In one of the few contested primaries in Hancock County, Stephen Coston of Bar Harbor bested Duncan Haass of Lamoine by a vote of 307-191. Coston will be up against two-term incumbent Democrat Lynne Williams, also of Bar Harbor, in the November general election for the House District 14 seat (Bar Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Lamoine, Mount Desert).
The Republican primary was a low-key affair. Coston had lawn signs up but did not run an aggressive campaign. Haass was not visible and hard to reach, with a full voice mailbox not accepting messages. Demographics favored Coston, with a hometown population of 5,386 against his opponent’s hometown population of 1,682.
In November, Coston will not be as fortunate when it comes to the make-up of the district. Democratic voter registrations exceed Republicans significantly in three of the four district towns. He acknowledges he’s facing “an uphill battle,” but politics are not his sole passion and he doesn’t take them personally. “The people best fit for office are those who are willing to walk away from it.”
A former member of the Bar Harbor Town Council, Coston says, “I’m running because I feel like I should.” He is not running with a “hallmark issue, a strategy or a platform.” He was not enrolled in a party for much of his adult life, and there are parts of both major party platforms that he’s “not on board with,” but he aligns with Republicans on fiscal issues, saying “I’m an economic conservative through and through.” On other matters he says he is more of an independent. “I’m a Republican, but I’m not a partisan person. I try to be a critical thinker.”
He maintains that “politics has drifted too far from decorum and civility,” and “sincerely regrets” that our society has gone down that path. Neither side is blameless, says Coston, and he is proud of his Town Council service. “I walked in, said my bit, and didn’t let a hostile climate turn me into a hostile person. I can be stubborn,” he said with a smile, “but we have to do better in how we treat each other.”
For Coston, a constructive discourse asks the following questions: Where are we trying to go? What’s the big problem of the day, and how do we solve it? He hopes to have “practical level impact.” He is a driven speaker, with a lot of ideas and a lot of knowledge that informs them. Quotations tumble out, and book titles, and other references, until he stops himself. “I can get in the weeds,” he says ruefully. “I’m trying not to.”
But “weedy-ness” can be a great asset in a legislator. Those who understand issues in detail and learn the process well are the legislators who can help develop legislation that stands the test of time. Coston is a lifelong student of economics, much of it through experience and family background, and believes a strong economy breeds success in other areas. Many politicians conflate increased tax rates with increased revenue, but Coston points out that higher taxes may suppress economic activity, leading to less revenue.
Coston has developed and operates lodging enterprises in Bar Harbor. He is particularly proud that he employs workers year-round at a substantial salary, helping his staff be able to live on Mount Desert Island.
What lights Coston up is simply Maine. “I love Maine!” he cries when asked why he defied the odds and stayed local. He lists Maine’s “distance from civilization,” its seasonality, “tough geography” and natural resources as the elements that make Maine special. It is a place where innovation should be rewarded.
Tourists want to “look at things in an unbothered state,” says Coston, calling the tourism industry “relatively green” and preferable for our area over industrial or retail development. Of the controversial aquaculture proposal for Frenchman Bay, he maintains that if the use of a natural resource is new, the burden of proof should be on the applicant to prove both its value and the absence of negative impact. “I don’t think they’ve cleared that bar.”
Coston does not mince words about what he has to offer as a member of the House of Representatives. “I am who I am, and I’m telling you who I am.” He sees civil disagreement as an inevitable and fundamental tool of progress, playing an essential role in problem-solving, and contemplates the possibility that even the most disagreeable dissenters may serve the purpose of helping to unify the rest of us.
Stephen Coston’s inquisitive mind and direct experience with the challenges to entrepreneurship in Downeast Maine give him a solid platform from which to launch a bid for a seat in the Maine House. “The status quo wins by default,” says Coston. This candidate offers a challenge to that status quo.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.