Rep. Cohen Walks, Listens in Northern Maine

Daniel Maccoby accompanied Rep. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) this summer on a two-week, 300-mile walk through Maine. This is the second of a two-part series. The first part appeared last Wednesday.

ON U.S. ROUTE 1, NEAR LUBEC, MAINE--Lubec, Maine, is a shrinking town. Its population, now estimated at 1,600, has been decreasing steadily over the last decade; there is less and less work available in the two sardine canneries which are the backbone of the community

Located on the western end of the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge leading to the resort Campobello Island, Canada, Lubec nonetheless gets little tourist trade. The local drugstore, on the second block of the four-block-long main street, does carry a few postcards of Campobello--"FDR's summer home"--but novelty items are absent from the shelves. It's a poor community with many problems.

When Bill Cohen walked through Lubec on his 300 mile trek through northeastern Maine, the townspeople had a lot to tell him.

Cohen is a 33-year-old liberal Republican, elected to his first term in Congress last year by the voters of northern Maine. During his 1972 campaign, Cohen walked 600 miles through the second district--the largest Congressional district east of the Mississippi--and built up enough popular support to win an upset victory over his opponent, Elmer Violette.

Now, during the August 1973 Congressional recess, Cohen is back on the road again, this time walking through Hancock, Washington, and Aroostook counties in northeastern Maine. He reaches Lubec, the easternmost town in the United States, by the end of the first week, and finds the inhabitants somewhat pessimistic about their future.

The female owner of a drygoods store paints a bleak picture for Lubec. "I think this town is going right down the drain," she says. "Who wants to live here and starve to death? What is there here for young people? Nothing."

Nothing to do... Nothing to look forward to. It's a recurrent theme as Lubec's residents talk with Cohen. Many of the town's younger inhabitants leave the community after high school--some to join the armed services for a few years, and others just to find jobs. The fishing industry, which employs most of the work force here, is seeing hard times these days, and cannot attract young manpower. The slow, but constant, exodus from Lubec goes on.

"How do you expect the teenagers to stay when there are so few fish left," asks the woman behind the counter in a bar and cafe near the municipal pier. "We can barely make money any more now that the goddam Russians are stealing all the fish."

Hundreds of Russian fishing trawlers steam daily through Maine's coastal waters, just outside the three-mile limit, depleting the supply of fish and incensing the coastal inhabitants who rely upon the sea to make a living. This is the major issue in Lubec--as in many of Maine's coastal towns--and Cohen has introduced a bill in Congress to establish a 200-mile off-coast limit for the United States to ease the situation.

Bob Peacock, the bearded owner of one of the town's two sardine canneries, says he believes a 200-mile limit bill would be a great boon, but acknowledges that "Russian encroachment" off the U.S. coast is not the only problem. "The waters are just getting fished out," he says, leaning on a desk in the front office. "There used to be more than 50 fish canneries on the coast, and now there are less than 20."

"We've lost money four out of the last five years," he continues. "And things aren't going to get much better. In some ways, I'd just as soon sell the place; call it quits. He's the reason I don't," Peacock adds, pointing to a man about twenty years his senior standing several yards away. "My father runs the business with me, and it's his life."

"Of course," he says, "there are so few fish now that the women are only working a few hours a day. But even so, we can't just shut them out."

The employees in Peacock's cannery who cut and can the sardines are all women. Standing next to a conveyor belt loaded with fresh fish, they grab the sardines, cut off the heads and tails with a flick of the wrist, and stuff them into the tins. "We've tried using men to pack the fish," says Peacock, "but for some reason they just don't have the stamina. They can't take it for more than a few hours."

The women seem somewhat fatalistic about their job security. "You've just to keep workin' and hope there's gonna be enough fish," says one woman shovelling an armful of sardines from the conveyer belt. "And it's awfully nice that young Congressman wanted to come through and talk to us. Maybe he can do something about it for us down in Washington."

The Federal government in Washington is not usually regarded with much esteem, and several people tell Cohen that it has a damaging effect on private enterprise. Peacock is especially irate at the pollution control devices which the government says he must install in his cannery to prevent organic waste from being discharged into the sea.

"The government is interfering in a very irresponsible way," Peacock says. They want me to spend $75,000 to put in a pollution control device, and when I ask them how long the thing will work, they say they can't guarantee it for even one year. Now how can I possibly spend that much," he continues, "when I'm losing money as it is and when the thing might fall apart a couple of months after I buy it. And they tell me I'm going to have to close down unless I get it. I tell you, he concludes confidentially, "sometimes I'm really tempted to close down and tell Washington to shove it."

The lack of confidence in the government is increased by the Watergate scandal, and many residents of Lubec and the rest of Washington country talk with Cohen about it.

"Watergate has hurt the whole political system," says Cohen. "It confirms the people's belief that the government hasn't been telling the truth. Nixon has the power to resolve, one way or another, many of the questions surrounding Watergate by simply divulging the contents of the tapes."

A woman who runs a filling station with her husband agrees with Cohen. "Why won't they release the tapes if it will clear it all up?" she asks.

"I think we've wasted enough time on this Watergate thing," insists one matronly woman who is selling fruit and vegetables in a stand by the side of the road. "It's the kind of thing that all politicians do."

Cohen says he wants to destroy this image of the politician as a bad-guy, and hopes his two-week walk will bring the people a little closer to the political system. "By walking, as opposed to driving, through the district," he says, "people can really see what I'm like, what I stand for. Most important of all, I can listen to them. When they see that I'm concerned with what they're saying, I think they may realize that the government can be responsive to its citizens."

Even those who are not actively involved in political issues are glad to see a Congressman walk up to them and ask their opinions on the nation's state of affairs. "I'm one of those people that don't go to town meetings or anything like that," says a 60-year-old house painter, "but when it's all over, I still like to sit back and quarterback. It's good to know that there's someone who's willing to listen."

One man, however, believes that merely walking through the district and talking with the people is not enough. "When you go back to Washington," he tells Cohen, "and you take off your work shirt and put on a suit and tie, just don't forget about us."

"It's good to know that there's someone who's willing to listen."