Editor’s Note: Not long after narrowly losing the 2010 race to become Maine’s third elected independent governor, Eliot Cutler formed OneMaine, a political organization dedicated to political reform and declaring as its mission an end to partisan politics as usual. Between OneMaine and his professional and entrepreneurial activities, Cutler, 65, remains busy and an active part of Maine’s political landscape.
IP: You grew up in Bangor. Growing up, did you have any conception at all of Portland at the time?
EC: No. That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I visited Portland for the first time until I was working for [Edmund] Muskie, believe it or not. The reason was, if you grew up in Bangor, your reference point outside Bangor was Boston or New York. You just passed right over Portland. I had cousins in Portland that I never met.
IP: Might as well be another state.
EC: Might as well be another country.
IP: Do you remember coming to Portland later?
EC: Never, until I worked for Muskie. It was a long time.
IP: When did you leave the state for the first time?
EC: I left the state for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school…went away to boarding school in Massachusetts, and then I went to college, also in Massachusetts. After college I started working for Muskie in Washington [D.C.]. Melanie and I tried to come back to Maine after we were married in 1973, but the Portland law firms weren’t hiring women lawyers then, particularly if they were married to a husband who was a lawyer.
IP: Things have changed, I guess.
EC: Dramatically. And I had promised her that if we couldn’t come to Maine—that if she couldn’t get a job in Maine—that we could go to New York, which is where she wanted to go. So we spent three years in New York and then I helped run the Carter-Mondale campaign in ’76 and we ended up back in Washington. We stayed there until we finally moved back to Maine. By that time, Melanie had gone to medical school and become a doctor. We moved back to Maine in ’99, and she is now a psychiatrist in private practice.
IP: Why are you now in Portland?
EC: We came to Portland because we’d always wanted to move back to Maine. After Melanie changed careers and graduated from medical school, she accepted a residency at Maine Medical Center. I merged my law firm into a big international firm, and I insisted that one of the conditions for merger would be that I could live in Portland and commute. We’d wanted to move back to Maine for 25 years and we were finally able to do it. We came to Portland for a variety of reasons; one of them obviously was that (Melanie) had her residency here…and my two brothers were here already. They’d come back to Maine right after completing their medical training.
IP: Younger? Older?
EC: Younger. So now the three of us live essentially on three points of an equalateral triangle with three-mile sides.
IP: How would you describe Portland?
EC: Vibrant. I love it. It just happens that in my various careers I’ve seen a lot of America. I know reasonably well damn near every major city in the United States. Without exaggeration, there’s no question in my mind that there aren’t a dozen cities like Portland in America: a vibrant, creative, exciting, beautiful place with wonderful people. I mean, I couldn’t be happier. I wish to this day we’d been able to come back 25 years earlier. Not that I regret my career at all—I don’t—but….
IP: Tell me some of the things you’d like to see happen here in Portland.
EC: I think what needs to happen in Portland is the same thing that needs to happen all over the state of Maine, and that is that we need to much better leverage our competitive advantages. We need to really focus on how we develop an economy that takes advantage of our skills and natural resources. We need to recognize that tourism is our biggest industry in the state of Maine and we need to figure out: How do we brand Maine? How do we brand Portland? How do we figure out how to better and more widely export Maine products, which include not only the commodities and finished products that come from our forests, farms and the ocean, but also our natural resources in terms of tourism. I mean, tourism itself is an export industry, because you’re exporting experience. Portland is fortunate in that it has a much healthier economy and lower unemployment rate than the rest of the state, but this is a state where there’s an extraordinary amount of interdependency. The rest of the state depends in no small part on how well Portland does and Portland depends in no small part on how healthy the rest of the state is. I don’t think we have a very well-developed strategy for developing our competitive advantages. That’s really what compelled me to run for governor more than anything else.
IP: You have a unique perspective, with your experience abroad. Is there even a conception of Portland outside of Maine?
EC: One of the remarkable things that you discover when you spend a lot of time outside of Maine is how few people know much about Maine or even know where it is. More people seem to know Vermont than know Maine, for example. Vermont’s done a very good job of developing its brand. We haven’t, and it’s a brand that ought to cover everything we do—from Maine as a mecca for toursists to the place where lobsters come from, to Maine, where we produce pulp, paper and wood products Our brand should invigorate everything we do in Maine and everything we produce. We have an untapped resource of enormous potential, and we haven’t promoted it and developed it in a strategic way.
IP: There are a few bright spots—Katahdin Log Homes just got a contract in China.
