While many candidates on the ballot Tuesday are trying to climb the electoral ladder, one man is hoping for the opposite.
Mike Michaud was a congressman for 12 years. Then he ran for governor. And now? He’s running for Board of Selectmen in his hometown of East Millinocket, population 1,700.
You heard him right. “This is a very low-key campaign. No signs, no nothing,” the Maine Democrat said. “It’s pretty much you put your name on the ballot and everybody knows you.”
Voters know him because they went to high school with him or worked alongside him in the paper mill. “I figured it was a good time to give back to the community,” said Michaud, who has lived in the area all his life.
A win Tuesday isn’t guaranteed, but compared to some of his other campaigns, this one has felt like a walk in the park — or maybe a stroll along the nearby Michael Michaud Walking and Biking Trail, which is named in his honor.
“The pro of a local election is I’m not spending any money,” he laughed.
That goes for gas money too. “I represented one of the largest congressional districts east of the Mississippi,” Michaud said. Driving from one end to the other used to take him eight hours or more. In East Millinocket, make that three or four minutes.
Michaud stood out in Congress. He had a union card instead of a college degree, and he was one of just a handful of openly gay lawmakers, coming out in 2013 during his failed bid to unseat Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
But in his hometown, his résumé looks a lot like everyone else’s. He spent three decades at the Great Northern Paper Company, holding on to the mill job even as he served in the state legislature.
If East Millinocket is the town that paper built, it’s also the town that paper almost broke. A brief resurgence a few years ago — driven in part by a 3,000-ton order for the bestselling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” — couldn’t save the mill, and it shuttered for good in 2014.
“The community has been hit pretty hard because of the mill closures,” said Michaud, adding that neighbors are looking after neighbors. He has a vision for economic revival, helped along by some of his past work in Congress, such as a federal grant program aimed at distressed towns in New England.
The river that once powered the mill could be harnessed for a new generation, perhaps for a data facility. “We have that beautiful river there,” he said. “We have nice clean water to cool down the computers.”
Upping East Millinocket’s recreation game is another goal. Baxter State Park is not too far away as the crow flies, along with Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in the U.S. Yet the town isn’t plugged into the ATV and hiking trail network that zigzags through north-central Maine. “The problem in this particular area is the trails don’t connect,” he said.
Michaud is thinking local on other issues too, like opioids and broadband, but he’s also taking inspiration from his high-profile past.
“Having served in different capacities over the years and in other elected office, it really gives you the ability to think of what other communities have done, whether they’re here in Maine or around the country,” he said.
Watch: Confessions of an Elections Analyst