Good will toward government is diminishing in Oxford County, Maine. There has always been healthy skepticism toward centralized authority during the 43 years Iíve been in residence, but it has grown over the last month of coronavirus shutdown. When Maineís Democratic governor, Janet Mills, announced her decision last Tuesday to extend the shutdown across the state through most of summer, it took off.
Shortly after moving here in 1977 as a leftist Democrat from Massachusetts, I was elected to Lovellís three-man Board of Selectmen on the floor of town meeting. The other selectmen were descendants of our townís original settlers and we met twice per week. By the end of year one my outlook started moving toward center. By the end of nine years Iíd gone past center into right-wing territory. Iíd become a strong believer in local control.
The rest of Maine and New England, however, was moving in the opposite direction and now all six states are run by left-wing adherents of centralized government control. In early weeks of the pandemic there was little dissent over lockdown and social distancing, but as people learned more about both the virus and about different approaches taken by other countries, many now see lockdowns as ineffective and unnecessary. They figure most of us are going to get it eventually and only the elderly with comorbidities need isolate themselves.
Now that President Trump has allowed governors to make their own decisions about quarantine, Democratic governors, including Maineís, are exerting what locals see as arbitrary authority over their lives and livelihoods. Maine has not been hit hard and what effect there has been is limited to southern counties of York and Cumberland. As of last week, Oxford County had no deaths and only 15 confirmed cases, of which 12 have recovered ó yet Governor Mills ordered restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, and many other businesses to remain closed.
Tourism is the mainstay of our economy here, and local businesses depend on the summer season to get through the rest of the year, so Ms. Mills is going to kill off many local businesses permanently. The question now is: will they roll over and die or will they fight? Rick Savage, owner of Sunday River Brewing Company in Oxford County, was the first openly to defy Governor Mills. Two days after her order, he went on national TV with Tucker Carlson, who owns a place in nearby Andover, Maine, and announced he would open on Friday.
Governor Mills pulled Savageís health license and liquor license immediately, and the Boston Globe reported that he shut down again. During a protest at the state house in Augusta Saturday, Mr. Savage was interviewed by Newscenter 6 saying he would stay open, pay the daily fines, and fight the order in court. He said other businesses planned to join him. Has Governor Millsí intimidated them into compliance or will they fight too? It should be an interesting week here in Oxford County.
On Monday Republican leaders declared that Governor Mills didnít consult them about her shutdown plan. Theyíre asking majority Democrats to call legislators into special session and end her emergency powers, but Democrats refused. Tuesday, Ms. Millsí press secretary said she did communicate with Republicans through a computer portal. Although Americaís initial virus response was bipartisan, it no longer is. Efforts to restart the economy have broken down along party lines in Maine and everywhere else.
Maine was supposed to celebrate its bicentennial this year but thatís not likely. Itís nice to be free of Massachusetts, but Maine has since spawned its own oligarchy with Governor Mills at the head. What I see in rural Maine seems another manifestation of similar conflicts during Maineís early settlement.
Lately Iíve been reading Liberty Men And Great Proprietors, a 1990 book by historian Alan Taylor. Revolutionary War veterans who settled in backcountry Maine hadnít been paid for their service and believed they had a right to stake out claims and settle in wilderness areas away from the Province of Maineís coast.
Maine then was part of Massachusetts whose government and courts were largely controlled by Great Proprietors like Henry Knox, Charles Vaughan, Josiah Little, and their ilk. They claimed ownership of vast land grants ó some going back to colonial times.
These proprietors wanted veterans and other settlers ó the Liberty Men ó to pay them for the land. Lawsuits continued for decades before the political influence of wealthy proprietors in the Massachusetts statehouse eventually won out. Rural resistance to state control thus has a long heritage here in backcountry Maine.
Mr. McLaughlin, a former school teacher, is a columnist based in the foothills of the White Mountains at Lovell, Maine.