW: How do you envision District 2 moving forward? Do you see older industries like forestry and textiles coming back? Or new industries replacing them? What challenges does the district face? What are some of the opportunities?
Poliquin: The second district is blessed with abundant natural resources that other states would just envy. For example, we have incredibly healthy sustainable forests. Ninety percent of our state is forested. Because we’re in this climate, the growth of the wood fiber is slow and it makes it a very high quality. So we’ve got tremendous wood products potential. Is that getting better? Absolutely. It’s getting better.
We were at (ND Paper) in Rumford. Rumford had some problems with tariffs (on Canadian newsprint that hurt the Maine forestry industry). We worked very hard for them to help straighten this out and now they’re on a level playing field.
They make what they call super calendar paper, shiny paper. So when you buy a newspaper, it’s the insert, right? A lot of these mills are making a transition away from that sort of traditional paper that you insert in catalogs, and what have you. They have 650 employees, and they’re hiring. They’re doing great. Sixty-five percent of their energy is renewable. Know what they burn? Bits of tires and biomass.
We fought tooth and nail to make sure that regulation is such that at the federal level biomass is carbon neutral. That means these paper mills that run on biomass, and the people that collect it and transport it don’t have an additional layer of red tape. That means they can take the additional money and invest it in their paper mills and hire more people and pay them more. I love it.
We’ve got to make sure that building blocks are conducive for that to happen. The tax code we just reformed. Do you know one of the reasons why the Rumford paper mill is investing in new equipment to come up with new products? Part of it is because they can now deduct the full cost of their machinery, new or used, as a business expense. That means they’re more likely to invest in new equipment, grow the company, and hire more people.
The second great opportunity for us is the seafood sector. We have 3,600 miles of coastline. And the fisheries are very healthy here. Our lobster catch is roughly $500 million a year. There are 10,000 jobs. Then how about the folks selling bait, selling line and selling traps, selling buoys and so on.
It is a huge part of Maine. It’s who we are, No. 1. And second of all, it’s a huge, huge growth industry for us. We’ve got to make sure again that tariffs are helpful to that industry. We understand what the administration is trying to do. They’re trying to level the playing field in all different industry groups. But on the way to leveling the playing field, you don’t want to hurt industries that are doing well.
We have tremendous (agricultural) opportunity. You look at California. What are they all fighting over? Someone told me the other day, Maine is like the Saudi Arabia of water. We’ve got more water here than you can shake a stick at, and we’ve got land that’s relatively cheap. You can buy 20, 30, 40, acres, doesn’t cost you a lot, especially in central Maine and northern Maine.
PTW: One big issue in our state and across the country is the opioid crisis. It has even affected your family. Could you address how you see the role of the government in this fight, and ways that you can work in a bipartisan way to resolve it?
Poliquin: I work all the time with Democrats and Republicans to get stuff done for Maine. This is an issue I know very well. I mentioned my brother Jim. He got wrapped up in this crap when he was young. He battled it for 35 years. As a family, we did everything humanly possible to help Jim.
This issue, talking about it, exposing it, and encouraging people to step up and say they need help, is the first step. Government has a huge role here. This is an epidemic. If you go around the state, you talk to our small business owners, you know what the major problem is now? They can’t find bodies.
We are (Maine) being so mistreated when it comes to the funding to deal with (the opioid) epidemic, because the funding is based on population, not based on overdose deaths. And as a percent of our population, overdose deaths are through the roof in rural America as compared to urban America. On top of that, if you’ve got a problem in downtown Boston, you probably have 10 hospitals you can go to. If you’re in Machias, you don’t. If you’re in Lubec, you don’t. If you’re in Calais, you don’t. If you’re in Frenchville, you don’t. Se we are being unfairly penalized when it comes to funding.
PTW: You originally voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2015 because you felt the bill was lacking substance. You have since voted to repeal it. What do you think the government’s role in healthcare needs to be?
Poliquin: One of the first votes that (was) cast in 2015 (was ACA repeal) and there was tremendous pressure put on me. I was one of three Republicans in the country that voted not to repeal the ACA because there’s no replacement. I don’t work for the Republican party. I don’t work for the Democrat Party. I don’t work for the White House. I work only for 650,000 second district Mainers who I love and respect. That’s who I work for. So my question at that time and every time, (is) how does this help our families or doesn’t it?
A month ago I’m out in Oxford County and I’m meeting with a jeweler. He and his wife owned a little jewelry store in Oxford. They have one employee. There’s three of them. He said, “Bruce if I buy health insurance, it costs me 1,700 bucks a month. $1,700 a month. Plus, I have a $23,000 deductible. What the heck am I doing? That’s not insurance. I can’t afford this.”
You probably saw the 14-point plan I submitted in 2015. It takes many of the pieces from Maine’s (Public Law 90). It’s a Maine solution to the problem. Part of the solution passed in the House. It failed in the Senate.
I’m not giving up on this. This is a real big issue. The answer to this question is not 100 percent government takeover of health insurance. There are some people that are advocating for that. … Taxes would go through the roof. What does that do to the jobs and the economy, right?
It would also jeopardize Medicare as it exists today. My mom and dad worked their whole lives. They paid into Medicare. They’re depending on it. We have 306,000 people in the state of Maine that depend on Medicare. Why would we want to risk hurting, jeopardizing, threatening, that program? My opinion is strengthen it, preserve it, and then fix this problem for those people in Maine who are having a real problem getting affordable health insurance.
PTW: What can you do to bring some type of cohesion back into the House?
Poliquin: Everybody in the United States House of Representatives knows where the second district of Maine is and knows who represents the second district of Maine. I know everybody on the floor, (and) they look at me as someone who understands job creation and the economy, who’s an honest broker who works with everybody to find solutions. I always enter the floor on the Democrat side. Unlike the Senate, where you have assigned seats, in the House you can sit wherever you want.
I started the rural hospitals caucus because we need to deliver healthcare to our veterans at the local level, it’s the law of the land. Who’d I start it with? Collin Peterson, he’s a Democrat from a huge rural district in Minnesota. He and I run it. I run the Paper and Packaging Caucus, and I joined with Kurt Schrader (of Oregon). Great guy. He’s a Democrat.
I think there’s an opportunity for people that are pragmatic and bipartisan who want to solve problems, and I think, in many ways, there’s a history and tradition in the state of Maine of that happening. And I am very proud to be in that ilk. I’m very proud to have that DNA in my human fabric.
Ben has covered healthcare, business and general assignment news in Maine and New Hampshire. His work has been featured on New Hampshire Public Radio, Healthcare IT News and Healthcare Finance News and Subcity News Radio in Glasgow, Scotland.
When he’s not busy chasing a story, he’s hiking along the Maine coast or in the White Mountains, or pedaling his increasing collection of vintage bicycles around Portland, where he lives.