Once, during a tense exchange in response to a question from a journalist about John Martin, one incumbent governor snapped.
“John Martin has to learn that he doesn’t run this state,” the governor barked.
Anyone could be forgiven for the confusion. The former Speaker of the Maine House served longer in that office than anyone had before or probably ever will and is arguably among the most powerful to ever hold that office.
Today, when lawmakers serve a maximum of four consecutive terms and House speakers often only one, it’s difficult to appreciate the power and command Martin once wielded. Over nearly two decades at the top, his influence equaled and at times exceeded that of governors, who are limited to eight years.
Martin, 80, is still a professor at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. He was preparing for a course in environmental law when we spoke in the Appropriations Committee room at the State House, where he spent much of his last two decades as a legislator — much like his long-ago rival, the legendary Louis Jalbert of Lewiston.
After a career in elective office spanning nearly 60 years, it’s perhaps not surprising that Martin can remember his first race in exacting detail.
More than a half century ago, Martin was 22 and a graduate student in political science at the University of Maine in 1964, one of just four young men in the program. A challenge was posed: Who would try to put these ideas into practice, and run for office?
The others were married, with children on the way, so Martin was the obvious choice. He had other advantages.
Two of his uncles had served in the Legislature already, both representing the St. John Valley that had long been dominated, politically and socially, by French-speaking migrants from Acadia and Quebec (though these represent two distinct strands of Franco-Americans). John Martin’s relatives are mostly Acadian.
Michael Burns, a great uncle, represented Fort Kent and Eagle Lake, Martin’s home town, from 1912 to 1934, while his uncle, Claude Martin, held the seat from 1942 to ‘56. Martin would be challenging the Democratic incumbent in the primary, along with another candidate.
Party affiliations in the Valley cut across ethnic lines. In the primary, “My parents couldn’t vote for me. They were Republicans,” he said.
RIDING THE WAVE
Martin had a simple strategy: He tried to convince the town party chairmen to stay out of the race, and was mostly successful. On primary day, he won handily.
The third candidate turned out to have a single issue: He was running to reinstate the bear bounty, previously $5 a foot, that had been repealed by the previous legislature. It turned out to be not much of a vote-getter.
Did Martin have a big issue himself? “No,” he said, with a smile.
The only town he lost was Allagash, 11-3 — an Anglo bastion, which Martin soon won over, however.
Election in November was a foregone conclusion, and, under election rules at the time, he could have been the Republican nominee as a write-in, but declined.
It turned out that 1964 was an excellent year for Democrats, riding the Lyndon Johnson landslide to legislative majorities for the first time in a half century. Though the Republicans resumed control in 1966, Martin had excellent committee assignments, and proved a fast learner.
The next step up came in 1970, when Martin was urged to run for minority leader against the aging Jalbert, known as the bad boy of urban Democratic politics, with a checkered personal life but unmatched knowledge of the arcane budget process.
In a hotly contested insider battle, Martin prevailed, 34-32. Four years later, Democrats won the House majority again, this time for good, and Martin served as speaker for 19 years, from 1974 to 1993.
The early years were marked by change and reform, in a way Augusta hadn’t seen for decades. Gov. Ken Curtis had just finished renovating the Executive Branch, and Martin went to work on the Legislature.
He presents it now as a largely pragmatic, step-by-step process.
When he first mounted the rostrum, he found lobbyists occupying lawmakers’ seats, and kicked them out. When they resentfully clustered behind the back railing, calling out instructions on how to vote, he eventually had a glass wall constructed. Today, observers are confined to the second floor gallery and the hallway.
The House rules were archaic and the record-keeping chaotic. Martin made the proverbial trains run on time. After Democrats took the Senate majority, too, he had a like-minded partner in Senate President Charles Pray, a Democrat from Millinocket, who served from 1984 until he was defeated for reelection in 1992 — a sign of trouble for Democrats generally.
Political columnist and satirist Davis Rawson dubbed Martin and Pray “the Allagash Alliance,” reflecting the unusual situation of both presiding officers coming from northern Maine — the opposite of today, when southern Democrats, in particular, dominate leadership.
FRIENDS IN NORTH PLACES
Northern Maine is a big place — something people from elsewhere in the state tend to forget.
Martin never forgets. Asked who Pray’s constituents were, he said, “the millworkers.” Asked about his own, he said “the Franco-Americans.”
Troy Jackson, current Senate president, from Allagash, begs to differ. “John Martin represents the whole Valley,” he said. “We’re in awe of him.” (See sidebar.)
Indeed, it’s hard to find anywhere in Martin’s district, and beyond, where he hasn’t left a direct mark. He’s trustee president of the local health care board — comprising not just the hospital, but the clinics and area primary care facilities.
Citizens in Aroostook County are used to working together, a process Martin supports and approves. There are more SADs — the original school administrative districts, formed under the Sinclair Act of 1957 — in Aroostook than any other county.
The “doctor shortage” is as intense there as elsewhere, but Northern Maine Medical Center has had success recruiting by paying attention not just to medical professionals, Martin said, but to their spouses and partners, some of whom are working at the university and local schools.
Martin’s work away from Augusta is perhaps less well-known than his gavel-pounding, tough-talking ways while presiding, but it is extensive.
Some of his more striking experiences came through his connections with Senator Ed Muskie, who he first met during Muskie’s 1954 campaign for governor. Martin worked for Muskie during months the Legislature was not in session.
One such opportunity came as an indirect result of Muskie’s brief service as Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. Later, when the fall of the Berlin Wall produced a diplomatic exodus from the Soviet Union’s client states, Martin went to Madagascar to help its leaders set up its first elected House of Representatives, then a few years later a Senate.
