Professor Emeritus Ken Palmer Presents Maine Heritage Lecture

Professor Emeritus Ken Palmer Presents Maine Heritage Lecture

University of Maine Professor Emeritus Ken Palmer first became interested in politics during the surprise presidential election of 1948.

“The polls predicted that Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York would win easily over President Harry Truman,” said the political science professor, then an 11-year-old living in a small town in New Jersey.

“On election evening I stayed up late listening to the returns on the radio with my parents who were Dewey supporters.  Even though Truman started out ahead they said he wouldn’t win since the early returns came from big cities which were Democratic. When I went to bed my Dad said he would wake me if Dewey had been elected. Of course that never happened. The next morning Truman’s lead had grown, but the election was still too close to call. When I got to school, the teacher had a radio on his desk and wrote the votes of the electoral college on the blackboard as the votes from swing states were counted.  The contest wasn’t settled for Truman until about 11 a.m. It was the biggest presidential election upset ever.”

To this day, Professor Palmer finds politics fascinating. “State politics is important and legislatures are particularly important because they’re the baseline of democracy. The health of our country in some ways is measured by the health of state legislatures,” said the professor, who

presented the second annual Maine Heritage Lecture, sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, last fall. The lecture, “Maine’s Paradoxical Politics” will be included in the winter/spring issue of the Maine Policy Review, published by UMaine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

“I enjoyed giving the talk. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on aspects of Maine politics that I’d been researching,” said Professor Palmer who has written several books and many articles on Maine politics, including a study of the effects of term limits on the Maine State Legislature. He and three other professors recently published a second edition of “Maine Politics and Government.” (University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

Upon his transition to professor emeritus in 2004, he was cited by the Maine Legislature and Gov. Baldacci for his contributions to the state.

Although retired from UMaine, Professor Palmer still teaches part-time. Each spring, he conducts an on-line undergraduate course called American State and Local Government.

“It enables me to continue to share my knowledge of Maine,” he said. “We have a nice group of students of different ages and interests, including a legislator, a town council member, and people who serve in state government.”

Jason C. Libby, one of Professor Palmer’s former students who assists him with the on-line course, says “he’s got a great handle on Maine politics. He knows everybody — from state legislators to policy makers to bureaucrats, from Gov. John Baldacci to Sen. Olympia Snowe. He has this longitudinal understanding of what’s going on in state politics and is incredibly knowledgeable. It’s no wonder that people turn to him for information.”

Maine has a dynamic and healthy political system that differs from those in other states in a variety of ways, according to Professor Palmer.

“We have a very high level of civic engagement and voting participation and there are lots of candidates who run for office,” he said. “There are many tight races. Because we have two candidates in almost all of our legislative races, elections turn into a contest rather than an acceptance of one party’s nominee. We don’t have much of a right wing or a left wing. Instead we have moderate political parties that don’t buy into ideology. Democrats in Maine aren’t as different from Republicans as they are in other states and in Congress. We’re a blue state but we have lots of independent voters. All in all we’ve got a pretty constructive and healthy political system that seems to be able to deal with issues as they come up.”

Former student Michael Johnson said Professor Palmer “has his finger on the pulse of Maine politics.

“He would always inject interesting stories into his lectures and really make politics come to life for us students,” said Johnson, a legislative aide who teaches communications at Kennebec Valley Community College. “He’s always been a great mentor to me. To this day, I bounce ideas off him and ask him for advice.”

Teaching political science at UMaine is particularly gratifying for Professor Palmer. “Students here are very interested in it and a fair number of our alumni go into government service,” he said. “The Political Science Department tries to stress the importance of being involved and taking responsibility for the condition of one’s state and local governments.

“People really can make a difference.”

Professor Palmer has helped hundreds of students realize that. For 31 years he coordinated UMaine’s prestigious Congressional Internship Program in which students spend a semester working in the offices of members of the state’s Congressional Delegation in Washington, D.C.

“More than a quarter of the 200 UMaine students who have participated in the program over the years are involved in public service or some form of government activity,” Professor Palmer said. “We wanted the program to be an enriching experience for motivated students who sought to gain exposure in national politics.”

It’s a tough time to be in public office, according to the professor who has great respect for people who run for election, whether at the local, state, or federal level.

“With so many issues and demands, government is ever more important in what it does and in the consequences it has,” he said. “There’s an old phrase – ‘Politics ain’t beanbag.’ In other words, politics is a serious game.

“And that’s true today more than ever.”