By Paul Mills
News this month emerged that at least five and possibly six citizen petition campaigns will be putting their claims before Maine voters later this year. From marijuana legalization to gun background checks not to mention a hike in the minimum wage, ranked choice voting, a new levy on upper bracket income taxpayers to finance increased aid for education, and possibly a York County casino, the causes cruise the surface of nearly every hot domestic political issue of our time.
Though this year’s referenda promise to collectively command the attention of voters as much as any in state history, none by themselves are as likely to drum up the kind of drama as the February 1966 Sunday Liquor Sales referendum, just 50 years ago this month.
It all began when the 1965 Legislature-the first controlled by Democrats in 50 years-voted to lift the ban on Sunday sales of liquor, a measure that had been on the books for over a century. Before the law could go into effect, the Maine Christian Civic League successfully met the 90-day deadline and filed some 50,000 petition signatures-nearly twice the number then needed-that invoked a People’s Veto referendum.
The undisputed face of Sunday prohibition was the ever cheerful Civic League superintendent, Rev. Benjamin C. Bubar, Jr. Though Bubar relied on moral and Biblical arguments he also emphasized the financial and social cost of alcohol abuse.
A particular target of the “dry” forces was the provision allowing take-out sales, a feature perceived to facilitate under-age consumption and one not allowed on Sunday in many of the nation’s otherwise “wet” Sunday jurisdictions including Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Facing off against Bubar and the League was an alliance of restaurant, hotel, and ski resorts led by Eastland Hotel potentate Robert Dunfey. Their organization, Vacationland, Inc., advocated Sunday sales as a means of capturing increased taxation revenue, a premise echoed today by marijuana legalization supporters.
There’s one argument today’s marijuana advocates cannot draw upon to the same extent that Dunfey’s forces did in 1966. Then, Maine was one of only seven states and the only one in New England that did not authorize some form of Sunday liquor sales. In the marijuana realm, by contrast, Maine today cannot so far be considered to be out of step with the rest of the country, which but for a few western states has not so far jumped on a legalization bandwagon.
The “wet” position in the 1966 campaign had, as do today’s pot legalization forces, the advantage of more buoyant financing, Dunfey’s movement outspending the League in advertising its “Yes on Sunday” position with some $40,000 to some $10,000 the League had raised.
Moreover, the Sunday sales forces won the backing of six of the state’s daily papers including the Press Herald and Bangor Daily. Lewiston’s Daily Sun and Evening Journal along with Augusta’s Kennebec Journal remained neutral.
As election day, Feb. 21, approached, Deputy Secretary of State Linwood Ross predicted a turnout of 100,000, a high figure for a stand-alone ballot measure with no candidate contests involved, especially since the six bond issues and three constitutional amendments the previous November had drawn only 49,000.
Both Dunfey and Bubar criticized the election’s timing for occurring on the eve of Washington’s birthday, an occasion which among other things drew far more media advertising for annual auto sales promotions than those for both sides in the Sunday liquor vote.
Weather conditions that typify February voting was also an impediment to turnout. Indeed, with a reported 20-below zero temperature in the early morning of election day, four communities including Livermore Falls and Fayette obtained permission to re-locate their polling places due to the arctic like conditions.
Despite the election’s timing, however, Maine voters did something they are sometimes fond of doing: delivering a surprise. The turnout of some 203,000 was double that of state election officials’ predictions and remains to this day one of the highest ever in Maine history for a single issue election.
The verdict in unofficial returns was a 1,700 margin of victory against the bill. Dunfey conceded and Bubar claimed victory.
Just nine days later, on March 2, however, Secretary of State Kenneth Curtis reported that the official canvas showed a 133-vote victory for the bill.
News that proponents had now apparently won instead of lost dropped like a bombshell. Telephone switchboards at newspapers throughout the state were jammed to capacity after radio reports of the official results.
The next day, March 3, in a bizarre further turn-about, an embarrassed Curtis, announced that due to a reversal in the tabulation columns of the Monmouth voting, the measure had now been defeated by 56 votes.
Eventually, with both sides clinging to the edge of their seats, the “no” outcome prevailed in an April recount, Bubar and the Civic League position being sustained by a 1,300 vote margin.
Dunfey was of course in some ways not a leader of a lost cause but of one that had yet to be won. Three and half years after the 1966 rejection of any Sunday sales, the Legislature passed a compromise that permitted on premise – typically restaurant and hotel – consumption Sundays, though like the 1966 proposal Sunday morning sales were still prohibited. By the end of 1974 the law was expanded to allow take-out sales and by 1995 morning sales before noon if after 9 a.m. were also authorized.
Though Bubar won the battle but perhaps lost the war over Sunday sales, the amiable advocate would be ordained both in 1976 and 1980 as a third party candidate for the presidency, appearing on the ballot in 13 states in one year as the Prohibition Party nominee and heading the ticket in eight states on the National Statesman Party the next.
Bubar’s successor at the Christian Civic League today is Carroll Conley, Jr. When asked by this columnist to put the 1966 campaign in perspective, Conley, observed, “When we look at the ravages today I don’t know that anyone can say we’re better off. We certainly no longer fight the battle as far as sales on six or seven days a week. Unfortunately, even recently last year they allowed the bars to open at 6 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day. I just think that sends the wrong message to young people: ‘we just can’t live without it [alcohol] at six o’clock in the morning.’”
Conley went on compare the crusade against Sunday liquor sales of 50 years ago with the League’s opposition to marijuana today.
“Our culture and the media presents this as inevitable, it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of fairness: ‘if alcohol is legalized then why not legalize marijuana?’ We see the addition of this into our society as incredibly destructive and unsafe. There are the same organizations and professionals that stood with us some 50 years ago such as health workers that see the destruction that are standing with us and we will certainly be very much involved in this referendum process along with law enforcement and public health officials.”
Such remarks would no doubt also be embraced by Bubar, who died in 1995 at the age of 77.
There are of course differences between the verses in the hymnal of Maine politics written by Bubar 50 years ago and the script in this year’s anticipated marijuana vote, but there are parallels even though it’s unlikely that the tabulation of its outcome will be as characterized by as much drama and suspense.
We shall see.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.