The Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles released its proposal for a new standard license plate, which is inspired by the 1901 Maine flag. Credit: Courtesy Maine Office of the Secretary of State

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“No sir. I don’t like it.”

With apologies to Mr. Horse, that’s my response to the proposed rework of the Maine license plate. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles is suggesting we remove the chickadee plate in favor of a 1901 Maine flag design.

Hopefully the Legislature votes it down.

License plates probably seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme. And they are. But small symbols can convey much greater meaning.

This past week was Ash Wednesday. You may have seen a bunch of Catholics with some style of ash accoutrement on their forehead that day. They are an important symbol of faith and a reminder of things much greater than ourselves.

License plates serve a symbolic purpose as well. Just look at the proliferation of “vanity” plates throughout Maine. People use seven characters to express themselves. Even when sometimes they shouldn’t.

Or take a few moments to peruse the wide array of plate types you can get in Maine. Black Bears fan? There’s a plate for that. Want to support agriculture? Here’s a man and a boy going to a barn. Wabanaki plates, breast cancer awareness, support our troops – we have a litany of options.

Yet the default plate in Maine is the chickadee on a white pine cone. Two long-standing symbols of our state.

I have yet to see a vehicle the plate looks bad on. And it is instantly recognizable.

Compare it with Massachusetts’ raised red letters or New York’s yellow nonsense. Our current plate is more serene and has a degree of artistic merit. The artwork itself would not be out of place elsewhere, like a kitchen towel or small painting.  

If we are going to be required by law to attach something to our vehicles, it should at least look good. The chickadee does. The 1901 plate simply feels more sterile.

All that said, the Legislature should revisit the 1901 flag on its own merits. Re-adopting that historic flag makes all the sense in the world.  

You can buy 1901 flag apparel in countless places online. Gift shops up and down the coast sell hats, patches, shirts, and various other items to Mainers and tourists alike.

Officially bringing back the flag has its own economic rationale.

“Maine,” as a brand, has a lot of value. There is a reason Canadian lobster is often branded as “Maine lobster,” leveraging the geographic “Gulf of Maine” to make it a true claim.  

With a much stronger symbol, Augusta could equip Maine businesses with a competitive differentiator. Bring back the 1901 flag. Incorporate it into some trademarks that can only be used by Maine-based businesses.  

Other states have made headway with similar strategies. Texas’ branding – the Lone Star state, Don’t Mess with Texas, Everything is Bigger in Texas – is instantly recognizable. I “heart” NY cannot be mistaken. “Virginia is for Lovers” is, at the very least, memorable.

The 1901 flag is popular, distinctive, and easily replicable. Elementary school children could draw that flag from memory. It could become a lodestar for our branding efforts in agriculture, fisheries, tourism, and other industries, a rallying point that instantly conveys the idea of “Maine.” And we could lock-out would-be imposters from using it.

We have a lot of state symbols. The chickadee and white pine cone are two of the more commonly known ones and work well on our default license plate. They are worth keeping for the time being.

But making the 1901 flag an official state symbol once more makes sense. And maybe we can revisit placing it on a license plate once the nation knows a pine tree and blue star is “Maine.”

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.