Hometown Boys and Girls Make Maine's Laws
If I'd lived in this town ten years longer, I could say I've known Andy O'Brien, our delegate to the Maine House of Representatives, since he was in diapers. But I can say truthfully that I've known him since my son Tristan, who's about to graduate from high school, was in diapers, because we hired Andy one night to babysit. Andy was about thirteen; we were friends with his family. We came home around midnight to discover Tristan sleeping face-down on the floor of the sleeping loft, and his diaper ... well, "It was too stinky," Andy said.
Now that the babysitter has risen to high public office, this incident is known around our house as Diapergate. I have vowed never to reveal it publicly, so please, let's keep this among ourselves.
I bring this up for a couple of reasons. One is the strange mood of public anger at government, bordering sometimes on hysteria, that has come over many of our citizens. To listen to Tea Party types, you'd think all public servants were corrupt and lazy fat cats indifferent to the common weal. Another is the vexing phenomenon of bright and talented young Mainers moving out-of-state in search of brighter horizons elsewhere. Andy fits neither of these categories. He's a hard-working and good-hearted young man who, after living abroad for a few years, teaching English in Taiwan, came back to his Maine home town and put his shoulder to the wheel of civic life.
"People are so used to thinking of politicians as these faraway people," he says, "but here in Maine, if you call up your representative, you're probably talking to some guy who lives up the road."
It could hardly be otherwise. We pay these folks $10,000 a year. The legislative session lasts six months. Passing laws in Maine is — like snowplowing and waitressing and lawn maintenance — a form of seasonal employment.
"It fits perfectly with the Maine economy," says Andy. "So you get a mixed bag — there are 151 folks up there — but they're all real people. You should go to Augusta and look at some of the cars parked out front. It is a citizen legislature. That's what's so great about it."
Andy is serving in his first term, having been elected on a tide of hope and change in 2008. Is he at all disillusioned? Doesn't sound like it. "Sometimes," he says judiciously, "you feel like you're making a difference. You learn what issues are important to the people in your area. You learn to listen a lot. It's important to value what people have to say. And you learn that there's a difference between governing and grumbling.
"What people usually don't realize," he goes in, "is that 90 percent of what we do in Augusta is bipartisan — and then there are these few contentious issues. People say, 'All you guys ever do is spend money.' But I say, 'What money?' We've been cutting steadily for eight years. We've laid off a thousand state workers. We've made the best of a horrible situation. I wish people would get this message."
I like Andy a lot. He has that Maine quality of plain-spokenness and an appealing, unabashed air of sincerity. I asked him to tell me straight how he feels things in Maine are going.
"I honestly think," he says, "the state is as good as the people who are in it. And there are a lot of exciting things happening right now. You see all these grass-roots groups popping up — just ordinary people who have gotten concerned about the quality of life in their communities and have gotten together to try to do something, to make a difference. You see all these young people getting involved, putting on little community fairs, putting out newsletters — there's a lot of energy in people these days. I didn't always see that before. It's exciting."
All in all, I felt pretty good after this conversation — the first real talk I've had with Andy for almost a year, since I sat in his tiny front yard in Lincolnville Center with a group of family and friends, watching last year's Memorial Day parade pass by. I'll have to stay in closer touch, I guess. It's comforting to feel you know somebody in Augusta, even if he does live just up the road.