BRUNSWICK — Mark Holbrook, Ph.D., paused in the doorway, scoping out the C & R Trading Post. Firearms, new and used, line the walls and fill the glass display cases ringing the room. Three men inside. Two behind the counter. One unknown, over by a table stacked with cartridges. Only then did Holbrook step into the room.Once a cop, always a cop.
This was on a brilliant late August morning along a wooded stretch of Route 1, a short drive south of downtown Brunswick. A ‘Holbrook for Congress’ sign was tacked below the store’s roadside sign. What better place than a gun shop to a sign few copies of his book (a self-help book for law enforcement officers and their families) and to encourage residents of Maine’s 1st Congressional District to vote Republican in November?
Holbrook is no stranger to voters. This is his second straight run for Congress. In 2016, he lost to incumbent Democrat Chellie Pingree, who won 58 percent of the vote to Holbrook’s 42. He’s the first Republican challenger to win back-to-back nominations in the district, and he’s running on what he calls a common-sense conservative platform.
“There was no question that we were going to do this again,” Holbrook said. “We started this effort (in 2015) because it was a calling for us, and we aren’t done yet.”
One big difference between this time out and 2016: This race will be decided by ranked-choice voting. In addition to Pingree, former Democratic state legislator Marty Grohman is on the ballot as an independent. How big of a difference will a three-way race make in the outcome? Will it work to the Republicans’ advantage, as the presence of independent candidate Eliot Cutler did for Paul LePage in the last two gubernatorial races?
“It depends on how close things get,” said Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine. “I don’t see the independent getting as much of the vote as we’ve seen in previous gubernatorial races. But, you know, as we’ve seen at the presidential level, any number of votes drawn away from the Democrat did wind up being decisive.”
Passionate on the issues
Glance at Holbrook’s campaign materials and you’ll see relatively standard-issue positions for a Republican nominee: protecting and defending the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, while fighting “job-killing” regulations. His materials reference ultraliberal progressives, a tyrannical government, national debt that threatens to enslave our children and possibly destroy our country.
Holbrook strays somewhat from some firm GOP positions. He wants federal help with the pollution threat posed by the Portland wastewater treatment system, and, while his website states he is personally opposed to abortion, he concedes that it’s a complex issue and doesn’t say it should be outlawed.
Holbrook, 60, turns combative when discussing his opponents. He calls Pingree an ultraliberal progressive who is “100 percent wrong, 100 percent of the time,” an elitist out of touch with her constituents. And Grohman, he says, is an opportunist.
“(Grohman) was a liberal Democrat 10 minutes ago and once he found out ranked-choice voting was going through, he decided to change parties,” Holbrook said. “The guy is a slippery politician that is trying to come across as the reconciler, you know, the guy in the middle, and it just isn’t true. He is just trying to look for the next stepping stone in his career.”
A trained mediator
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Holbrook’s campaign is the conviction with which he criticizes his opponents, at least in light of his professional background.
He started his professional life as a sheriff’s deputy. He graduated from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in 1979 and worked for 12 years for the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Department. He made the transition to the mental health field in the 1990s, earning degrees at the University of Southern Maine, Auburn University, and Fielding Graduate University. In 2000, he became an adjunct instructor at the police academy, teaching stress management, suicide risk assessment and hostage negotiations. In his private practice, he specializes in working with police officers, active-duty military personnel and veterans.
He drew from that experience and a deep personal loss to write “Bulletproof: Why Cops and John Wayne Never Cry” (Promise Press, 2016). Now in its second edition, “Bulletproof” describes how the strain of police work can affect officers’ mental health, and it suggests healthy ways to cope with stress. Holbrook writes in the preface that the book is dedicated to his friend, Perry Purinton, a Brunswick police officer who died by suicide in 1998.
Holbrook believes his career experiences would serve him well in Congress.
“I am trained and educated to work with people,” he said. “My patients were acutely homicidal and acutely suicidal. It was my job to keep people alive. Couples come to me on the jagged edge of divorce looking to me to help them come back together. I have taught hostage negotiations. I know how to work with people. I know how to get people to a table and to get them to a place of agreement.”
