Michaud takes seat in House, place in history

By GLENN ADAMS, Associated Press

©Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

AUGUSTA - Almost without notice, Michael Michaud made history on Nov. 5 when his election to Congress made him the first candidate with a Franco-American name to win a major office in Maine in at least a century - and perhaps ever.

Almost as noteworthy is that the East Millinocket paper mill worker's cultural heritage never came close to being an issue in the campaign.

"It is a turnaround, in a sense," said Robert Chenard, a Waterville genealogist and historian. "Here we have a Franco-American who has succeeded in gaining a post in the U.S. Congress, with the (voters') knowledge that he is Franco-American. Maybe
we've finally surmounted that wall of resistance that's been encountered by Franco-Americans in the past."

Michaud, 46, is completing a 22-year career in both chambers of the state Legislature, after rising to Senate president last year. He defeated Republican Kevin Raye of Perry in Tuesday's election for the open 2nd District U.S. House seat.

"He is very proud of his Franco-American roots," said Monica Castellanos, a spokeswoman for Michaud.

While little was made of his heritage during the campaign, "I think a lot of people felt connected with him," said Castellanos. "People were proud he was on the ballot."

Castellanos said that ethnic pride was demonstrated by the heavy votes of support Michaud received in Lewiston and the St. John Valley, which have heavy concentrations of Franco-Americans.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23 percent of Maine's nearly 1.3 million residents indicated in 2000 that their ethnic origin was either French or French Canadian. That was a decrease from 27 percent in 1990.

Maine has never elected a Franco-American governor, nor has it sent someone with a French surname to the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives in at least a century, if ever. A number of Franco-Americans have tried.

One of the more recent was Dennis Dutremble, a Biddeford Democrat who reached the state government's No. 2 spot as Senate president but failed in a congressional bid in 1994. Many Franco-Americans have served in the Legislature and judiciary.

Margaret Chase Smith, who became one of Maine's towering elected leaders, had significant French Canadian ties but she never chose to bring them to public notice.

Smith was first elected to the Senate in 1948, went on to become the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and submitted her name for nomination as president in 1964.

According to Chenard's research, Smith's mother - whose maiden name was Morin - was 100 percent Franco-American and her family emigrated from Quebec.

"Margaret Chase Smith never admitted her Franco-American roots, mainly because the Franco-Americans back then . . . were almost second-class citizens," said Chenard. "So if she were to have said anything about her Franco-American heritage . . . she
may not have won the elections."

Michaud's electoral success is different from Smith's, said Yvon Labbe, director of the Franco-American Centre at the University of Maine.

"Margaret Chase Smith, while she was Franco, doesn't figure in the same way as Michaud, because Michaud was known as a Franco," said Labbe.

Mainers did elect a congressman named Charles Boutelle of Damariscotta, who served three terms ending in 1902. A biography of Boutelle in the state Legislative Law Library makes no mention of his cultural background, but Chenard said it is not a
French-Canadian name.