Many stories have been told about Rep. John Martin in 54 years of legislative service. He says they have all been embellished.
Did he have lawmakers pulled over on their way to session to keep them from voting? No, he says. But he would send troopers to collect legislators who were not planning to attend that day’s session for disagreeing with the subject or if they were stuck in a snowstorm. And he did sometimes have lawmakers’ cars blocked in to prevent them from leaving a vote.
Such tactics might seem autocratic. To Martin, nicknamed the “Earl of Eagle Lake,” they were part of his job as the most influential, feared and often reviled House speaker in state history.
“The constitution is pretty clear. You need to come in,” he recounted telling lawmakers. “If you don’t want to serve, resign. But as long as you’re a member, you need to come in and vote.”
The term-limited Martin is leaving the Legislature this year for only the third time since he was first elected in 1964. Friends and foes admit he ruled the State House with an iron fist during his 20 years as speaker ending in 1994. He knew how to control things outside of his leadership position or out of office entirely.
Martin wrote the modern set of rules the Legislature lives by. He is the reason Maine has shoreland zoning, something he said was inspired by unregulated growth along Augusta’s Western Avenue. He was the main inspiration behind the 1993 referendum imposing term limits on legislators, something he argues has weakened the institution.
He was barely slowed by a head injury in April 2021 that he said was suffered after a fall while helping his elderly golden retriever, Moose, out of his truck last year along Route 11 near Patten. The dog, who has since died, was discovered sleeping atop the unconscious Martin.
Even at 80 years old, he is not certain this term will be his last.
“There are other things I could do, you know?” he said. “But I’ll be running my summer camps this summer, so I’ll have a lot of time to think about things.”
Martin first joined the Legislature as a University of Maine student and has remained active in academia, teaching political science at the University of Maine Fort Kent. His constituency spans the western part of the St. John Valley, where Franco-American history runs deep. He grew up speaking French and English.
He has served under nine governors and first became speaker in 1975. It was not until 1994, after two of his legislative aides were convicted in a ballot tampering scandal that he stepped down from the rostrum. He was never implicated.
That story is well known, as is Martin’s willingness to push the chamber’s rules. Former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci recalled Martin once putting a cloth over a clock during the end of a session when rules required lawmakers to adjourn by the end of the day.
“There were Robert’s Rules [of Order] and then there were John’s rules,” he said.
His boldness extended to scheduling a Saturday session in 1986, a feat Bangor Daily News political columnist Davis Rawson noted was extraordinary at the time.
“At the end of every legislative session, Martin goes wild for a few brief days and literally runs the government by itself,” Rawson added.
Martin is unbothered by the stories that follow him and not shy about confronting critics. During his third term as speaker, he once went to the press corps — then above the Senate chamber — after stories ran about lawmakers drinking during session.
When he found reporters imbibing as well, he shared a drink with them. Then he walked them to a bathroom and had them pour their whiskey down the drain.
Even when he was not serving, Martin has been a player in political moments big and small. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who served Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, recalled getting an alert from Martin while serving on the Legislature’s budget committee in the 1990s that the state was not going to be adding more money to upkeep a stretch of Route 11.
Martin was not in office at the time. But the money got added.
“Whether he was in office or out of office, he didn’t have to be in a leadership position to be a leader,” he said.
Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a State House veteran who was first elected to the House in 1968, describes Martin’s time as speaker as being “a bit autocratic.” He was not shy about ousting those who did not follow the rules of decorum in the chamber. From banning smoking to keeping lobbyists sitting at legislator’s desks, Martin instilled many of the rules himself.
But Martin is kind and a resource for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and of all ages, Millett said. Even if the legendary figure is leaving Augusta for good, his influence will remain.
“You could never count [Martin] out,” Millett said.