Never look at the top


“Most of the time what I heard was ‘Shut your mouth and keep your head down or you’ll be made an example of’,” Troy Jackson says. He’s in a suit and tie and seated across from me at a small conference table in the Maine Senate Minority Leader’s Office. We didn’t borrow the key for our meeting or commandeer the first unoccupied office we could find. He is the Maine Senate Minority Leader. Which I take to mean he has since learned not to shut his mouth.

The first and only time I saw him speak he was in jeans and a Maine Loggers union t-shirt, addressing a packed room – lit like a morgue, in the style of American community centers – on a Sunday evening. It was just outside Portland. Friendly turf. To say the crowd was receptive is an understatement. “Troy for governor!” came a shout from somewhere in the back. He had barely cleared his throat.

It makes sense. If the nation is divided, Maine is a miniature model of the divide. In the State House, rank-and-file Democrats are generally from small urban areas. Theirs is an academic liberalism that hasn’t scored a clear victory for working people in a few generations. The conservatives who outnumber them aren’t necessarily picking up that slack; in fact, they’re legislatively worse for working people than the large rural areas electing them probably realize. But they talk like kin, and they’ve tapped a feeling.

To the Mainer who understands that, a rural progressive is almost magic. Hence the receptive crowd. Whether or not he runs for, and is elected, governor – an office now occupied by Paul LePage, the nationally famous two-term “Trump before there was Trump,” an accident of back-to-back three-way races – Senator Troy Jackson represents, to some, the future of the Democratic party in Maine.

Or anyway, he represents an endangered species. Americanus bipartisus. The guy who understands where we’re all coming from. To say our salvation is encoded on his DNA would be too much magic. But the way he talks about his conviction, about where his belief comes from, does ring with a sense of duty we may be losing, and of perspective we may have already lost. We can learn from it, if we get off of social media and out into the Maine woods.

“You can literally see the prosperity line in these woods,” he says, taking out his phone and showing me an aerial photo. The US-Canada border at Saint-Pamphile, Quebec. And he’s right. Success appears to begin where Canada does. In his childhood he saw Canadian labor stream in on H-2 temporary agricultural work visas. Favorable exchange rates and socialized healthcare back home made them cheap, and Maine loggers for hire, according to Senator Jackson, frequently lost work to them.

(I have a passing thought, listening to his story. No one’s proposed a wall on this border. To understand the dynamics of cross-border movement is to better know the racism, I conclude, in what those who live nowhere near a border sometimes choose to care about.)

His logging family, he says, felt the squeeze. He attended strikes with his father where managers told their at-will employees to disperse or find themselves with even less work; the first inculcations of mouth-shut, head-down thinking. But then, as a young man, he made the fateful decision to join friends in a dramatic protest. They went to the border and stood in the way. Foreign workers trying to cross drove a few more miles up the road. And the protesters followed, intercepting them three times before the week was out.

“A lot of folks in Congress weren’t giving us any time,” Senator Jackson says. “They always sent aides. Finally, when we did that, they said ‘Come down, we’ll meet with you’.” That was seventeen years ago. Troy Jackson the veteran public servant reflects warmly now on the naivete of Troy Jackson the first-time candidate, inspired to run by that small triumph.

“The first time, I ran as a Republican. George Bush [41] was a Republican and from Maine. That’s all I knew. I was asked how I wanted to register and I said Republican.” The district was mixed but favored Democrats then. He went door to door and told people what he stood for. “They listened, and they said ‘You’re not a Republican.’ I lost. I ran as an Independent the next time and won.”

And though he says it wasn’t typical at the time for Independents to get on committees, he wanted House Labor badly, and the Speaker relented. The more the committee convened, the more he realized he didn’t want to be an Independent anymore. “Minimum wage came up. Republicans wouldn’t go for it. American loggers having a preference came up. Republicans wouldn’t go for it. The things I thought were important for everyday working people. Republicans just wouldn’t support them.”

He changed affiliation a second time and became a Democrat. It wasn’t a matter of graduated loyalty but of learning on the job. “I wasn’t partisan at all when I ran or when I got in,” he tells me. “Then it became a matter of who was voting for the things I believed in.”

The naïveté has worn off with experience, but the belief hasn’t. Ask him what his issues are and he doesn’t check headlines or a polling sample first.

Student debt. “We’re such a low wage state, people can’t work here and make a living and pay off college debt. My wife is still paying hers off. My son is coming up behind us and we want to help him out. But it’s a generational effort to get out of debt. When [Bernie] Sanders came to Portland last July I had the honor of introducing him. I sat down, my wife was with me, and he immediately started talking about student debt. It’s the only thing you can’t declare bankruptcy on.”

Healthcare. “The Affordable Care Act didn’t go far enough. Some people got relief from it, that’s why Republicans are going after it. They like to keep people on the edge, because when you keep people on the edge they’re less likely to say anything. And we have a bill for prescription drugs that Maine can buy at the same cost as the VA. Drugs in Canada are cheaper. They’re the same drugs. Big pharma talks about safety, but it’s a smokescreen. Some pharma guys just toured the State House the other day. But they didn’t stop by this office. They know better.”

Civic engagement. “We have a student debt bill. A bill to keep the best provisions of ACA if it’s repealed. People need to take an active role in what’s going on here. And get educated on who’s actually working for them. There’s a lot that’s bad for people in the governor’s budget. It’s trickle-down economics. Tax cuts for the rich. Where’s the economic opportunity?”

I can tell when conversation has touched on the senator’s own core values. He’s more natural, more animated. His sentences come faster, easier. It happens twice as often as I’m used to with elected officials, half as often as I’d like to see. I have a sense he’d sooner be back in that Loggers t-shirt. I have a sense he knows who he is. But who to be next is a question that troubles anyone tossed among large forces. I want him to hold on.

I ask him what Democrats are doing wrong. What they could be doing better.

“You have to stand up for working people if you want them to vote for you,” he begins, having already once wondered aloud if the party is torn between its base and its big business ties. “You think they’re uneducated and not paying attention, but they know something’s wrong when they keep seeing premiums go up. When it’s the end of the month and they’re in the red. You need to start reaching out to people across the state. Don’t just cater to the people who show up in the State House.”

“Working people aren’t showing up in the State House,” he says, “because they’re working,” and is momentarily quiet as he perhaps tries to reconcile this observation with his own thunderous charge to the average citizen, a few minutes earlier, to “take an active role.” He knows what stands in their way. Work, sure, but also that old warning: Shut your mouth and keep your head down or you’ll be made an example of.

When he described to me how he’d agonized before finally deciding to take part in that dramatic border protest, I had an idea of how hard a mentality it can be to overcome. But he suggests that the future depends on more people in hard-up places overcoming it. Making that kind of decision. Because otherwise, he predicts, “all they’ll hear from Republicans is ‘Blame everyone below you, never look at the top.’ And that’s what they’ll do.”

I have no idea what he says to hometown constituents when they cross paths at the grocery store and it’s off the record. I’m guessing, more and more, it has to do with looking at the top. And right now that may be all the magic we need.

ArchiveJoe Pinto