A fighting chance
According to the Maine Secretary of State’s office, the 1st Congressional District voter registration breaks out as follows: roughly 188,000 Democrats, 180,000 independents, 132,000 Republicans, 21,000 Green Party members, and 2,600 registered Libertarians. Holbrook sees an opportunity among the 180,000 independents.
“The 1st Congressional District is more conservative than most people believe,” he said. “People are yearning for someone to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong, this is right. Let’s start doing what’s right.’ I think that message rings true for a lot of people in this district, and we’re going to pull it off.”
Schmidt, the USM professor, has been tracking Maine politics for 20 years, and agrees that independent voters represent an opportunity for candidates. But he questions whether Holbrook has the right message.
“Nationally speaking, the majority of independents are in fact partisans who don’t want to cop to it,” he said. “About a third of independents nationally vote very reliably for the Democratic candidates, and about a third of them vote very reliably for the other candidates. So there’s about a third that might genuinely be considered up for grabs. I doubt that a political message that is targeted specifically toward conservatives would move that part of the unenrolled in the 1st District.”
Holbrook is undeterred.
“I was told that I was too conservative to be successful in the 1st District, and I said, I don’t think that’s true. I was told that the district wasn’t pro-life, it wasn’t pro-NRA, that it wasn’t pro-America as a sovereign nation, and therefore you had to run down the middle,” Holbrook said. “And I said, well, that may be true, but that’s not who I am. And if people are going to elect me, they’re going to know who I am. Then we’ll see the outcome.”
CORRECTION: In earlier versions of this story, it was stated that Mr. Holbrook is a practicing clinical psychologist. Mr. Holbrook applied for a license to be a clinical psychologist in Maine several years ago. Because the application was never completed, the state cancelled the application. The story has been corrected to fix this error.
Q&A with Mark Holbrook
Why run for Congress again? What did you learn from 2016?
Mark Holbrook: On the night of the election in 2016, votes weren’t fully counted yet. And my wife turned to me and said, ‘You’re going to run again, right?’ There was no question that we were going to do this again. We started this effort because it was a calling for us and you know, we aren’t done yet. That’s why we’re running.
I have learned that it’s a difficult process to go through when you don’t have a boatload of cash. People can spin their messages, they present their points through TV ads, radio ads, without any recourse. That’s hard to come back (from).
What’s the appeal of Mark Holbrook to moderate voters?
Holbrook: The appeal is the difference between right and wrong. You know, people have routinely tried to force me into some sort of label. I’m not on the left or on the right. I’m part of that great big center called common sense. It’s not Republican or Democrat. It’s common sense, supporting values that define right and wrong. Most of the people in the country, in the world, want his and hers bathrooms. I don’t want my daughter going into a bathroom with a guy. That’s just wrong.
If elected, what would be your top three priorities for the 1st District?
Holbrook: Bringing new jobs into the state of Maine. I want to make sure that the federal government is working to do something about the opioid crisis. I’ve been a grant reviewer for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for almost 10 years now. And I have not seen a single piece of research come across my desk to be reviewed on behavioral health treatments for people with opioid addictions. Pingree signed on to a letter trying to get the CDC to do something called gun violence research. Come on. That is not a problem.
No. 3 for the state of Maine is the Portland sewer district. We’re on a 40-year plan to repair that system. We’re nearly 20 years into it, and yet they still dump … millions of gallons of toxic waste and sewage into Casco Bay.
You start poisoning Portland Harbor and Casco Bay, you start poisoning our food supply, then the fishing industry’s going to go down the tubes. What’s going to follow? Tourism. Without tourism, Maine becomes a Third World toilet. We’ve got to do something about that right now. I sent a letter to (Speaker of the House Paul Ryan), the president and three members of the cabinet saying, please make this a priority. I’ve done more about that than Pingree has in the 10 years she’s been in office.
As a candidate, is it more important to address issues of divisiveness with the hope of bringing our country closer together? Or is it more important to hold tight to your respective political agendas?
