The 50th anniversary of Bill Cohen’s Walk and the story behind it

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If the 1970’s should be remembered for anything when it comes to in-person campaigning for political office it might be the decade when it underwent a major transformation of its retail horizons. Among two pioneering techniques launched in this era were “The Walk” and “Work Days.”

The first in Maine to employ either one of them was William Cohen. The future U.S. Senator and national Defense Secretary was in 1972 a 31 year old Bangor Republican little known outside the city where he had been an attorney, part time prosecutor, school board member and briefly its appointed mayor. He had in his short public life managed to arouse some ire by his fiscally disciplined perspective on school budget issues. A lawsuit against the region’s leading bank and one of its foremost fuel and timber harvesting concerns likewise did not endear him to the region’s power structure.

Cohen’s stature was about to change dramatically, however.

But first, a bit of background.

“The Walk” was first deployed in a major state campaign in Florida in 1970. In it, an obscure Florida state legislator, Lawton Chiles, became a household name. His 1000 mile 90 day perambulation was the center piece of a ‘come from behind’ election to the U.S. Senate against an eight term fixture in the state’s Congressional delegation, William Cramer.

In the next election cycle, others followed. Most prominent of these was Illinois political neophyte Dan Walker. As a gubernatorial candidate, Walker won prominence in his own 1,200 mile walk in the Prairie state, upsetting he entrenched political machine of Chicago’s Richard Daley in its March 1972 Democratic primary, a prelude to his ousting the incumbent GOP governor that fall.

For Maine, Walker’s feat with his feet was the inspiration for a 650 mile walk in the summer of 1972 for Cohen. That’s because a college student from Illinois, now a prominent Chicago attorney, Bob Loeb, brought the technique to the attention of one of his Bowdoin professors, Chris Potholm. Potholm had just begun moonlighting as manager for Cohen’s debut campaign for Congress in 1972.

As with Chiles and Walker, Cohen began his campaign with a deck of cards stacked against him. Besides the feathers he had ruffled in Bangor, he had faced strong opposition in a nasty primary contest against a better known opponent, Abbott Greene, who had gone personally negative against him. A bloodied Cohen nevertheless managed to eke out a primary win. By contrast, Aroostook’s Elmer Violette, the Democratic nominee, whose soft spoken and deferential temperament had eschewed making the kind of waves that had besieged Cohen’s more controversial time in the Queen City, was in his fifth term in the state legislature. He had won nearly 80 percent of the vote in his own primary and had achieved positive name recognition as the party’s U.S. Senate nominee six years earlier.

Democrats, buoyed by the party’s strongholds in Lewiston, Rumford, Millinocket as well as the St John River Valley, had won each of the four previous elections in the district with thundering majorities.

In 1966, Cohen himself was the losing manager for one of the GOP victims in this Democratic juggernaut. In choosing Potholm as his manager he was reaching out to an old time friend, the valedictorian of his own Bowdoin class who just over a year earlier had returned to the Brunswick campus as a political science professor.

The new book, Bill Cohen’s 1972 Campaign for Congress – An Oral History of the Walk that Changed Maine Politics – or simply “The Walk” – edited by Potholm and Jed Lyons, is an oral history. Though the participants engage in a wide ranging discussion of both historic and contemporary issues, its North Star is Cohen’s successful 1972 campaign, the first of several major Maine elections in which a walk was credited with providing the momentum for victory by a prevailing Republican candidate. The book is a series of conversations with 13 of the now living figures who played a role.

The Walk is a transcript of unrehearsed interactions among them. Aside from Cohen, Potholm, Lyons and Loeb they include Robert Monks, who both recruited and to a great extent financed Cohen. Severin Beliveau, the renowned Democratic leader, offers a bipartisan perspective.

There’s also David Emery, another Republican who two years later, inspired by Cohen’s example, made a walk a center piece of his own successful run for Congress, this in the First District. This gave rise to one of the more astounding upsets of that era, Emery’s overthrow – at age 26 – of long time incumbent Peter Kyros. Emery remains well respected and influential, particularly for his work in legislative reapportionment.

The Walk celebrates not only the ingenuity and stamina of what Cohen, himself an accomplished athlete, did but also gives attention to the role both Cohen and Monks played in helping to preserve a place for moderate Republicans at the table of political leadership in Maine at a time when Democrats in the aftermath of the 1972 election held all but one of the five major elective offices.

Those efforts helped pave the way not only for Emery but also for the emergence of an array of major figures in the Maine GOP’s future. Among them: Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe as well as Governor John McKernan, all of whom made a debut playing some role in Cohen’s ‘72 campaign.

The book is a nostalgic reminder of what running – or in Cohen’s case – walking for office was like in this more primitive era. For one thing, the race was rooted in Maine with very little of the kind of nationalized influence that have overtaken most races in the district in recent years. No one in 1972 would have ever wagered that control of what was then a well entrenched Democratic Congress would turn on the outcome of any Maine election. Even if it did this was well before the era when major outside independent expenditure sources were common place.

(For this reason a modern day comparison with the election in which The Walk takes place is best understood if read in tandem with a remarkable multi-dimensional narrative of the 2018 Bruce Poliquin – Jared Golden contest in the same district, Chasing Maine’s Second, A Fight for Congress in Paradise by journalist Michael Norton.)

The Walk also has its share of “Now It Can Be Told” revelations. Among them is Cohen’s previously undisclosed flight to Great Britain to meet with an Israeli ambassador as an occasion for his unexpected 1981 vote that supplied the margin of senate victory to approve America’s sale of AWACS planes to Saudia Arabia.

As significant as the ‘72 campaign and Cohen’s walk was in turning the page of Maine politics, the walking phenomenon introduced in the state has ceased to be a staple of major campaigns.

The novelty has not only worn off but its efficacy is blunted by the need for major candidates to engage in events that tend to have greater fund raising potential and assure a presence in the daily TV and social media news cycle. The walk’s success was dependent upon recurring attention from local media outlets. The far more limited resources of the Fourth Estate today, that is fewer professional local reporters, would likely reduce significantly the publicity it would be able to generate.

As Potholm himself observes, “A walk simply cannot drive the political narrative the way it did in 1972.”

Even if it doesn’t, The Walk is a fascinating perspective and commentary that’s an effortless but inspiring read on a compelling array of subjects.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his historical understanding and analyses of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at pmills@myfairpoint.net

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