FTS Q&A: Matthew Gagnon (Part 2)

Here we go – our bookend to the week.  Part of a balanced Friday = Part 2 of our FTS Q&A; with Matthew Gagnon, Director of Digital Strategy for the Republican Governors Association and brother to yours truly in musical taste – and interior design of student union bars, for that matter (more on those below).  Thanks once again to Matthew.  (Click HERE for Part 1.)

Fill The Steins: Why do you think it is that Maine voters are attracted to Independents?
Matthew Gagnon: Well, a big part of it is the makeup of the state.  There are so many inherent contradictions.  Democrats in the north tend to be gun toting sportsman with very fiscally conservative attitudes about taxes and spending.  Republicans in the south tend to be business interests who aren’t that loyal to their party.  Democrats in the Lewiston-Auburn area are anti-gay marriage, and many Republicans in the first district are pro-gay marriage.  The lists are endless. 

In addition, Mainers simply don’t like being placed in rigid categories and absolutely hate being told they have to think a certain way.  Even partisans respect flagrant disregard for the herd mentality found in party politics in other states and nationally.  Mainers seek leaders who resist “marching orders” and do what they perceive as the right thing for their state.

In Maine, the opportunity to straddle these inherent contradictions by “being open to everything” and “being willing to compromise” leaves one open to be a mirror for the voter, through which they see themselves.  Unfortunately in my opinion, so often these independents are less truly independent, and are in many ways more cynical and opportunistic, playing a role they know the voters like for their own benefit.  The real independents, to me, are people like [Senator Susan] Collins who identify with a party but assert their own identity within it, often times to their own personal detriment.  Being “independent” when it may harm you is the mark of true political courage. 

FTS: Long question, maybe, but bear with me, if you will…  Recently, former Senator Olympia Snowe said that the Republican Party has a problem, and that it’s moved to the extremes.  From where I sit, I can see that issue with both parties, but I’ll stop getting editorial…  What’s your take on this alleged dynamic of candidates and issues on the far reaches of either party dictating the direction of each? 
MG: Eh.  I mean, it is true that the Republicans are getting more monolithically conservative, and it is true that the Democrats are getting more monolithically liberal.  But this is a trend that has been happening for the last fifty years, at least since the late 1960s.

Both parties are sorting themselves, slowly, into more ideologically coherent groups.  The conservative Democrats of the south have converted themselves into Republicans over the last several decades, to the point where almost no conservatives remain in the Democratic Party.  Additionally, liberal activists hijacked the Democratic Party and purified it at the same time, to the point where the party as it exists today is an “progressive” activist party.  At the same time, the liberal Republican has sorted itself out of the Republican Party.  

Whereas we used to have two parties that were parties for reasons other than ideology (i.e. conservatives and liberals existed in both parties), we now have parties that represent the political poles.

The frustrating thing for me is that now in both parties, there is a movement for those inside of it to eat their own young.  Standing to the left of the most conservative of Senators, or standing to the right of the most liberal of presidents now makes you an ideological heretic, and you are labeled as a charlatan as a result.  The perspective has changed to the point where even millimeters of ideological difference cause riotous internal struggles.  Thus is the unintended side effect of parties that make more political sense. 

FTS: What’s the big thing that gets a candidate elected in 2013?  Is there one characteristic or policy stance that just resonates more than anything else? 
MG: Ask a typical campaign operative that and they’ll say “a focus on jobs” or some other meaningless drivel.

The real answer is dependent on where they are running.  If you are running in a deeply ideological, gerrymandered congressional district, then an aggressive fidelity to party principles and a devotion to hammering the other side is the thing that resonates the most.  These are the places you hear people care most about “standing up for our principles.”

But more broadly, I think voters are just looking for good, decent people that can cut through the nonsense and get things done.  I think basically all of us agree that these are difficult times and we need brave people to do what is right and confront those problems with bold solutions.  The people who get elected convince voters they know that, and have a way to do something positive about it. 

FTS: It’s wicked early, as we like to say in Maine, but do you have any thoughts or predictions on 2014, re: the Gov’s race or either Congressional District? 
MG: It would be inappropriate for me to really comment on it, given what I do and my connection to basically everyone in the various races in Maine next year.  Let me just say that I think both the governor’s race and the 2nd district race will be competitive and close, and I will be personally very active in both of those races (and more), working on behalf of the candidates I’ve lined up behind. 

