Bernie Sanders office opens in Piscataquis County, of all places

Over the weekend, you could feel the earth move just a bit in Piscataquis County.

The USGS claims it was the result of a small earthquake centered three miles Southeast of Sangerville, but I have an alternative explanation: it was a political tectonic shift caused by the opening of a Bernie Sanders for President office on East Main Street in Dover-Foxcroft.

Piscataquis is Maine’s most rural county and is usually considered its most politically conservative. In both 2008 and 2012 it was the only county in the state (and in 2008 the only county in all of New England) where the Republican candidate for president won the majority of the vote. Democrats haven’t won elections and haven’t had much of an organized presence there for years.

According to Piscataquis Democratic Party Secretary (and Sanders supporter) Sidney Mitchell, however, Piscataquis is the site of a new groundswell of support for the progressive, populist Vermont senator and the values he represents.

“This is an election that is finally about the most important aspects of our current dilemma as an economy that has been hijacked by the corporate culture of greed,” explained Mitchell by email. “Whether or not the ‘Red County’ blames the government or the corporations, the results are obvious and Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who has spoken with courage and voted in congress all his years against this destructive trend. We feel many who have stopped voting or who have never voted, and those who have voted Republican, will vote for Sanders.”

The opening featured food, live music and a speech by Sanders state co-chair (and Aroostook County state senate candidate) Troy Jackson. The space was set up by a self-organized local volunteer group calling themselves “Backwoods Bernies” and is now the fourth Sanders campaign office in the state following official openings in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor over the past few weeks.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign currently has only one office up and running in Portland (and will be holding an official opening soon), but they say they have volunteers across the state and will be contesting every county.

“Mainers from Avon to Allagash need a president who can deliver results that will make a real difference in their lives,” said Clinton’s Maine communications director, Meredith Thatcher. “Hillary Clinton understands that Maine isn’t a single issue state, and she’s ready to take on the struggles that families in rural Maine face every day, like the rampant epidemic of opioid abuse.”

As far as I can tell, neither the Clinton nor the Obama primary campaigns opened an office in Piscataquis County in 2008. For one to spring up organically so early this year supporting a left-leaning candidate is a rather fascinating occurrence.

Troy Jackson speaking at the office opening.

Troy Jackson speaking at the office opening.

Several founders of Backwoods Bernies cut their activist teeth as members of Friends of the Piscataquis Valley, a group that for the past four years has been campaigning in opposition to a proposed East-West corridor, against the weakening of environmental laws in favor of mining interests and on other issues that have pitted locals against powerful trans-national corporations.

Sanders’ ability to tap into this kind of support in a poor and rural area bolsters his claims that he can broaden the Democratic coalition, engage some of those who have been turned off of politics and lead the “political revolution” he says is necessary to bring sweeping national policy changes, including dramatically reduced corporate influence of elections, free higher education and universal health care.

I have some skepticism, but I’m willing to be convinced.

First, however, Sanders faces a series of contests in states with widely divergent demographics – first the latino and union-member dominated caucuses of Nevada, then the largely African-American electorate in South Carolina and then the broad range of states that vote on Super Tuesday.

If Sanders survives those contests against Clinton, who still has to be considered the frontrunner for the nomination, then the Backwoods Bernies and all other Maine Democrats will get their say in the state caucuses on March 6th.

“We urgently need to encourage Maine citizens to seize their Sunday, March 6th moment to vote for Bernie Sanders to, finally, mandate a progressive leadership that upholds the most basic principles of an open and just society,” said Mitchell. “All our courage must rise together.”

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.