Stateline Story

Small Town Legislative Race Attracts Opposites

  • April 16, 2002
  • By Sandor M. Polster

Terry Kirk does not own a suit or a sport jacket. He doesn't even own a necktie. But if Kirk is elected in November to represent his town of Durham and parts of surrounding Brunswick and Lisbon in the Maine Legislature, he'll have to upgrade his wardrobe.

"They told me you can't get into the House chamber without a jacket and tie," he says. "I actually own some dress slacks and a dress shirt. My wife is looking for a suit for me now. That's going to be different, I gotta tell you."

Kirk, 55, registered as a Democrat "years and years ago," but since moving across the river from Lisbon to Durham in 1974 his party affiliation has been undeclared. That didn't matter to local Democratic Party leaders, however, who thought that Kirk, elected last year to the town's Board of Selectmen, would be a strong candidate to oppose fellow Durham resident William Schneider, a two-term incumbent. Schneider owns "probably 30 neckties" and four suits, "but two are pretty ragged."

"I don't think you could find two people more different," says Schneider, 42, the assistant Republican floor leader.

The differences are particularly striking when the rsums are compared: Schneider is a 1981 graduate of West Point. Kirk dropped out of high school in 1964, in his sophomore year, to join the Marine Corps; he served four years and was honorably discharged as a Lance Corporal. Schneider, a native of upstate New York, retired from the Army as a Captain in 1985 after suffering a complete spinal cord injury; he then went to law school and worked as a prosecutor in the Maine Attorney General's office. Kirk, a native of the legislative district in which he's running, operates an auto and truck repair shop in a Quonset hut he built next to his house.

Even the way in which they plan to pay for their campaigns differs sharply:

"I do not want nor will I accept any money from anybody," says Kirk. "I'm going to pay for this myself. I will take no matching funds." He estimates the contest will cost him around $5,000.

Schneider says he'll be "traditionally financed. That means I'm going to raise my own money, I'll take contributions." He thinks the campaign could cost as much as $10,000, and says of Kirk's plan to self-finance, "That's interesting. Good for him."

On some of the issues, the two agree. For example, both strongly support a woman's right to choose, and both are advocates of a balanced budget. They're both against a plan to provide laptop computers to Maine middle-school students, but their reasons for that opposition point up a big difference.

"It doesn't seem like an efficient way to accomplish the goal of educating kids about technology," says Schneider.

Kirk is more blunt. "I think it stinks," he says. "If you got a car that's out of gas, why are we buying chrome hubcaps for it? We ought to be putting gas in it. I feel this way about the schools. Schools need roofs, they need clean air, they need teachers, they need books. Why buy the computer when we need all this other stuff first?"

Schneider labels himself a political "moderate," but he has a mostly conservative voting record. Kirk doesn't think of himself as either liberal or conservative, saying, "They've called me several other things, but them two words aren't it. I'm not a person who sugarcoats anything ... I'm not a politician."

Kirk says that as a Selectman and as an elected member of the Durham Budget Committee, among other groups on which he's served, "I get the feeling that some of the people disagree with the way I think ... I'm sure I've made enemies, but not intentionally. I'm fair. I don't like anybody, and I like everybody. I don't have a favorite in my pocket."

Molly Pitcher, one of the district's Democratic Party leaders, doesn't see Kirk as a populist. Rather, she says, "I think he's one of those good ol' town boys." And she points to all the volunteer work Kirk does for Durham, such as free maintenance for the town's fire engines. Kirk explains, "It's something I'm giving back to the town. If I charged the town, it comes out of my tax money. So if I can do something to keep taxes down, I will do my best."

In the three towns that comprise District 85, there are 1,957 registered Democrats and 1,934 registered Republicans, so the campaign likely will be for the 2,723 undeclared voters. Pitcher thinks the contest is too close to call. "There is such a difference between the two," she says, "and that's when you really never know what's going to happen."

Schneider agrees. "I am absolutely not discounting him," he says. "Terry has a lot of name recognition. I think he could be a real serious candidate."

"I'm just Maine Yankee," says Kirk. "I'm everyday ordinary. I'm not polished and I'm not going to shoot the bull. I'm going to knock on a lot of doors. I'm going to tell you the way it is."