By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs by Cig Harvery
The man who ran for governor talks about building a home for political orphans, Maine’s competitive advantages, and bringing Confucius to the Pine Tree State.
We sit down at the Cumberland Club in Portland, the Federal Building on State Street that was founded by legislators as a private meetinghouse in 1877 (early members included Maine governors Joshua Chamberlain and Percival Baxter). At first blush, it may seem like a predictable habitat for a man with a history of making laws in Washington and who ran for governor of Maine, but Cutler points out that “it was not so long ago that neither you nor I would have been able to sit here… because you’re a woman and I’m a Jew. It goes to show institutional change is always possible.”
Cutler learned that lesson early when he worked under the wing of legendary Maine legislator Edmund Muskie, whom he helped to write the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972). Cutler calls Muskie his “cardinal inspiration” and says, “I measure what I do, in many respects, by Ed Muskie and what he did.” Cutler went on to serve as associate director for natural resources, energy, and science in the White House Office of Management and Budget before becoming the principal White House official in charge of energy issues from 1977 to 1980. He was also a founding partner of the law firm Cutler and Stanfield, which was the second largest environmental law firm in the country until it merged with the Washington firm Akin Gump in 2000. Although Cutler has been criticized for spending too many years away from Maine, including living in China, he is always quick to mention his Bangor roots and his adopted hometown of Cape Elizabeth. “My heart has always been in Maine,” he says. And now his head is too.
Maine magazine: What are you devoting your time to now? Are you still practicing law?
Eliot Cutler: Before the gubernatorial campaign, I negotiated an exit from the law firm, which involved leaving the partnership in 2009, and then a three-year period where I’m basically consulting for the firm. I’m also pursuing a couple of pretty large business deals. I’m working with a small group of other businessmen and entrepreneurs to expand upon the relationships that I built in China and to develop the potential of Maine exports of value-added lobster products to that huge market. The other is an investment fund for the western Pacific as well as two or three other deals focused on the Maine brand. I joined the board of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. And I just came back from a two-day thank-you swing through Yarmouth, Lewiston, Bangor, Ellsworth, Waterville, and Hallowell, just talking with people. There will be more of those. I’m not a wallflower by nature, and I want to contribute to the future of this state and make it better. I’m trying to find ways to do that—that may or may not involve politics.
MM: What was your biggest take-away from the campaign? Do you see Maine differently now than when you started?
EC: The overarching lesson was that we need a common vision of Maine for our future. You can’t persuade people to make changes in their lives; you can’t persuade people to be more disciplined, to cut back in certain areas, or make investments in others; you can’t persuade people to do big things, to get better, unless they see what’s on the other side. It needs to be a vision that we all share, or that we largely share, that we subscribe to in a common way, wherever we live and whoever we are.
MM: Are you saying it comes down to civic engagement?
EC: Very much so. I don’t think that our political framework—the parties, the electoral process, and so forth—has kept pace with social and technological changes. As a consequence, we are increasingly frustrated by a political and electoral process that is not serving our common interests; it’s not enabling us to engage with each other in the political system the way we do in our social system.
MM: How can we, or you, address this issue?
EC: I’ve started a political organization, OneMaine, that I call a home for political orphans, a place where people can take refuge from the political parties. I don’t think the political parties will like it. It’s still taking form, but it’s going to be a place for people who think for themselves, who have different views on different issues, who don’t subscribe to the tenets of a particular party, and who can communicate with each other. One of the reasons I think I did so well in the election was that, among the Republicans, the Democrats, and me, I was the only one practicing a civil civil dialogue. I think people want that, expect that, and I think they responded to it. Whether I run for governor again or not is less important than succeeding with this effort. People are tired of a process that doesn’t work and is just self-absorbed.
MM: What kinds of reactions do you get in response to this idea?
EC: After the election, I had an interview with reporters and editors, and I was talking about these ideas a little bit. The headline became “Cutler thinks political parties are increasingly irrelevant.” And I said, “Well, I do.” A reporter there looked at me, and said, “Why do you think that’s happened?” And, I looked at her and I whispered, “Satellites.” It was like the line said to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
MM: Yes! “Plastics!”
EC: Exactly. She looked at me and said, “What do you mean by ‘satellites’?” And I said, “Look, it’s digital communication, the same thing that’s killing your businesses is killing political parties.” And the political electoral process, important parts of it, have been sort of tweaked and designed by the parties to maintain the parties instead of maintaining the health and vitality of the process. So you have these shrinking, shriveling political parties getting narrower and narrower, purer and purer, and very dense. And at the same time, the political process is not performing well. Something will need to fix that.
MM: What makes Maine unique in terms of opportunity?
