Down East View

Watching Washington's shenanigans from 750 miles away.

Dramatic developments in our national life have the media closely focused on Washington: our first African-American president, government's response to the economic crisis, the health care and climate change debates, war in faraway places.

What does the capital's Sturm und Drang look like from 750 miles away? I had an opportunity to watch this summer from Down East Maine.

Let's start with the health care debate. It's been a big story in Maine, in part because Sen. Olympia Snowe stands to play a key role. One of the "gang of six" senators who has been drafting a health bill, she could turn out to be the only Republican vote for comprehensive reform. Snowe wants reform, but has been treading a fine line on a public plan, telling constituents it's needed only in states where private insurers aren't offering affordable policies.

Health care road shows have been touring the state. In an ambulance rented by the Service Employees International Union, Greg Howard logged 1,500 miles compiling the stories of Mainers who don't have adequate health care plans. The SEIU ambulance was plying the same roads as a big green RV outfitted as a mobile activism center, part of the Highway to Health Care tour organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. On Sept. 2, these groups delivered 35,000 pro-reform messages to Snowe's Bangor office.

The federal Cash for Clunkers program was big news here. The lead story in the July 25 Bangor Daily News was about Melinda Diehl's 12-year-old SUV: "Suddenly the Chevy Blazer that was barely worth a few hundred bucks on a normal trade was worth several thousand dollars toward a new car."

Stimulus news was everywhere. On Sept. 1, an industrial wind farm in Washington County got a $40 million grant from the Energy Department, and Bangor Hydro Electric Co. hopes to get money from the same pot to spread smart grid technology to rural parts of the state. The Maine environmental agency is using stimulus dollars to help retrofit engines on ferries, lobster boats, buses, marine terminals and construction vehicles, over the protest of the Maine Heritage Policy Center that this kind of "irresponsible" spending will run up the national debt. Business leaders in Maine's timber-producing Aroostook County are looking to federal Transportation Department stimulus funding to save service on a 241-mile stretch of rail line that's no longer profitable for its owner. FairPoint Communications Inc., whose poor service has landed it in a heap of trouble with Maine officials, has sought $37 million to subsidize rural Internet service.

The employment benefits of an $8.3 million stimulus allotment for Acadia National Park infrastructure improvements were touted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Republican Sen. Susan Collins at the park's headquarters in July. Meantime, Acadia remains short of budget and staff, and still is challenged to protect the view-scapes it offers. One concern: Verizon Wireless' plan for a 122-foot cell phone tower whose disguise as a pine tree probably wouldn't fool many people, since nearby real trees top out at 80 feet. Acadia supporters already have fought off plans for two other communications towers within view of the park's mountainous trails.

In other news, a poll shows 86 percent of coastal property owners are seriously concerned about the potential impact of climate change. The culture wars rage: petitioners have forced a referendum next month on repealing a state same-sex marriage law. And through the miracles of technology, Marine Corps Capt. Nathaniel Picard, on duty in western Iraq, watched and encouraged his wife, Becky, as she delivered baby Lucille Elizabeth at Maine General Hospital in Augusta. Another miracle, as life goes on.

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