FTS: You write the BDN’s Pine Tree Politics column; have you had any weird/cool reader moments with that? 
MG: I get a pretty surprising amount of reader mail, driven mostly by being in print I think. One of my favorites recently was the Chairman of the Maine Democratic Party sending me some very angry (but – and this is so Maine – professional, polite and respectful) mail about a column I wrote on Congressman Michaud.

I don’t have any particularly cool story about it – no marriage proposals or death threats – but one of the best things about being a writer, and being a Mainer is that it becomes a way to connect to people.  I have 3 or 4 very good friends who I met because they read me, and dropped me a note offering to buy lunch.  Since I live in Washington, D.C. now, that becomes all the cooler, since finding Maine people here in D.C. is a special treat, and having Maine politics to bond over is awesome.

It has also been a great way for me to meet a lot of great people from both parties, members of the Maine media, and make some connections with people all over the state.  It is by far my favorite thing about being a writer. 

FTS: Word has it, you’re also a musician outside of your political work; what instrument(s) do you play?  What’s your favorite song to show off with? (Besides ‘The Maine Stein Song,’ of course…) 
MG: I love jazz, and played a variety of instruments growing up.  I’m pretty damned good with a trumpet.  Ended up first chair in some nationally recognized concert and jazz bands back in the day.

Recently, though, I picked up the guitar.  Always wanted to learn it but never got around to it, but in the last year I became almost obsessively devoted to learning.  Just picked up an ivory Fender Strat a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to put it down.  My bread and butter on guitar is the 90’s alternative I grew up listening to (and its musical cousin today), particularly Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and if I am feeling ambitious I’ll tackle some Tool. 

FTS:  Favorite UMaine memory that you care to share? 
I was there when they drove the snowmobile into the bonfire in 1999.  It was my friend’s snowmobile.

Seriously, though, there are plenty of moments I could list here.  Last dinner in the Old Bear’s Den, back when it was awesome and before they recreated it as some kind of cold, Ikea-Den.  Being on campus watching the Sox win it all in 2004.  The national championship hockey runs, particularly the year Sean Walsh died.  Getting elected as President of the Student Senate.  Meeting my wife.  The various Bumstocks we organized.  Parties at the Swim House. The trip I organized to Bush’s 2001 inauguration in DC, taking 12 College Republicans with me, staying in a hotel with bloodstains on the floor in Capital Heights, and nearly dying of pneumonia from the cold rain.  Joining a fraternity.  Kicking the ass of the president’s team in oozeball on Maine Day. 

[Also,] when a girl I was dating at the time who was a photographer for The Maine Campus decided to punk me and put me on the front page of the April Fools’ Day edition… that was pretty awesome.  The picture made the whole thing.  They put my face – frosted tips and all, God help me – on Justin Timberlake’s body, with Britney Spears behind me, looking mischievous.  It was the best prank ever, because it basically said I slept with Britney Spears and was the reason she broke up with Justin Timberlake

But I think my favorite thing wasn’t an individual memory, but a collection of memories.  We used to go to Pat’s Pizza every Tuesday Night and sit down in the Tap Room after Senate meetings.  There we would share stories, talk politics, laugh, have fun, and blow off some steam.  It was the single best social experience of my time in college – there I would meet and get to know people that would become lifelong friends, people I would date, people I would only know briefly but were just awesome all around.  I would look forward to Tuesday night every week, and still think fondly of it any time I’m up in Orono.  It is a tradition I really hope still exists. 

FTS: What’s the one thing you’d want to do if you were back at UMaine right now? 
MG: Just something simple: go to a hockey game.  I had the pleasure of occasionally being one of the Naked 5 when I was there (I was the A, as I recall), and I really love hockey.  I very rarely get the pleasure of getting back to Alfond Arena, and even if I do, it is as a boring adult.  I don’t get to pre-game beforehand with a dozen friends, run over to the stadium painted up, scream at the goalie in the student section, and then head back to my place in the snow.  Would be fun to go back and time and be that carefree again. 

FTS: What are you filling your steins with these days?   
MG: I don’t drink all that much anymore, to be honest with you.  But when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.  No.  Just kidding.  Couldn’t resist.

I’m a Sam Adams man, particularly Octoberfest and Winter Lager.  My Stein is filled with that as often as my Stein is filled. 

It’s been a pleasure Filling the Steins with Matthew Gagnon – very informative, and terrific to share some similar memories from our overlapping times at UMaine (I, for one, will probably tell my grandkids about that snowmobile…  And definitely about the FTS crew’s Saturday afternoons at Pat’s.)  We’re going to let a busy guy get back to work, with our thanks for stopping by!



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