Meet Rep. Ralph Chapman

Democrat Ralph Chapman has represented towns in the Blue Hill region for the past six years. Despite this, he is at odds with politics and politicians, and he sometimes describes his legislative service as “the worst job I have ever had.”

So why is he running for a fourth term? In answer, he quoted a colleague who, when asked if he liked being a legislator, told Chapman, “No. But I think it is important work and should be done well.”

To that end, Chapman has studied the founding documents of our country and taken to heart the words of Founding Father and second President John Adams. His conclusion? Government today is corrupt, though not in the criminal sense.

Power must rest with the people, he said, and must “serve the interest of the people.” To the degree to which government deviates from this ideal, it is corrupt.

Chapman describes himself as a “first-generation politician.” Admittedly “naïve” when he started out, he was both frustrated and disappointed when he encountered the political atmosphere in Augusta. “Probably 95 percent of legislators are decent, well-meaning and sincere,” he said. But many of them are “misguided.”

It is for party leadership that Chapman reserves his highest criticism. The “machinations of the caucus” are hard to take. On his initial vote as a freshman, he bucked his party, and he suspects he continues to pay the price for refusing to fall in line.

Chapman’s background is that of a research scientist in applied physics. He described the legislature as “a very different culture.” He hoped to bring his analytical skills to bear on state policy. What happened next was what he wryly called “a growth experience. It was a limited success, which is a euphemism for failure.”

According to Chapman, the problem inherent in the legislative process is that legislators “do not yet understand a problem before they have to choose sides.” Not enough discussion happens as policy is being developed, and once a bill appears, it is too late for much reshaping. “You have to get as far upstream as possible,” Chapman said.

He finds the committee process the most rewarding. “Committee work – when it works – is a pleasure,” he said. Committees “can yield a better outcome” than legislators working individually, and a legislator “can learn to appreciate others around the table.” Good public policy, Chapman said, does not come from “a razor-thin majority.” It is developed when there is buy-in from all sides.

He called it unfortunate that the legislature is primarily the purview of the retired or the independently wealthy. Low income and working people are underrepresented.

One term away from the four-term limit, Chapman said term limits are “a graceful way out.” He appreciates the enthusiasm of each arriving freshman class and the experience of those serving longer. But there are drawbacks. It took four years to really feel he understood the system.

He laid out the trajectory of his service in two-year increments. In his first term, he learned to listen and learned “a whole new language,” the language of the legislature. In his second term, he learned to listen for what was not being said, which he called just as important as what was said.

During his third term, he worked on understanding the context of the issues. If he wins a fourth and final term, he will be looking for the motivating forces behind legislative efforts.

Two opportunities light up this legislator in the “worst job he ever had.” One is the “privilege to have an excuse to establish relationships” with people he otherwise would not have known. He cited the president of Maine Maritime, a local hospital CEO and area farmers among those whom he is grateful to have met through his legislative work.

Truth be known, this is a legislator who confesses to sometimes wearing earplugs in the State House, dialed in to classical music. It provides him with “a level of emotional protection.” Chapman leaned forward as if to divulge a state secret and said, “I have no social skills!” He credits his participation in community theater as the only reason he has been able to put himself forward so publicly.

As for the other bright spot in his service, it is his connection to the “activated citizenry” of the Blue Hill peninsula. He can cite instances when one committed constituent has made a difference in Augusta, and he would love to find new ways to issue a call to arms in his district.

He gives the people in his communities high marks for taking an interest in state government and weighing in when they have an opinion – which is not infrequently. This is a powerful force in a democracy, and one he said is underutilized.

Earnest and thoughtful, Ralph Chapman takes his job as a legislator very seriously. At turns bemused, confessional or optimistic, he is clear about his principles. “I’m not there to push a [voting] button when leadership tells me to. I am there to do what I think is best for my district and the state.”

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

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.

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