How the Heated Cruise Ship Debate in Bar Harbor Influenced Local Election Outcomes

Bar Harbor voters on Tuesday chose to maintain the current structure of the Town Council by re-electing incumbents Gary Friedmann and Joe Minutolo, who defeated four other challengers for their positions.

However, amidst the ongoing divisive cruise ship debate, which is still being contested in the courts, the definition of “status quo” remains ambiguous.

Candidates with clear pro- and anti-cruise ship positions have attempted, but failed, to secure elective office in Bar Harbor over the past two years, even though voters have passed strict cruise ship regulations during that period. This situation may indicate that most voters hold a middle-ground view on the issue, according to some seasoned political analysts.

The town and its officials, including the seven-member council, are entangled in the conflict between a business group that is contesting the new cruise ship regulations and a resident who led the initiative for these limits through a 2022 citizens’ referendum. Charles Sidman, the primary advocate of the referendum, is also suing the town, claiming that the municipality is not acting swiftly enough to enforce the new voter-approved restrictions, which would effectively ban large cruise ships from Bar Harbor.

But despite his victory in pushing through the referendum, Sidman has failed to win enough votes to serve on the council. He ran last year for a two-year term and lost the race by nearly 250 votes. On Tuesday he came in last, finishing more than 100 votes behind the fifth-place finisher, former local police chief Nathan Young.

Candidates at the other end of the spectrum also have not fared well. Affiliation with the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, which last year joined the local business group’s lawsuit against the town — and consequently was stripped of funding by voters at town meeting — seems to be more of a hindrance than a help.

Gary “Bo” Jennings, president of Chamber, got the fewest votes Tuesday of the six candidates seeking a seat on the town’s warrant committee, which independently reviews and makes recommendations on warrant articles at Bar Harbor’s annual town meeting. Like Sidman, it is the second electoral loss in as many years for Jennings, who last year ran for Town Council and came in sixth in a field of seven candidates seeking three seats.

Two council candidates who on Tuesday finished third and fourth behind Minutolo and Friedmann — businessperson Nina St.Germain, who came within 66 votes of Friedmann’s total, and restaurateur Michael Boland — are both former Chamber presidents with extensive investment in the local tourism industry. Both St. Germain and Boland have expressed moderate views on cruise ship reductions, however, and have advocated more for community consensus and compromise instead of resolving the dispute in court.

So, how is it that Bar Harbor voters have kept candidates at both ends of the spectrum out of office despite approving drastic cuts in cruise ship traffic less than two years ago?

Jill Goldthwait, a former town councilor and state senator who for many years wrote a political column for the Mount Desert Islander newspaper, thinks the votes in 2023 and on Tuesday show that most residents land somewhere in the middle of the debate.

She said voters seem to want noticeably fewer cruise ship visits than the town has had in the years leading up to the COVID pandemic — as indicated in a 2021 community survey — but they don’t necessarily want a complete ban on large ships.

“I think that is what voters approved” on Tuesday, she said.

Goldthwait said there was a lot of “dissent, debate and sheer nastiness in town” in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election. She acknowledged that there has been backlash against the Chamber, but said many people also have taken exception with Sidman’s legal filings and rhetoric.

In April, he individually listed all seven members of the council as defendants in a court complaint, and he has publicly accused the council of illegal and corrupt behavior.

“And his lawsuits are costing the town a lot of money,” Goldthwait said.

Jamie McKown, a local resident and professor of government and polity at College of the Atlantic, said that while the cruise ship issue has dominated local political discourse in recent years, voters often have a variety of reasons for supporting one candidate over another. In small towns like Bar Harbor, where voters often know candidates personally, those reasons might have nothing to do with matters of policy.

He also said voters often are subjected to misleading or incomplete information posted on social media and, given the limitations of how thorough referendum questions can be when printed on ballots, it is “probable” that many voters supported the 2022 citizens’ referendum in spirit without fully grasping the details of what it meant.

“The specifics are often going to get left out and, with that referendum, the devil really is in the details,” McKown said. “I’m not sure voters were fully aware of that.”

He said incumbency sometimes gives a candidate an advantage over challengers, which may have helped Minutolo and Friedmann win re-election, despite the attention given to the “loudest” pro- and anti-cruise ship voices.

“I think there are a lot of voters in the middle,” McKown said.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state’s iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors….

More by Bill Trotter

Set sail on a voyage of discovery with – your ultimate destination for all things cruising! Explore the latest news, insightful reviews, and thrilling cruising adventures from around the globe. Whether you’re a seasoned cruiser or a first-time traveler, is your go-to source for expert advice, insider tips, and inspiring stories to fuel your wanderlust. Embark on a journey like no other with – where every wave brings new excitement and endless possibilities on the high seas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *