ATKINSON – This tiny Piscataquis County town might not be the farthest from Portland in geographic terms.
But in most respects, it’s as different from Maine’s largest city – and almost any other town south of Augusta, for that matter – as a paper mill and a shopping mall.
Atkinson’s modest center – a four-way intersection featuring a chain saw shop, three old-fashioned gas pumps and a neatly printed honor roll of war veterans – bears no resemblance to Portland’s commercial district, which pumps millions of dollars into state coffers each year.
But are Atkinson and other northern Maine towns so different that they should be part of another state?
It’s a question posed by one Aroostook County lawmaker, who has submitted a bill to study the feasibility of splitting the state in two – along the congressional district line that roughly divides the five heavily populated counties to the south from the 11 rural counties to the north and east.
It’s not the first time Rep. Henry Joy, a Crystal Republican, has raised the idea of secession. His 1997 effort, which resulted in a task force on improving the rural economy, had similar origins, he said: Constituents’ anger and frustration.
“A lot of people up there are fed up of being dictated to by southern Maine,” Joy said, rattling off a host of environmental and land-use laws with Cumberland County roots he said have helped derail the rural north’s natural resource-based economy.
Joy, a retired educator starting his sixth House term, on Tuesday conceded secession was a remote possibility. As was the case with Joy’s past effort, political insiders met news of the bill with laughter, followed closely by disbelief, and finally an earnest-sounding acknowledgement of underlying discontent that has fueled the “Two Maines” debate for decades.
That debate flared just before the November election, when a Senate candidate from the southern coast proposed scaling back funding to northern Maine, a region he suggested was a financial drain on the prosperous south.
After the comments, the candidate, Sen. Christopher Hall, a Bristol Democrat, lost his re-election bid. Too bad, said Joy, who jokingly hoped Hall would help shepherd the secession effort through the Legislature.
It’s a long way from Augusta to Atkinson, where George Johnson reflected on his own foray into State House politics.
Johnson, a 66-year-old retired carpenter, led a recent effort to dissolve the shrinking town and join the state’s unorganized territories. The move, some hoped, would ease the increasing tax burden borne by the 330 people who remained in the remote area, where more than half of the land is tax exempt.
In the end, the Legislature denied the town’s request. Johnson placed the blame solely on opposition from southern Maine lawmakers, many of whom feared the move would set a precedent for other small towns seeking tax relief.
“It’s nice and rosy down there,” said Johnson, although counting himself wary of splitting the state in two. “They don’t understand what it’s like in this town and … we don’t have the votes up here to get anything to happen.”
“It does seem like two completely different states,” said Johnson, who has lived in Atkinson for 25 years. “But I don’t know what the answer is.” As evidenced perhaps by Hall’s campaign comments, discontent about the relationship between the two Maines is not exclusive to those in the north.
The often tense coexistence of urban and rural areas is hardly exclusive to Maine with lawmakers in states such as Minnesota, Michigan and New York often engaging in the same battles.
In fact, Maine’s dual identities might not be as fractious as many, based on a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer series detailing the economic and social differences among “The Five Ohios.”
The “Two Maines” debate has shown little sign of fading, however, particularly with the widening economic divide between the two regions revealed in the most recent census numbers.
Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, said this week that Joy’s secession talk only adds fuel to what amounts to an unproductive debate.
“We need to build bridges between these communities, not walls. We’re all in this together,” said Strimling, noting that Portland – although it is the state’s major economic engine – has not cornered the market on political power.
“I’ve been trying to get gun control through for a long time,” said Strimling, pinning its demise on formidable opposition from rural areas. “I can’t even get an assault weapons ban.”
In the end, splitting the state in two is an unlikely prospect at best, most agree, and Joy himself conceded he hasn’t nailed down all the details involved with introducing another state to the union.
But he did have some ideas about a name for the new addition – the southerly one, that is.
“Probably … North Massachusetts,” he said.
Rep. Henry Joy, a Crystal Republican, has a name for the southerly addition: “Probably … North Massachusetts”