Lessons learned from tough politics

“New era. New Mayor.” That was the slogan I developed for candidate Dave Rollins. And now he is the new mayor, completing an eight-year political journey that began with my campaign with him to “create a new spirit for Augusta.” Congratulations, Mr. Mayor.

With Big Dave’s election a new era begins, but for me an era ends. When I became a political columnist for the KJ, I had to step away from the Rollins campaign in order to avoid conflict of interest. Others completed his campaign, so my final political campaign and future involvement in campaign management is over.

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Exactly 25 years ago, I embarked upon my own political career, first as an elected office holder and then for many years as the man behind the scenes, recruiting candidates. I managed 16 successful campaigns for others with no losses. I enjoyed creating the strategies, the ad campaigns and the committee organizations. I raised thousands of dollars for candidates.

In many cases, it was necessary to become the candidate, tending to every detail no matter how small.

On the 25th anniversary of my political campaigns, as I officially retire ( I’ll be 80 next year), please allow me a few reminiscences.

In November 1989, I was elected an Augusta city councilor at-large. My friends and neighbors had drafted me to run after a successful campaign led by Councilor Jay Ray and me to block an environmental threat to our east side neighborhoods.

The Preserve Augusta Neighborhood Association catapulted me into office. It was a time of turmoil. A large group of anti-establishment dissidents made me the target at council meetings as I led a coalition for a positive approach to city government. I was re-elected. During two terms, I never lost a vote on any issue, and held together a 5-2, sometimes 4-3 block.

Two terms was enough of that abuse, but politics was in my blood, so I quickly became re-involved.

Ken Knight, whom I did not know, was running in my ward against the late Tom Mahaney, considered an anti-establishment candidate. In three weeks, we put together a winning campaign, highlighted by “The Mr. Meany” letter. Knight, now Greater Augusta Utilities District chairman, won in a recount, and my reputation for aggressive campaign style was born.

Next came Mike Byron, who two months previously had moved to Augusta from Manchester. We overcame the “carpetbagger” charge and created a campaign against Democratic state Rep. Arthur Lerman that featured opposition research. We found a Portland news story in which Lerman had said, “Damn it, Gov. (John) Baldacci won’t let us raise taxes.” We made it a referendum about taxes. Byron won in a recount. Lerman said we had lied.

I helped manage John Bridge’s successful campaign for mayor, and worked with Everett Flannery to become a Republican sheriff in a Democratic county.

I twice served as Augusta City Charter Commission vice president, the second time leading a 4-3 coalition to prevent a group from gutting our charter.

One of my greatest personal satisfactions came from helping with the details of a financial plan and theme to “Save Lithgow Library.” Ultimately, through the work of many and the generosity of the voters, Lithgow was saved.

Other candidate highlights include the career of Bill Stokes, whom I first talked into running for city council and ultimately mayor. We became close friends. His political career culminated in him being named a superior court justice.

I helped Pat Paradis overcome a re-election opponent, with the slogan “Pat Paradis listens.”

Corey Wilson returned to Augusta as a combat veteran Marine. It was obvious to me that he could become a Republican state legislator if he ran and helped coach him to victory.

Cecil Munson’s citywide re-election campaign had the slogan “He Works for You.” He finished first in a four-way race with 41 percent of the vote.

Statewide experiences included helping Sen. Peter Mills with press relations, creating materials for then-U.S. Rep. Dave Emery and managing Paul LePage’s first campaign for governor for two months in the fall of 2009.

I wrote one of the first versions of the “Paul LePage story,” and created his first campaign materials with him at my living room table. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, our personalities clashed, so my wife and I went to Florida that winter.

In Augusta, I have been a co-founder of the Good Government Committee, working with Paul McClay for 25 years to recruit the best candidates, encouraging them to run and individually backing their candidacies.

At one of the city’s Christmas parties, City Manager Bill Bridgeo told my grandson, (now doctor) John Corsino, visiting from Massachusetts, “Your grandfather has saved this city on many occasions.”

I will always recall that compliment, as several detractors, still smarting from political defeats for which they will always blame me, currently suggest that I have been a negative factor in Augusta politics. They get pretty personal.

History will decide. Gaby and I love you, Augusta.

Don Roberts, a former city councilor and former vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta, is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District.

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