Back in Maine, Martin’s time as speaker was coming to an end. During ballot recounts for the 1992 election, it was discovered his chief of staff, Ken Allen, had tried to crudely change paper ballots to alter the results of two House elections, actions for which he served jail time.
Amid the resulting furor, Martin faced mounting opposition from fellow Democrats and ultimately agreed to step down, though not before voters approved legislative term limits in 1993.
That nationwide movement was spurred by U.S. Term Limits, a Republican and corporate-backed group; in Maine, it was funded by the Libra Foundation and led by its executive director, Owen Wells, an avowed Martin foe.
Although term limits applied to all 186 legislative seats, many believe it was aimed at Martin, and he thinks so, too. “We never got along,” he said of Wells.
He didn’t go quietly. When the four-term limit took effect in 1996, Martin solicited write-in votes and received hundreds, though falling short of election — sparing courts from deciding whether term limits applied only to the ballot or to legislative service.
After one term off, Martin returned to the House in 1998, then ran for and won an open Senate seat in 2000, serving four terms. He made a bid for Senate president, reputedly falling one vote short; he would have been the third lawmaker to have presided over both bodies, following Portland lawyer Nathaniel Haskell, who was House Speaker from 1948-50 and Senate President in 1953 before retiring to become Cumberland County Probate Judge, and Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell of Vassalboro, a result of the term-limits era producing far more movement between House and Senate.
Instead, Martin became a fixture on Appropriations. Though never chairing the committee — as he had once, briefly, while speaker — he became the authority for Democrats, much as former Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett has become for Republicans.
Martin simply knew the budget, and the legislative rules, better than anyone.
Most lawmakers who serve in both chambers prefer one over the other. For Martin, it’s the House. Asked why, he said, “Because in the Senate, you always know how the vote’s going to go. It’s such a small caucus.”
In the House, some members really make up their minds during floor debates, he said. “There are surprises. That’s where you can make a difference.”
Is his legislative career over? He doesn’t answer the question definitively.
He was term-limited in 2022 and did not file for a fifth term, but he earlier spoke with colleagues about doing so. In Maine, the constitutionality of the 1993 term limits referendum has never been fully tested.
The now 30-year-old statute instead rests on a 5-2 advisory opinion of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued before the referendum, and delivered because Martin asked for it.
In Massachusetts, with identical constitutional language and where voters approved a similar referendum that was challenged in court, the Supreme Court struck it down unanimously.
In the end, Martin said he didn’t file because a Democrat had already announced her candidacy for the seat. The statute remains to be challenged.
Martin has now run in 28 legislative elections and lost only two, counting the 1996 write-in attempt. The other was in 2012, when he lost his House seat after charges concerning the sale of his convenience store to Canadian-owned Irving, a company he regularly criticized while speaker. He won it back two years later.
Around the State House, speculation that Martin will run for the House — or the Senate, since Jackson will be term-limited in 2024 — continues.
Asked about his future, Martin says he expects to continue teaching part-time. About politics, he says simply, “I’m 80 years old.”
Earlier in the conversation, however, the subject of President Biden’s likely reelection bid came up, and Biden is 82.
Whatever the Speaker, as he’s indelibly known, ultimately decides he will have left his mark not only on the Legislature, but on Maine history — better known than some governors.
Nowhere are the memories likely to be stronger than in northern Maine. “You didn’t have to be French,” says Troy Jackson. “They were happier than hell to have his voice down in Augusta.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the first Maine legislator to preside over both House and Senate — it was Nathaniel Haskell.
Douglas Rooks wrote editorials for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta from 1984-95. Among his books are Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine, and Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible. He welcomes comments at [email protected].
How Maine’s Senate President got his political education
Troy Jackson first met John Martin at a National Honor Society event involving high school students from all over the St. John Valley.
Martin, in his role as a University of Maine at Fort Kent professor, was quizzing the students about who their legislative representatives were, and called on each in turn. Most had an idea, but Jackson was clueless.
Martin asked where he was from, and when Jackson answered “Allagash,” Martin said, “I’m your representative.” Thus began his political education.
Much later, it continued when Martin appeared on the front lines as Jackson and his fellow loggers mounted a blockade at the border, protesting Canadian workers they said were hired for lower wages to take jobs from Mainers on the American side.
Jackson decided to run for the Legislature himself, but his family was divided.
He had a grandfather who was a “strong Democrat.” The other was an equally strong Republican, and since he talked politics with him, he filed with a “R.”
He lost narrowly in November 2000, then discovered some of his friends and acquaintances hadn’t supported him; they wouldn’t vote for a Republican.
So he ran unenrolled in 2002, was elected, went to Augusta and was assigned by House Speaker Pat Colwell to the Labor Committee. There, he discovered being an independent was no-man’s land and he found his Democratic footing. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2008, Jackson won Martin’s Senate seat as Martin switched to the House, then stepped down to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014.
Jackson returned to the Senate in 2016, became Senate president two years later and is now serving his third consecutive term — the longest tenure of any presiding officer since Martin’s 19-year run.
While Jackson doesn’t shy away from comparisons, he doesn’t embrace them either.
The two best-known Aroostook legislators have different temperaments and styles, with Martin the supreme parliamentarian and tactician, Jackson the caucus firebrand who says what he thinks, consequences be damned.
His storytelling is different, too. Asked for a Martin story, he offers this:
Jackson was taking a break from shopping in Presque Isle with one of his sons when they drove by Northern Maine Community College.
The son noticed a new building had been named for John Martin and, impressed, asked about it. It turned out the college, in a serious financial bind, had appealed to the Speaker, who secured the much-needed appropriation.
With a serious look, the son said, “Gee Dad, maybe someday they’ll name a closet after you!”
Even over the phone, Jackson’s laughter went on and on.