EC: There are bright spots. I’m part of a business developing building businesses. It’s shipping Maine lobsters to China. [In another business venture] We’re working on getting blueberries to China. We’re working on developing a Maine brand in China. You know, China’s a market of a billion and two, three hundred million people. We don’t need a whole lot of it to strengthen Maine’s economy.
IP: Do you know the Ready Seafood folks?
EC: I’m working closely with John and Brendan. John and Brendan and two other fellows and I have a business called Maine Seafood Ventures, which is exporting lobsters to Europe, and to China, and it’s a very exciting and promising business. If we can export Maine’s products and build Maine’s brand and add value to Maine’s brand we’re going to invigorate Maine’s economy.
IP: It’s a great idea.
EC: It’s a great idea, but it’s no different from the great ideas that propelled Maine in its strongest times. Maine is a state that is blessed with extraordinary natural resources and extraordinarily skilled workers. Once upon a time Maine was well known for those qualities and those aspects of its economy. It’s not now as much as it should be.
IP: Maine seems to have produced an outsized number of politicians influential on the national level.
EC: Particularly on the Federal level. The list goes on and on. Joshua Chamberlain, Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Muskie, George Mitchell… yeah, it’s an extraordinary list.
IP: What’s a secret of your success?
EC: I don’t know that there are any secrets. I work very, very hard. I’m very detailed . I’m very focused on details and I’m blessed with an ability to see around corners. As a consequence, I have a very well-developed strategic mind. I’m a pretty tough customer when it comes to negotiating and bargaining. Also—and I don’t say this as a an afterthought at all—I’ve been very lucky to have been supported by my parents, by my wife, and by my children and by my colleagues, partners, friends and staff people in everything I’ve done. I’ve been really, really lucky.
IP: What’s something that not everyone knows about you, something not generally known?
EC: I’m a very fine photographer.
IP: What kind of photography?
EC: Landscape and people.
IP: What’s your favorite tool of choice?
EC: Camera? Right now a Nikon DSLR. I have two of them. Before the digital came on I had a Canon, built a whole lens family for it, and of course gave it all up…but I’ll tell you I’m now looking very closely at the Sony Nex. It’s a fascinating system.
IP: So you’re not a Leica guy?
EC: My father had a Leica in the war—a IIIf. I still have it. I don’t use it anymore, but I used it when I was a kid and all the way through my teenage years.
IP: What are you carrying in your pockets right now?
EC: A Blackberry, an iPhone….
IP: Why both?
EC: Because the Blackberry is my connection to my law firm, which I still have, and my iPhone is my connection to everything else. (continuing) …I have my wallet, I have a quarter and a dime and my favorite pen and some Listerine cool mint breath strips, a handkerchief, and I think that’s it.
IP: What’s your sleep schedule?
EC: I’ve never—to my wife’s chagrin—I’ve never slept very much. I used to go to bed at about 2 in the morning and wake up around 6 or 7. And now I go to bed anywhere from 11 to 1 and get up around 6 or 6:30.
IP: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this interview?
EC: I’d be calling WGAN to do their Christmas call-in.
IP: Changing gears, you recently gave a speech at the Cumberland Club and talked about risk…about taking certain risks in life. Why in your mind is risk important?
EC: Because it leads to success. Because without risk there’s little creativity and there’s little success. There’s little innovation, and there’s little..excitement, frankly. I can’t imagine accomplishing important or great change or stimulating innovation and creativity without taking some risks.
IP: You took what many would think is a big risk in running for governor. When all that was over, you didn’t really retreat. You started OneMaine. Why do that?
EC: I really feel strongly that our political process in America and in Maine is in trouble. What I said in that speech is that there’s a time warp where other elements of our society—technology, communications and so forth—have changed in dramatic ways, but our political processes haven’t. As a consequence of that, milllions and millions of us are divorced from it, alienated from it, don’t participate in it and are disengaged. We basically left our democracy to two political parties that are increasingly narrow and withering and of little consequence to most Americans. That’s a great danger to our democracy and to our state of Maine, and our future. I’m committed to try and reform our political process and OneMaine and Americans Elect—which is something that I’m also deeply engaged with—are a couple of very important ways to try to do that.
IP: What are some quick things you can throw out that we’ll see from OneMaine in the new year?
EC: We’re going to see a county-by-county organization for people who are more interested in solutions than partisan politics and we’re going to see some really exciting vibrancy in this organization. We’re going to see a political action committee that’s going to support, in a meaningful way, moderate candidates throughout the state who are committed to working with each other. We’re going to see through Americans Elect an entirely new, third way of nominating a presidential ticket and one of the most exciting developments, I think, in American political history. This will be a big year.