AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine elects a governor every four years—our state constitution requires it. The timing is predictable, even if the outcome of the election typically is not.
But 1959 was very different.
Through political decisions, chance and tragedy, that was the year Maine had four governors.
The string of events began with the 1958 elections. Incumbent Gov. Ed Muskie was elected to the U.S. Senate and chose to leave the governor’s office a few days early to get a jump on Senate seniority.
He stepped down on Jan. 2, 1959, and under Maine’s constitution, state Senate President Robert Haskell became governor. Muskie was a Democrat, and Haskell, also the president of Bangor Hydro Electric was a Republican.
That party distinction made little difference because Haskell was only governor for six days. At that point, he was replaced by Democrat Clinton Clauson, who had been elected in November but had to wait until Jan. 7th to be inaugurated. The oath of office was administered by the new Senate President, Sen. John Reed of Fort Fairfield.
Clauson was Maine's first Governor elected to a four-year term. Prior to that, the term was just two years.
The Maine State House returned to normal after Clauson took office, and the Democratic governor and Republican Legislature worked through the budget and other issues.
But 1959 wasn’t over yet, and Maine was to receive a shock. Early in the morning on Dec. 30, Clauson died.
Maine attorney and former Democratic Party chairman Harold Pachios was working for President Lyndon B. Johnson a few years later and became friends with Jeb Byrne, who had been Clauson’s press secretary.
“Jeb lived in the house next to the Blaine House,” Pachios explained, saying the governor’s housekeeper called Byrne for help after discovering Clauson unresponsive in his bedroom.
“And they got the doctor and the state police, and then he said, 'I was kind of in charge.' Jeb Byrne said ‘I called Jon Reed [and] said he was at his home in Fort Fairfield. Got him on the phone. It was nighttime, and he knew it was a big problem. And he said, 'Senator, you are now the governor. The governor has died."
Years later, John Reed told the story to NEWS CENTER Maine reporter Bill Green.
“I got a call from Jeb Byrne, his press secretary. This was 4:30 in the morning, and at that hour, you know it's something serious. The governor has died. “
Reed, a potato farmer, recalled how his plans were dramatically altered.
“I was going to get up at 5:30 to load a carload of potatoes. Everything changed. I was picked up by a state trooper that morning, and I was sworn in that night.”
Reed, who as the senate president, had sworn Clauson in less than a year before, became Maine’s new governor—the fourth person to hold that office in 12 months.
Clauson had been a Democrat. Reed was a Republican. That meant party control of the Blaine House shifted again. Former secretary of state and Sen. Bill Diamond, who said he was in grade school in 1959, wonders if all that turmoil and change caused political strife.
“I think it would upset state government, no doubt [cause] turmoil back then. But if that happened today, it would be unbelievable how dysfunctional it would become.”
Pachios, however, thinks the changes might have gone more smoothly.
“State government… was a lot different in those days. The politicians in both parties thought their job was to get things done that were positive for people. I don’t think it was disruptive as opposed to what would happen in this day and age. If you had somebody taking over from a different party.”
Reed would go on to fill out Clauson’s four-year term. Then, he was elected to a term of his own. He ran for re-election in 1966 but lost to Democrat Ken Curtis.
The year 1959 remains a relatively little-known footnote to Maine history and seems unlikely to be repeated. It was the year Maine’s constitutional line of succession was put to the test, the year the Pine Tree State had four governors.