Thursday, April 29, 2010

Maine: When Portland was on the front

For much of American history, Maine's largest city was of prime strategic importance. Its capacious harbor -- easily capable of sheltering an entire navy -- has been the closest major U.S. port to Europe since the Revolution, and military planners defended it as such.

The result: Casco Bay is littered with military fortifications, from the remnants of Revolutionary earthworks to the listening posts and anti-aircraft emplacements rushed into being in the run-up to World War II, when planners feared a German invasion. I probe their story in the current issue of Down East, now available online.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Maine parties avoid caucus reform

Remember the hotly contested 2008 presidential caucuses? Here in Maine, Republican caucus-goers discovered they have no say at all in who would be their nominee; Democrats found their system wasn't based on one person, one vote, but on an effectively arbitrary system that gave some caucus goers more than twenty times the voting power of others.

Guess what? The parties have no plans to change any of this for 2012.

As my column in Working Waterfront reveals, the Maine GOP intends to slip the status quo past the rank-and-file when rules are endorsed at their May 7 convention. Democrats ignore an obvious solution to their deeply flawed delegate-allocation system. The chairs of both parties don't want to talk about any of it.

Those wanting a little more background will find it here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Maine: News of Note, April 23 edition

For Mainers, a few items of note to be aware of:

Trader Joe's Secret Helpers: Once again, an important story right in our backyard has been broken by an out-of-state newspaper. While the Press Herald and Portland's elected officials have been in rapture over news that grocer Trader Joe's is coming to town, somebody over at The Christian Science Monitor was digging into how the chain seized control of the old Wild Oats property at below market rates with the eyebrow-raising assistance of the Federal Trade Commission. The story should be mandatory reading for local politicos and newspaper editors.

Shock and Awe Spending by Mercury Contaminator: The people of Orrington are voting today on whether to endorse a proposal by allowing a Missouri-based chemical manufacturer to avoid a full clean-up of mercury contamination at an abandoned plant on the shores of the Penobscot River. Needless to say, the manufacturer has been spending lavishly to influence the town's two thousand or so voters. Mike Tipping has more, as does MPBN's Susan Sharon. [UPDATE, 4/24/10: Residents narrowly endorsed the chemical company's proposal for an incomplete cleanup.]

Exposing Sleaze: The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting has been digging around the muck in Augusta, where curious deals between present and former politicos often have a way of quietly enriching the latter. This week's report reveals how the head of Baldacci's Public Utilities Commission accepted the senior vice presidency of generating utility First Wind while still on the public payroll, and went to work for them immediately the following month. His compensation at First Wind? $1.3 million in 2009, including $658,000 in stock equity.

As the report shows, Kurt Adams appears to have received his equity shares while still serving as the chief regulator for the industry, which may have been illegal. But even if no laws were broken, such instantaneous revolving door relationships between government and industry undermine the integrity all parties involved.

There are far too many stories like this one waiting to be told.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Talking Pirates in Camden, Maine, April 22

I'll be giving a talk about Maine and the Golden Age Pirates at the Camden Public Library in Camden, Maine on April 22nd, starting at 6:30 pm.

As readers of the Republic of Pirates know, the Bahama-based pirate gang frequented out-of-the-way, thinly settled, Indian-war-ravaged places like Maine and North Carolina to hide out from the law after blockading major ports. Documentary evidence proves several visited Cape Elizabeth, Damariscove, and Monhegan Island, and there's reason to believe somebody set up camp in Machias, though it wasn't Sam Bellamy.

If you live in or near Midcoast Maine, come on by and say hello.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My grandfather, the ceramicist

Last year I was asked to write a profile of my grandfather, the semi-renowned Maine ceramicist Weston Andersen, whose Andersen Design line of hand-decorated, slip-cast bowls, vases, and wildlife sculptures are lurking on the shelves and mantles of a great many homes here.

The piece, "The Arts and Crafts of Andersen Design", is in the current issue of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors. Unfortunately, it's not available online, but readers here in Maine will find it on most newsstands.

My grandfather (who studied under Eva Zeisel and the pioneer industrial designer David Dohner) and late grandmother (who met him during the Blitz in her native London) came to Southport Island in the early 1950s, making their wares in a swallow-infested barn. More than half a century later, my grandfather is still at it over in East Boothbay, collaborating with my aunts. If you enjoy the magazine piece, drop by their showroom there to see designs both old and new.

My grandparents, Weston and Brenda Andersen, at home on Southport in the 1950s.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Maine Story Updates, April 13 edition

For Mainers, a few developments in some of the stories I've been covering here:

Taxpayers to Save Ocean Gateway?: Portland's cruise-ship-terminal-that-cruise-ships-can't-use is costing city taxpayers some $400,000 a year, now that its only real tenant (The Cat) has gone away. But yesterday the legislature passed a transportation bond proposal that includes $6.5 million to help create the missing cruise ship berth at the Terminal. The measure will go before the state's voters in November, along with funds for buying a soon-to-be-abandoned northern Maine rail line and repairing highways. The city originally wanted $8 million for the megaberth, so additional fund raising may still be in order.

