In the aftermath of the historic election of Donald Trump, the journalism department at Baruch College/CUNY decided to design a political reporting course that would zero in on a swing district and the key economic, social and political issues that animated voters.
Our objective was to gain a better understanding of the national phenomenon that brought President Donald Trump to office through the lens of a single congressional district. We also wanted to travel to our designated district so we could immerse ourselves in the local community, do on-the-ground reporting and provide our students with the kind of hands-on experience that helps make learning more meaningful.
Our journey began over a year ago when we sat down with Francis Donnelly, a Baruch College librarian and expert in geospatial imaging; with his help we identified all the swing districts within reasonable travel distance from New York City that had voted twice for Barack Obama and then for Trump.
We then looked for districts where economic or social data—sharp increases in poverty, say—might help explain the changes in voter preferences. We also wanted a district not overly exposed by the national media. And, since our students were giving up their spring break for this reporting trip, we were determined to find someplace they might have some fun during the rare hours when we weren’t reporting.
We selected the 2nd Congressional District in Maine. What follows is the work our students did in Maine. We crisscrossed the 2nd District, interviewing voters, politicians and experts in Waterville, Farmington and Bangor. We also did a deep dive in Millinocket, a former mill town built by the Great Northern Paper Company that once had one of the highest per-capita incomes in the state.
While the mill is long closed and the community has shrunk to half its former size, we discovered a historic town at the intersection of 13 lakes and rivers, not far from Mount Katahdin, that is being discovered by tourists and outdoor enthusiasts. Our students would learn about the quixotic efforts of the residents and their children—many who had moved away—to bring new life and business back to their hometown.
INTERACTIVE MAP: HIGHLIGHTS OF THE TRIP
We owe a great debt of gratitude to many colleagues at Baruch, including Josh Mills, chair of the journalism department; Aldemaro Romero Jr., dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences; Provost David Christy and Associate Dean Gary Hentzi, who approved our project.
We greatly appreciate the help of Prof. Doug Muzzio in the Marxe School of Public & International Affairs who advised us on political experts and opened his Rolodex to us. Among others, Doug introduced us to Democratic strategist Michael Lewan; he and Samantha Slater, the communications director for Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, gave our class a terrific primer on the issues and challenges facing candidates in the coming midterm elections. Thank you also to Gregg Birnbaum, senior political editor at NBCNews.com and an adjunct professor at Baruch, who shared his political-reporting expertise with our students. And a special thank you to Jonathan Alter for his valuable advice.
Profuse thanks to the colleagues who worked hard behind the scenes to help make our trip happen, including Glenda Hydler, the journalism department assistant who fielded questions and forms from prospective students and who helped us navigate CUNY’s reimbursement process. We’d also like to thank Boo Choi, Joyce Marotta, Irina Laskin and Deemendra Bheer, who all helped us with the reimbursement process.
We are also grateful to a great many Mainers who went out of their way to welcome us and to share their insights with our students. First, a big thank you to Prof. Dan Shea at Colby College, who suggested that we look at Millinocket. Thank you also to Prof. Mindy Crawford at the University of Maine at Orono who shared her exhaustive, and fascinating, research on forestry economics and the Millinocket area.
A special thank you to Andrea’s friend Wes Chapman and his childhood buddies Rudy Rawcliffe and Senator Paul Sterns, who opened doors and gave us valuable insights into the state. We are grateful to Mary Hawkes at Region III Technical High School for hosting us and to Adam Sutton, owner of Highland Belt and Fine Leather; as well as to Tony Ayotte, Dan Coffey and their colleagues for an insightful tour of the Cianbro training center. Thank you also to Prof. Amy Fried at the Univ. of Maine and Ann Luther with the League of Women Voters. We also greatly appreciate the insights and contacts provided by Nick Sambides of The Bangor Daily News.
With great appreciation to Pencil Boone and his youth ministry for welcoming our students on Easter weekend and to Vicky Cohen of the Farmington County Democrats and University of Maine at Farmington’s College Democrats Club for inviting us to their forum for candidates running for Congress. Last but not least, we’d like to thank the people of Millinocket who were so helpful to this project, including: John Davis, Matt Delaney, Steve Golieb, John Hafford, Jessica Masse, Matt Polstein, Trudy Wyman and the folks at Our Katahdhin.
–Andrea Gabor and Vera Haller