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'That Sealed The Deal' — Trump Hopes Attention Paid To Lobster Industry Will Win An Electoral Vote

Patrick Semansky
Associated Press
President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion with commercial fishermen at Bangor International Airport in Bangor, Maine, Friday, June 5, 2020.

When a Maine lobsterman spoke to support President Donald Trump’s re-nomination at Tuesday’s Republican National Convention, it capped a monthslong courtship of the industry by the president.

Political observers say that by identifying himself with the iconic, independent lobster harvester, Trump could burnish his image as a fighter for the beleaguered working class, and maybe also bolster his chances of winning a key electoral vote from Maine’s red-leaning 2nd Congressional District.

When President Trump sat down with fishermen at the Bangor airport in June, he promised several actions to shore up the seafood industry. That included trying to lower European tariffs on American lobster that put Maine boats at a competitive disadvantage with their Canadian counterparts.

“So Canada doesn’t pay a tariff for the same exact lobster in the same waters, but we pay a tariff. If the European Union doesn’t drop that tariff immediately, we’re going to put a tariff on their cars which will be equivalent,” he said. “Watch how fast that tariff comes off, all right? Watch how fast.”

Last week, Trump delivered. U.S. and EU trade negotiators announced a deal that if ratified would end the tariffs on lobster sold to member countries, which the president cheered Tuesday on Twitter.

That agreement could boost Maine’s lobster sales to Europe by tens of millions of dollars. And the Trump administration gave the industry another lift last week: a delay in pending pollution requirements that otherwise would force costly and technologically challenging retrofits for big diesel-powered lobster boats.

“The fishermen up here in New England and hopefully particularly in Maine do need this attention, do need help from time to time. We don’t ask for it daily,” says lobsterman John Drouin.

Drouin says during four decades hauling traps off Cutler, he has never seen so much direct attention from a president. In addition to the tariff and pollution efforts, he notes that Trump also has reversed unpopular fishing restrictions President Barack Obama imposed at an underwater monument off Cape Cod, and promised pandemic-related aid for lobstermen on par with what farmers have received — although those funds have yet to materialize.

Drouin says he voted for Trump in 2016, and while the president’s subsequent trade war with China damaged lobster sales to China, his more recent actions have guaranteed broad support from the Down East fishing industry this year.

“In my community I think that sealed the deal for him,” he says.

Maine’s lobster landings are split roughly evenly between its two congressional districts. But the industry’s economic and cultural footprint is large in the relatively sparse 2nd District, which Trump won by 10 percentage points in 2016.

Under Maine’s unique presidential voting system, three of its four electoral votes went to Hillary Clinton that year. But Trump’s majority in the 2nd District earned him one electoral vote. Political observers say he’s angling to pull that off again.

Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, says the president’s concrete actions might indeed sway some undecided lobstermen his way, but is likely to have an effect on the entire district.

“I think it also sends a message to the larger 2nd District as a whole. I mean the 2nd Congressional District in Maine is heavily reliant on extraction of natural resources. It doesn’t take a very big stretch of the imagination to imagine a logger saying, ‘You know, Trump is having some affinity for the lobstermen — he’s good for lobstermen, he’s good for me, too,’” he says.

And that’s a message, Brewer says, that could resonate with Trump’s base nationwide as well — explaining why Swan’s Island lobsterman Jason Joyce was invited to speak at the GOP’s national convention.

“The kind of independent, hardworking, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American who’s been forgotten, according to Trump, by Democrats and these coastal elites,” he says, “and he’s got their back and he hopes they have his.”

Brewer adds, though, that it will be tough for Trump to rack up as big a win in the district against Biden as he did against Clinton. He says Biden is seen as more centrist and less radical than Clinton was, and that many people have soured on his brash, chaotic style of governance.

That’s true for Drouin. He says despite the efforts Trump has made on the lobster industry’s behalf, he’s not sure if he’ll vote for him again. Drouin says he holds Trump’s divisive rhetoric responsible for the country’s divisions.

“It’s one thing if people are standing down by the wharf and whatnot — people are rough around the edges,” Drouin says. “But I don’t think that’s how our leaders should be.”

Some in the industry say Trump’s actions so far are helpful mostly for dealers and large offshore trawlers, but don’t really affect average fishermen on the water. They say the most meaningful commitment Trump — or Democrat Joe Biden, for that matter — could make would be to intervene on their behalf in the ongoing dispute over whether the fishery threatens endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Updated 6:02 a.m. Aug. 26, 2020.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.