Press Herald Editor's Latest OpEd: Richard Connor, the editor/owner/publisher of the Press Herald and other Maine newspapers, wears his sexism on his sleeve in his latest OpEd, this on the pressing topic of last week's topless march in Portland. Adolescent puns about breasts not withheld.

Media Mutt
has already taken him to task, but my favorite quotes actually have nothing to do with female anatomy. "We spend a lot of time, money, and newsprint on weighty matters of public policy, government coverage and human interest stories," Connor writes, building up to the punchline that readers really just want to see some boobies. "We are doing the work of serious journalism readers valuable information that they need." Really? Are you sure?

Topless Movement Reaches Foothills: If Mr. Connor wishes to keep on top of the all important topless women beat, he may wish to send a reporter to Farmington, where a university student has been asserting this vital freedom, and hopes others will join her. Odds are a staff writer is already on the way there.

Rusticators Behaving Badly: Several members of Northeast Harbor's summer gentry are in trouble with the law over money, including one who has reportedly been bouncing checks all around Mount Desert Island and another who's being investigated for perhaps having absconded with $25 million that wasn't his. Our erstwhile commentator on the scene, Downeast Denizen, has the details.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Extreme right to enter Hungarian Parlialent

You're unlikely to know it if you rely on the website of The New York Times, but Hungary held elections yesterday, and the extreme right had a powerful showing, winning 17% of the vote.

As some of you know, I lived for several years in Hungary, and still report from the region once or twice a year. In recent years I've been following the rise of Jobbik and their uniformed paramilitary arm, the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda.) The latter marches around in intimidating formations in Roma neighborhoods sporting symbols favored by Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross during the Holocaust. The former won seats last year in the European Parliament, where one of their delegates arrived wearing the Magyar Garda uniform. The party advocates reopening the Trianon Treaty, which set the region's borders and created Slovakia. Roma leaders liken it to Nazism, though the party's slick, English-speaking communications staff claim they are merely patriots.

Sunday, nearly a fifth of the Hungarian electorate cast votes in support of Jobbik, which will now occupy 26 seats in the Hungarian parliament. Wednesday they're introducing the foreign press corps in Budapest to their candidates for ministers of economy, finance, and foreign economy. It remains unclear whether the party will be marginalized or coddled by the election's big victors, Viktor Orban's center-right Fidesz, which took 53% of the vote.

Watch closely to see what Mr. Orban says or does not have to say about Jobbik in the coming days and weeks.

[UPDATE, 13:11 EST: Orban just pledged to remove the "political and economic landmine" that strong support for Jobbik represents, the Associated Press reported minutes ago.]

Friday, April 9, 2010

Has European "Socialism" helped in a crisis?

The last of my stories from my recent trip to Europe just posted over at Global Post. This explores whether the European model -- a social democratic system with universal health care, a more rigid labor market, and higher taxes -- proved more resilient in coping with the shock of the Great Recession than the American "free market" alternative.

The answer, as one might expect, is nuanced. The piece, filed from Austria with input from across western Europe, can be read by subscribers to the Post's Passport service. If you don't get Passport but care about foreign news, consider trying it. Where else are you going to find a prominent Czech economist describing the situation by use of metaphors from Lord of the Rings?

Friday, April 2, 2010

POTUS in Portland

President Obama was literally in my neighborhood yesterday, giving a speech in defense of the new health care reform law. Here's my story on it in The Christian Science Monitor.

Monitor national desk stories have to run 600 words or less, so there was plenty that couldn't be wedged in, but there's full video coverage of the speech itself here.

Many of Maine's leading Democratic Party figures were in attendance, including Gov. John Baldacci, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, and power broker Severin Beliveau, whose son, Emmett, is Obama's Director of Advance, responsible for staging events like this one worldwide. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were not in attendance; Snowe's press secretary didn't respond to an inquiry on the topic; Collins' reported that his boss was headed for Qatar with a bipartisan congressional delegation.

Also, there were reports that as many as 1000 ticket holders were turned back at the door, many of whom had waited for hours in the rain Wednesday to obtain their tickets. There apparently was no explanation given. The Expo had quite a bit of standing room left in the back of the room after doors closed. [UPDATE: WMTW reports this was due to the President's early arrival -- presumably a security perimeter issue -- and that the woman who was first in line (at 1 am Wends.) was among those turned away.]

For fellow Portlanders: the Portland Public Market House's own Bill Milliken got an extended plug from the leader of the free world. "In exchange for this publicity," the President said, "I hope that I'm going to get some samples of the beer." Get on that, Bill.