Holbrook: I am trained and educated to work with people, and I have for a period of time. I know how to get people to a table and to get them to a place of agreement. That’s the opposite of divisive. What we see today is hyperbole and chest-pounding, and it’s nauseating. It is not Congress getting together to go to work. You look at (former Democratic House Speaker) Tip O’Neill and (Republican President) Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Those guys would get up and argue and fight and debate and at the end of the day have dinner together. You don’t see that today, right? They were passionate about their positions and they were trying to win people over, back and forth, but it wasn’t personal, there was no animus involved.
How did we get to what’s going on today? (About) half of everyone in Congress is a lawyer. No, Pingree isn’t, but over half of them are. And those people are trained to go in and do battle. Well, that’s just wrong. This isn’t about doing battle. This is about you and I sitting down and saying, ‘My constituents would benefit from this. How do we get there?
How do you square your approach of bringing people together with your support of the president, who is known to be aggressive in terms of defending himself and his positions?
Holbrook: I don’t think I have to square it. I’m not in a position to approve or disapprove of the way he comports himself in support of his agenda. Listen, the guy is a billionaire real estate developer from New York. If he is behaving in ways that you don’t like or someone else doesn’t like, well, go talk to him. I’m not going to judge the man. I don’t care.
Not only is he the leader of the free world, but he’s the leader of the Republican Party and, you know what? We ought to be supporting his agenda. I mean, he wants limited government? Great. I’m all for that. He wants Americans to be working? I’m all for that. He wants Americans to prosper? I’m all for that.
Healthcare costs and energy costs continue to hamstring families and small business owners. What can you do, if re-elected, to address these concerns?
Holbrook: I do not support socialized medicine. I’ve been in mental health since 1998. I’m pretty familiar with insurance companies and what it takes to get people covered. I think that the reforms that the president is starting to implement are going to help a lot. I don’t have all the answers to it, but I don’t want socialized medicine. That would be the downfall of the best medical system in the world.
The president’s attempt to create associations or allow associations to form, I think that’s a great step in the right direction. We have to continue to unravel Obamacare. Not cut it off with an ax, but start pulling it apart piece by piece because we don’t want to suffer any unintended consequences that are going to hurt people.
And energy costs? Do you support renewable energy sources, like solar or wind?
Holbrook: As long as they can support themselves. I don’t want tax subsidies to support them. I mean, look at Tesla and Elon Musk. That company is about to go belly up. It has been subsidized by the American taxpayer. It’s public and now he’s talking about sending it private. And by all accounts he will personally benefit from the sale of that going private. But what about the American taxpayer? Do we get our money back? You know, the idea of picking winners and losers (by providing tax breaks and subsidies) is a bad idea for the country. It’s a bad idea for the state.
Immigration is a huge hot-button topic. However, there are many here in Maine who believe that legal immigration can serve as a positive step toward possibly growing our economy. What’s your view on diversifying Maine’s population base through expanded legal immigration opportunities?
Holbrook: I don’t think it is even remotely part of anything the federal government ought to be doing. That’s social engineering, and I don’t want any part of it. If people want to move to the state of Maine, to Vermont, to California, they are free to move. God love them for whatever, whichever direction they go in. It is social engineering, directing people where to go. That’s socialism. I’m not going to be part of it. If we have something that attracts people, something they want, great. I’m glad to have them here.
In terms of the current population, if they’re in the workplace or immigrating to this country, they better learn how to speak English. I don’t think the American taxpayer should be paying for it.
There have been several recent studies that have linked children born into poverty in Maine to our state’s sluggish job growth. By one account, the number of Maine children who are food insecure is now close to 25 percent. What can you do to provide a better foundation for Maine’s next generation?
Holbrook: I want to build the economy by attracting businesses. Job 1 when you get to Washington is bringing in jobs. I want to call Coca Cola, or name the company, and talk to the CEO and say, ‘Hey, do you like Maine lobsters? Come on up for a picnic. Let’s have a conversation. What do you need to bring part of your organization to Maine? What do you need? Let’s make it happen.’ That’s how you bring new people into the state. As you develop relationships, you become the biggest cheerleader, and you start bringing companies here. It’ll happen.