At Large: Who me?

Of course, politicians, unlike the general run of flora, bloom in the months, these days, years, in advance of big elections. On election day, the ordinary roadscape — drab scrub oak, drab broom, drab trash, the occasional evergreen, occasionally the brilliant peak color of the Vineyard’s abundant poison ivy — is enhanced by eye-popping politicians and their partisans, smiles gleaming, signs waving, regardless of the weather or their individual prospects. It’s a gantlet that voters have to run. If you get through to the ballot box without making one of those tacit, eye-contact commitments that the candidates are looking for, you’re in the clear. Or so I thought.

For editorial writers, there is reserved a special indignity. You present yourself at the table for the A to K people, as I did a decade or so ago. You hang back a little, waiting for the folks in line just ahead to move on.

What is your name, the clerk asks?

You mutter an answer.

What was that, the checker asks a second time, now with that voice she uses to tell her husband he has forgotten to pick up milk.

Wince. You say your name again, a bit louder this time.

Oh, she says, you’re the one who writes those editorials in The Times.

Then, addressing the room: This is the one who writes those editorials, she announces to the voters and officials in the polling place.

Folks turn around to look. (Why do they seem so angry?)

I love some of your editorials, she says.

There appears to be no one behind me in line. Why is there no one next? Perhaps it’s apathy. Or fear.

Ah, but she has built up a head of steam.

But sometimes, she continues in a voice which has the windows quivering, I just want to wring your neck.

The assembled nod their assent, too vigorously for my comfort.

Partisanship beyond the grave

Francis W. Sargent died at his Dover home, at 83. He didn’t get much ink here. I looked back for one of those headlines in the other paper — Former Governor Passes; Visited Island Once; Longed to Return.

Obituary writers in the big papers described the one-term Republican governor of Massachusetts as an environmental crusader and a sportsman. Such commingling of interests was more common then, but is mostly suspect today.

Sarge, who defeated former Boston mayor Kevin White in the 1970 contest for the State House’s corner office, was succeeded by Michael Dukakis.

Governor Sargent was a hunter and fisherman, particularly a beach fisherman and practitioner with the fly rod. He had been for 10 years Massachusetts commissioner of natural resources.

But in 1972, Governor Sargent found himself the victim of an embarrassing bit of what he regarded as political treachery. He discovered that Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and some well-known Vineyard and Nantucket types had set about capturing the environmentalist mantle, and in the governor’s home territory of all places.

In the spring of that year Senator Kennedy filed the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust legislation, which proposed to create an innovative form of national park out of Nantucket, the Vineyard, and the Elizabeth Islands. The Republican governor, who had lived on the Cape since the war and fished on and around the Vineyard and Nantucket, didn’t like the sound of that.

When it turned out that 60 percent of voting islanders didn’t either, and that they regarded the so-called Trust Bill (or Kennedy Bill) as legislative piracy, the governor was happy to answer their calls for help by sending Lew Crampton, his secretary of communities and development, to the Vineyard to superintend the development of a state-level response to the threats of uncontrolled development.

The 1974 legislation (then commonly called the State Bill) was Governor Sargent’s antidote to Senator Kennedy’s Trust Bill., It created the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and combined its existing role as the regional planning agency for Dukes County with a new, powerful super-zoning authority as a regional regulatory commission. It was the State Bill, not the Trust Bill that was regarded as treachery by the late Senator’s devoted supporters.

It was also the most significant legislative accomplishment on behalf of environmental protection ever undertaken on the Vineyard’s behalf. The modest attention paid Frank Sargent at his death may accurately reflect his place in the long line of Massachusetts governors, but on this Island, one Republican environmentalist slash sportsman left an indelible mark. Governor Sargent was fortunate not be a voting resident here. It might have gone hard for him in the polling places. In the end, Visited the Island Once was his reward in those contentious times.