EC: It’s pretty evident that our competitive advantage is that we are a state of extraordinary natural resources. It’s forests, land, rivers, and sea. This is what makes Maine different. It is those natural resources, and our ability to add value to them, that has made us successful in the past as a state economy, and that describe our most successful sectors in our current economy, whether it’s tourism, lobstering, or paper production. We are still the second biggest paper producer in the country. But we lose sight of it, of those strengths, and of that competitive advantage.
MM: So you’re saying Maine should put more energy into traditional industries than in attempts to diversify?
EC: I’m saying we should play to our strengths. That’s what we need to do as a state. We need to figure out how to leverage those advantages, to organize ourselves to take advantage of our comparative strengths. We haven’t done that. Our economic development strategies, in recent decades, have been all over the lot. Under current circumstances, no major drug company is going to establish its new biotech research center in Maine. Why should they? I wouldn’t. We have saddled ourselves with a cost structure that’s crushing our opportunities.
MM: What are the social issues that come into play?
EC: We have a very inefficient array of public services. And we are burdened by an increasingly old, nondiverse, and uneducated population. We need to fix that. I was on the radio this morning talking about Steven Bowen, the governor’s new appointment as commissioner of education. I think Steve’s terrific. He’s an idealist. He’s a reformer. He knows what’s wrong with the education system, and he has a plan to fix it. And his heart’s in the right place. He cares about kids. If I’d been elected governor, it’s just as likely that he would have been my commissioner of education. But I would be delighted to see education taken off the political table as an issue.
MM: What do you mean by that?
EC: If we can agree on a long-term plan to improve education in Maine, it will fade away as a political issue, because what keeps it a political issue is the fact that there’s a sharp distinction between what some people in the community want and what others want. There’s a gulf between the way the teachers union, for example, sees our challenges, and the way the rest of us see the challenges. We’ve got to bridge that gulf. But it’s not just an education problem; it’s a diversity problem. If you look at the history of Maine, and the United States, immigration and public education were the two things—in addition to the frontier—that made us a great nation. I think discouraging immigration is what a lot of people instinctively do when we have economic contraction. It’s a terrible mistake, particularly for Maine, which is the least diverse state in the country. We are going to suffer from it. We can’t be successful and be the oldest and least diverse state in the country. That’s not a recipe for success.
MM: You support charter schools, which Maine currently does not allow. What are some innovations you’d like to see in the education system?
EC: I want to do more magnet schools, not just charter schools. I visited the magnet school in Limestone [the Maine School of Science and Mathematics], and the palpable excitement there is extraordinary. The other great thing is that they take kids from southern Maine and central Maine and introduce them to northern Maine. It’s really important in terms of aiding the community. We could have a marine-sciences school in Machias; we could have an arts school in southern-central Maine, Lewiston-Auburn; we could have a foreign-language magnet school in Fort Kent. We’ve got to be bold with new ideas. This state can have a greater future than any state in America. I wouldn’t take a chance with any other state but Maine.
MM: Did your experience living in China give you any ideas about strengthening the ties between that country and Maine?
EC: Yes! I’m working with President Jing Zhang at the Bangor Chinese School and President Theo Kalikow at the University of Maine at Farmington. They both want to bring to Maine a Confucius Institute, which is a Chinese-sponsored program that promotes language and culture. And I’m also talking with various high school, academy, and college officials about strategies to attract Chinese students to Maine schools.
MM: Do you see parallels between China and Maine, or opportunities for Maine there?
EC: Huge opportunities. The Chinese are more like us than most people in the world. They’re highly entrepreneurial. They’re capitalists with strong family values. They’re funny. They’re candid. It’s a great market for us. And they love Americans. Getting to know the Chinese is a challenge that most Americans have never taken on, but boy is it worth doing. In my view, every kid in American schools ought to be learning Chinese. My daughter took eight years of Chinese.
MM: And are there lessons to take away from China as well?
EC: Yes. It’s a resource-constrained country of 1.3 billion people. Much of China is desert, and desertification is a big, growing problem. Beijing is a city of 18 million people, and it’s going to go dry. But there’s palpable confidence and excitement, particularly among young people, and that’s one of the things that makes it an exciting place to live. When someone asked me why I wanted to go to China, I said, “Have you ever wished you had a time machine and could experience living in the United States in the 1890s, or in 1910 or 1920, when we were booming and growing?” Sure. Here’s an opportunity to see what it must have been like. Having a sense of that again and seeing how much difference that can make in people’s lives, and in a country’s life, is an important lesson to bring home.
MM: In some ways, the most eastern, most insular state needs that kind of motivation to come from within.
EC: Our state motto, after all, is Dirigo, which means, “I lead.” It’s about time we started doing it, and do ourselves—and the country—a favor.