Neal Corson’s journey and the Youthquake of ‘69

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At age 20, too young to vote for himself, he won a contested primary election for state representative. The next year he would be the youngest member of the Maine legislature. And even though young first termers don’t usually leave much of a mark, Neal Corson did. His death last month at the age of 74 is an occasion to take a look at the legacy and later life of this trailblazing figure.

For it was with him, back in the late 1960’s, that the way we legally define adulthood gained traction and became law. This was the set of bills Corson sponsored that sought to abandon the benchmark of 21 as the age at which youths could vote, drink and enter into binding contracts. Corson’s legislation successfully reduced this age by only a year, to age 20. It was, nevertheless, the first step in a three year progression by which the age would be reduced to 18.

Neal Corson, 1968

Though Maine has since reinstated 21 as the drinking age – a yardstick since also applied to marijuana and tobacco use – the panoply of other rights afforded younger citizens remain on the books.

Given the enduring nature of the change Corson introduced, one cannot let the milestone of his passing go by without paying tribute to him.

In 2009, this columnist sat down with Corson at his law office in Madison, the same mill town just 22-miles northwest of Waterville that first sent him to Augusta in 1968. “I was thinking people at 18 could be drafted and if you have to go fight for your country why can’t you at least have a choice about who is sending you off to fight.”

No doubt another occasion for Corson’s interest in reducing the age to vote was the fact that in running for office he could not in the primary election by which he won his party’s nomination even vote for himself. Eligible to serve because he would turn 2l before taking the oath of office he was still under voting age when nominated in a contested three way primary election.

With or without his own vote, it’s a race the Republican Corson, then a Bowdoin College junior, hadn’t expected to win. His primary campaign expenditures were a mere $86. After winning the upset nomination, Corson went door to door against incumbent Democrat Joseph Belanger. This was the year when Ed Muskie, from nearby Waterville, was sending chills up the spines of Maine Republicans like Corson due to the presence of the iconic Democrat on the national party ticket as Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in the race against Richard Nixon. Beating the odds again, Corson wound up being as surprised to upset Belanger in the election as he was in winning the primary.

Arriving at Augusta, Corson’s initial adult rights legislation sought to lower the age to 19. But with both a knack for winning over his colleagues and an instinct for compromise, Corson later set his sights on a more incremental approach and agreed to amend the measure to lower the age only by one year, to age 20. Though the move to lower adult rights by any age was then viewed as one that would help Democrats more than the GOP, the Republican controlled legislature overwhelmingly endorsed it.

Elements of the new package of legislation lowering the drinking and contractual responsibilities age went into effect in the fall of 1969. The 20 year old voting age part of Corson’s legislation had to wait to be ratified in a state-wide vote in November 1970, when it was approved 168-thousand to 118-thousand. Spurred by federal legislation that in 1970 lowered the voting age in national elections to 18, Maine voted to expand on Corson’s law and follow the national example by dropping the voting age from 20 to 18 in 1971. Eighteen year old drinking became legal the following year even though by 1977 the age was increased to 20 and by 1981 it was pushed back up to the original 21, the age that is also now the same for marijuana and tobacco sales in Maine.

Corson was by no means a one issue legislator. Among his other causes was extending from midnight to 1 a.m. the closing time for drinking hours in Maine bars. Another was allowing the sale of table wines in grocery stores at a time when beer was the only alcoholic beverage such businesses could legally sell. Not to be forgotten too was his successful bill to designate Atlantic Salmon as the official State of Maine fish.

After winding up his freshman term in the House, Corson returned to Bowdoin to win his undergraduate degree. Though he had spoken out against the War in Viet Nam, he spent the first four years of the 1970’s as an army infantry officer. This break from political life did not last long. Corson upon his return won election to the Maine senate. As in 1968, he surmounted the obstacle of winning in a predominantly Democratic year in Maine, the 1974 Watergate election when Republicans otherwise sustained historic losses. As chair of Legal Affairs, Corson helped shepherd through major changes in the state’s right to know laws. Along with such luminaries as future US Senator Olympia Snowe and future Attorney General Jim Tierney he was part of a six member team of Maine legislators that wrote the constitutional amendment for doing away with the governor’s council and replacing it with the system of confirming appointments to executive and judicial positions the state has had ever since.

Tierney, when reached by this columnist a few days ago, observed, “Neal was a real Republican for his times. He strove to expand the right to vote and believed in sensible consumer and environmental protection. It was an honor for me to serve with him.”

Near the end of his senate term Corson was married, starting a family and decided he needed a trade. Though he had learned to fly helicopters in the army and his home was just a few miles from the Norridgewock Airport he had helped support as a legislator, pilots were in plentiful supply in the post-Viet Nam era.
Law was an obvious choice. After three years, Corson graduated first in his class at U-Maine in 1979. He could have written his own entry level ticket at the state’s largest law firms. Instead, he returned to Madison. “I decided I’d rather be a small town lawyer than in some big firm. And I never regretted that decision,” Corson observed shortly before his retirement nearly a decade ago.
His thriving general practice addressed the needs of a full array of concerns for his former constituents including probate and real estate closings, civil litigation and family law. Asked by this columnist in 2009 about the housing market crisis that then plagued the nation, Corson said, “Here is a case where I may be a Republican but I think the last couple of years have shown us that you have to have a certain amount of regulation in these banks and security markets. I mean these derivatives they were dealing with and these credit default swaps. It is the same thing as going to the casinos.”

Gambling was obviously not a pursuit of the talented, popular and respected central Maine attorney. But taking a chance on giving younger citizens adult rights does not appear to have been a bad bet for Maine or the nation.
It’s also a reason to pay tribute to Neal Corson, whose career is well worth remembering.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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