Somewhere out past resplendent blueberry fields and the Wyman plant that packs them, across a bridge surrounded by lobster boats and wind-blown masts, lies Beals Island.
Another two miles or so around its north coast, along a road that changes to dirt about halfway down, lies the homestead that Sam Hunkler and his family bought in 1990, renovating a centuries-old house on a rocky outcropping while living in a geodesic dome for six months.
Today, Hunkler lives there by himself, a largely retired family practice physician with a few lingering patients. His children are grown, and his ex-wife Kelly lives not far away.
“She’s become my best friend,” Hunkler says.
It is from this base of operations that Hunkler has launched his candidacy for governor of Maine, putting thousands of miles on his late-model Buick Ultra as he collected the majority of the 4,000-plus signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot as an unenrolled candidate.
While Maine has a history of independent governors and strong independent candidates – Angus King and Jim Longley have won in just the last 10 elections, and everyone from Eliot Culter to Terry Hayes has been treated as a serious candidate – Hunkler is a longer shot than most. And he knows it.
“Usually people, when they run as an independent, they have money or name recognition,” he says. “I have neither.”
While Longley owned a successful insurance agency and headed up a state commission on efficiency for Democratic Gov. Ken Curtis, and King was counsel to a U.S. Senate subcommittee and the owner of Northeast Energy Management, Hunkler has neither political experience nor much in the way of management experience other than his work as a medical director for a medical practice.
He’s also aware of the stakes people have attached to November’s gubernatorial contest, which also involves a butting of heads between current Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, and the previous Republican inhabitant of the Blaine House, former Gov. Paul LePage.
Hunkler calls the people sending him strident emails objecting to his candidacy “the Mills worriers.” He even received a recent nastygram from a fellow physician just the other day.
“Independent was never a bad word until Eliot Cutler,” Hunkler says he told her, as he putters around his kitchen making himself a burrito, beans cooking on the stove, greens pulled from an indoor greenhouse area off his living room.
“But he was a Democrat (Cutler worked for Edmund Muskie and Jimmy Carter) who ran as an independent,” he continues. “I’ve never been part of any party. I’ll appeal to the largest voting bloc in the state. Two of our last seven governors have been independent. I believe in the right for anyone to stand for office and the right for people to vote for whomever they choose, to vote for someone instead of against someone. That’s my stock response.”
As chief executive of the state, he says he would manage by finding consensus:
“I’m one person. I have my own beliefs and ideas. But so do you. I want to hear yours. Every time I have a conversation with someone, I come away with a different perspective. I don’t have all the answers.”
‘I’m going to do this differently’
Talking with Hunkler for about 90 minutes, at his kitchen table and walking around his property, it’s hard not to be reminded of Craig T. Nelson’s character in “Parenthood,” or Clint Eastwood in “Bridges of Madison County.”
He comes across as a thoughtful, hearty guy who’s comfortable working with his hands and being a “man’s man,” but his sometimes gruff exterior belies someone who knows he’s a better person now than he was in the past, more caring and kind.
Hunkler has embraced mental as well as physical wellness and talks like someone well-versed in cognitive behavioral therapy. Walking along his 4.5 acres, where trash from as far as the Bay of Fundy washes up on perennial wild pea plants, he says he knows no one else is responsible for his happiness, that any time he’s frustrated or angry the source is within him.
He has a philosophy of wellness that he likes to present via a 20-minute presentation that will be a part of his campaign. “I think I’m offering something radically different,” Hunkler says, “but it’s based on love, rather than fear.”
At one point, his phone rings, but he doesn’t answer it. He never answers unless he knows who it is. I offer that may have to change now that he’s running for governor.
“I’m going to do this differently,” Hunkler says. “I may miss out on a couple of interviews, but I want to have my life as well as do this. I’m going to set good boundaries about my own physical health, and I have to do that. I know how to take care of myself and there will be people who won’t like that. But it’s setting boundaries for my own well-being. If I can’t do that for myself, I can’t help you.”
The biggest question, of course, is why on earth is he running for governor?
‘I feel called to make a difference’
He had always considered politics when his career as a physician came to a close, he says, and while he thought about running for a municipal position or the Legislature he believes the people who have spent their whole lives here are more in a position to represent people locally.
“My vision has been wider based on my experience living in different places and meeting different kinds of people,” Hunkler says. “My grasp is wider than just Down East, Maine.”
The 65-year-old is the eighth of nine kids who grew up in Barnesville, Ohio, on the salary of a father working for the Ohio Bell telephone company. He was raised Catholic but isn’t much of a practicer, and the family “never had much,” Hunkler says. “We learned how to be frugal.”
