Elections have a way of clearing the air and this latest election certainly did that. I’m not talking about Maine or the U.S., even though here in Maine we made a historic correction from the Republican Senate and our soon to be Florida bound Governor; turning over the entire Maine Legislature and governor’s seat to the Democrats. I’m always much more focused on our local Belfast city council elections and this year’s was a doozy.
Ever since 1980, I have been fully engaged in city politics and this year was my 38th city council election. Or something like that.
Back in the day, we used to have all five councilors and the mayor run every two years all at once. That was fun. Especially when the whole gang was thrown out on their ear and “institutional memory” went out the window. It was a bad idea that was exciting and felt great but like lots of things, with those two descriptions, “exciting and feels good,” it turned out to be not so great for our fair city and it was changed.
These days, we alternate with three councilors one year and two councilors and the mayor on the next year.
This year, considering the salmon farm brouhaha, it looked like all the action would be between Ward Two well-known councilor Neal Harkness and prominent fish farm opponent Joanne Moeeswilde, while Belfast native and lifelong resident Paul Dean was set to compete with Jessica Falconer from Ward Five.
Knock the town over with a feather because no one from Ward One, the site of the proposed salmon farm, took out papers and gathered the 25 signatures to run for the seat.
Over at Opposition HQ, that must have smarted some because after a period of percolation and Jessica dropping out almost immediately, two write in candidates eventually joined Joanne to form an anti-fish farm “slate.”
Ellie Daniels, a well-known midwife, business person and salmon farm abutter, and Jim Merkel, an environmentalist and proponent of radical simplicity (his complicated resume is longer than this but you get the idea), both of whom were leading what passed for the “organized” part of the salmon opposition.
Slates, in particular one with two write-ins, have a hard time. Most people, aka “voters,” normally don’t like one issue slates so right off the bat “the slate” announced at a joint press conference they were not “a slate” except when they were saying they definitely were “a slate.”
They then proceeded to run a well-organized and completely coordinated campaign.
The anti-fish farm “slate” ran one of the best city council campaigns in modern Belfast history. They all had group and personal Facebook pages, palm cards with instructions for the two write-ins, a bevy of volunteers that went door to door, campaign literature, fawning interviews on the local radio WBFY with preferred treatment at WERU, and enjoyed a house columnist in the Republican Journal.
They toured so called “informational meetings.” And they worked it hard. Identical signs, all the funds they needed, full inclusion in the “candidates night,” interviews by Bel-TV, coordinated letter writing campaigns, long hours staking out the Belfast Food Co-op, endless TV and hearing time at council and other meetings. They worked it like few others. They ran a great campaign, better and more effective than most councilors.
Most importantly they went door to door. Speaking later with Jim Merkel and Joanne Moesswilde I think what they found shook them up. Eighty percent of kids at the East Side school qualify for free lunch.
If you travel in circles that don’t qualify for free lunch you might not know these people. But if you knock on every door you’ll meet them.
For working Belfast people, taxes, opportunity for them and their children, and jobs, are a real concern and not to be lightly dismissed.
Jim Merkel received 10.3 percent of the votes in Ward Five, and 15.5 percent city-wide.
Over in Ward One, Ellie fared a little bit better and received 18.3 percent of the vote city-wide.
Joanne and Neal were much closer and there are probably a lot of reasons for that but if you came to the polls opposed to the fish farm you knew what you had to do. The two write-ins were the pure opposition and I hope everyone is paying attention to the verdict from Belfast.
In the hearings on the fish farm the city councilors were repeatedly scolded and told to “listen to the voters who elected us!”
We heard loud admonitions that “the great majority” is opposed to the fish farm proposal.
We heard “it’s 15 to one against!” and on and on it went.
Our response was that this council election would be a referendum and we’d let the voters speak. If you opposed the fish farm you had your slate of candidates. If you are open to the application and permitting process to go forward you were urged to vote for Neal Harkness and please do not write in anyone.
The opposition asked for a referendum and they got it. The slate was soundly defeated. Belfast voters have spoken and they want the permitting and application to go forward.
No one from the opposition can say with a straight face they didn’t get their message out. They ran a professional and spirited month-long campaign. Everyone knew what was on the ballot.
The spinning has already begun: “Write-ins are hard!”
I’m sorry but let’s be clear and give credit to the candidates and also recognize that this was an epic battle of historic dimensions with huge implications for the future of Belfast. The stakes were high. The beliefs passionate. The vote decisive. The “opposition” was revealed to be a very outspoken and vocal minority.
Every day people sidle up to me as if secret police might be listening. They look around. Who might overhear? “I want you to know I support the salmon farm.” They are afraid to disagree with their passionate neighbors. But not in the voting booth. On election day Belfast stood up and spoke loud and clear.
Michael Hurley lives in Belfast and sits on the Belfast City Council.