He met Kelly in the Peace Corps in Kenya, then went back to medical school with government help he repaid by plying his education in Alaska before landing at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston for his residency and then finding that idyllic plot of land on Beals for $120,000.
Now, he says, “I feel called to make a difference,” disillusioned by money-heavy professional politics and our current vitriol-fueled discourse between the two major parties.
“I told myself I was either going to jump in or drop out, I’m so disheartened by the way things are,” Hunkler says. “And I can always drop out, so I might as well jump in. It’s not about me. It’s really about how we can do this differently. And I really do mean, ‘we.’ I don’t have all the answers and experience that so many other people have had. I feel like we need to find common ground and I believe, more than anything, that we need to listen more and talk less. And I want to be the platform for that.”
And what about his actual platform? If he had to pick a label for himself, he says he’s probably closest to a libertarian, due to his desire for less government intervention and for government to be as local as possible.
Pro-choice, anti-vaccine mandates
He believes in bodily autonomy, both in support of abortion rights and in opposition to vaccine and mask mandates, and points to those mandates as a place where state government probably should have allowed local government regulation. Same with the right whales, where he believes it’s silly to force fishermen in places where they’ve never seen a whale in their lives to use new-fangled technology.
When reminded that his right to swing his fist – or prolong a pandemic – ends at my face, he responds, “If people are concerned, get a vaccine and wear a mask. There was just a big New York Times article, you know, on masking and it’s really questionable about whether it made a difference or not. We still don’t know. There are unknown answers to a lot of these questions.”
Hunkler offers that he’s never had a flu shot and doesn’t wear a mask with patients and “I can’t tell you the last time I got the flu.” This year his employer mandated a flu shot and he refused.
“I didn’t want one. It’s about my body,” he says. “I trust my body. I trust my immune system. I have a concern about the number of immunizations children get now. I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but I think mandating vaccines for kids I have a bit of a problem with. We have to have a more nuanced conversation because it’s big pharma and they’ve spent millions … I have a problem with that because I don’t think we get the full story.”
Which suggests a core philosophical debate: Where do our individual rights end and our responsibilities to the community begin?
‘I’m not responsible for my neighbor’
“We don’t have a responsibility,” Hunkler says. “I’m not responsible for my neighbor unless they can’t be responsible for themselves. No one else is responsible for me, that’s how I see it. If you can’t be responsible for yourself, then I would step in.”
For instance, he believes strongly in education investments – he calls children his “top priority” – and making sure kids have everything they need, regardless of their family situation. He also believes housing is a top issue because children, in particular, suffer when their families don’t have a stable living situation.
“It used to be if you had a job,” Hunkler says, “you could walk into any bank and get a home loan. Now you can’t do that. Is there a way to have a subsidized state bank? I don’t have the answer to that, but it needs to be addressed as a priority.”
He also believes in a minimum wage that is a living wage, that anyone working a 40-hour week should be able to pay the mortgage and feed their family.
Too many people, however, “don’t take responsibility for themselves,” Hunkler says, “but they have the ability. The more I take responsibility for them, the more dependent on me they are, the less they’ll be independent. That’s co-dependency and that’s rife in our society.”
“But if they need help,” he qualifies, “I’ll come.”
One gets the feeling that Hunkler’s version of “small government” would only work if everyone had as big a heart – and the resources – as he does. He always roots for the underdog to find a way. All he wants, he says, is for everyone to have the opportunities to succeed that he did, and he understands that his opportunities as a white man in the United States have been considerably more robust than those afforded others.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he feels a responsibility to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”
To vote or not to vote
Were he to be forced to choose between Mills and LePage this fall, “I wouldn’t vote,” he says. “I don’t want to support that continued system. I’d go vote, but I wouldn’t vote for governor. I couldn’t vote for Biden or Trump. I couldn’t vote for Hillary or Trump. I just couldn’t do it. I have the right to vote or not vote.”
But doesn’t that come from a place of privilege since the consequences of the election are unlikely to affect him very much? Could others theoretically be badly affected? Doesn’t he have a moral obligation to vote?
“I don’t think that’s coming from a place of privilege,” Hunkler says. “I don’t think it is. I’d feel that way if I was destitute. That’s part of having the freedom to vote or not vote. We’re not forced to vote. You can say that’s not a collective idea and it’s not. It’s an individualist idea.”
He says he has never voted for a presidential candidate who won, but he was happy to see that Obama ended up victorious.
“It showed,” Hunkler says, “that anyone could do this. If you put the work in and you have a decent plan – a decent platform – you can do this. You don’t have to be part of a party and you don’t have to have a lot of money.”
Which of course does not describe Barack Obama by the time he was running for president. But you get the idea. Hunkler thinks there’s a better way. In November we’ll find out if the people of Maine agree with him.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].