PORTLAND, Maine — Chris Korzen tells a story about a controversy that has smoldered in Maine for three decades and that now is flaring again, about whether to change the official state flag.
The design of the flag flying over the statehouse might not seem like the kind of thing that would stir deep passions. But it has created bitter divisions in this state.
Korzen says he took the ferry one day to Peaks Island, a quaint little outpost three miles off the coast of Portland.
He walked into the American Legion post there and someone recognized him as a co-owner of the Maine Flag Company, which sells a lot of the proposed new flags.
“One of the bar patrons, a woman, heard who I was and what I did,” he recalled. “I thought she was going to crack me over the head with her bottle. She said, ‘My family’s been here for 200 years and fishing these waters for generations, and you want to just erase that.’ At that moment, I realized this isn’t just about a flag. This is about people’s identities.”
It’s actually even bigger than that. It’s about the identity of Maine itself. Of all states, Maine has long stood out as knowing exactly what it is. It’s lobster and fishing, it’s logging, farming, and self-reliance. But the state is undergoing rapid, fundamental changes, so much so that almost all of that now seems to be up for debate.
“For multi-generational Mainers, the state is becoming increasingly unrecognizable,” said Jill Goldthwait, a former independent state senator and town councilor in Bar Harbor.
Consider some of these factors:
Climate change is rapidly warming the waters of the Gulf of Maine, pushing lobster further and further north and endangering the once abundant fisheries of Georges Banks. Federal regulators are imposing strict limits. It has forced the state to confront a possible future when fishing is no longer one of its main economic forces.
Meanwhile, a housing crisis was made worse by pandemic refugee home buyers and those who have turned year-round homes into vacation rentals. Between 2020 and 2022, an estimated 34,000 people moved to Maine, many of them young, so that the state’s median age was the only one in the nation to drop from 2020 to 2021, according to state records.
The influx has caused tension, particularly among those who see it as skewing the balance of power. Mainers refer to non-natives as “from away.” And there’s growing sentiment that those from away hold too much sway. Maine is the nation’s most rural state, with half of its land mass uninhabited, but urban areas like Portland have a disproportionate amount of influence in the Legislature.
Ever-growing tourism is also adding to a sense that Maine is less hospitable to long-time Mainers. The state relies on tourism, which provided 150,000 jobs and contributed $5.6 billion to Maine households in 2022, but year-round residents are frustrated by summer influxes that bring Boston-like traffic to small towns.
Enter the flag debate, a proxy war between those who worry about fading traditions and those who are not aware of or invested in them.
In principle, the flags aren’t all that different. The current one is blue (the same blue as the US flag) and emblazoned with the state’s seal, a pine tree flanked by a farmer leaning on a scythe and a mariner leaning on an anchor. A moose rests below it, a star shines above. The proposed new flag is actually the state’s original flag, used from 1901-1909. On a field of white, it is a simpler, more graphical version of a pine tree and a blue star. The moose, seaman, and farmer are absent. And that seems to be the root of much of the controversy.
It embodies longstanding tension in the state between the urban south and rural north, where fishing and agriculture are ways of life.
“There are two Maines: north and south,” said Goldthwait, the former state senator. “People live different lives. Just the distance you have to travel for health care or household items in rural Maine is a different life than Portland. A lot of people in the Portland area have never been to northern Maine.”
Goldthwait notes the state’s politics reflect the divide, with the southern part of the state being more liberal and Democratic while the mostly rural north conservative and Republican.
That tension has grown in recent years, just as controversy over the flag. There have been at least four previous legislative attempts to change the flag dating back more than 30 years, all unsuccessful. But the issue has taken on a much higher profile this time around, with a bill that would let voters decide with a November referendum now on Governor Janet Mills’ desk. Mills has not indicated support or opposition, yet.
How Mainers view the two flags reveals a lot about how they see themselves. Those who want to keep the current flag bristle at what they see as a lack of respect for tradition, while those who want to replace it talk approvingly about a Maine that has become more open to change in recent years.
Historical records give no clear reason why the original flag was replaced in 1909. Some historians theorize that Civil War veterans, who dominated the Legislature at the time, wanted a state flag that more resembled the battle flags they fought under for the Union.
Critics now say the current flag looks too much like other state flags, especially Vermont’s, displaying a state seal that was meant to be emblazoned on state documents, not the flag. They dismiss flags like Maine’s as SOBs — seals on bedsheets — and believe the 1901 flag is a simpler, distinctive, and more memorable design.
State Representative Sean Paulhus, a Democrat from Bath who filed the bill to change the flag back to the original, said he understands the reservations of those who oppose changing flags, but believes, if given the choice, most Mainers would prefer the proposed new one.
“This is about restoring the original state flag,” he said. “It’s not about getting rid of the state seal.”
That isn’t how Grace Drummond sees it. Drummond, who is part of four generations that have run the Sea Rose, a small inn overlooking Casco Bay in Cape Elizabeth, is adamantly opposed to changing flags.
“It’s too simplistic,” she said of the original 1901 flag. “It doesn’t signify anything about Maine.”
But that’s not the whole reason she’s against it.
“They want to take the farmer and the fisherman off the flag, to disappear them, and to me that’s like what’s been done to the lobstermen and the fishermen in real life, over-regulating them and making it harder if not impossible to make a living,” she said. “This is just more people with too much time on their hands trying to change the traditions in Maine.”
While there has been no polling to measure support among voters, both supporters and opponents of changing the flag agree that younger people are more open to the idea of replacing the current flag with the original one.
And they seem to be helping to fuel its rising popularity. Korzen and his business partner, Bethany Field, say they have sold more than 9,000 of the flags in the last five years. Last year alone, under their Original Maine brand, they sold more than 30,000 hats and shirts with the original flag image on them.
Even so, it was a close fight in the Legislature. The bill filed by Paulhus cleared the House in early June by a narrow 66-64 vote, after five Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing it.
It received bipartisan support in the Senate only after Senator Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican, attached an amendment that would put the question to voters in a referendum. It passed 22-12.
The House then voted 75-63 to put it to voters.
Billy Bob Faulkingham, the Republican House leader from Winter Harbor, led the opposition. He has worked as a lobster fisherman since leaving the Marine Corps in 2002 and thinks changing flags is “disrespectful to so many people who have built the state.”
“Our history is tied to the sea,” he said. “You can’t just ignore that.”
Field and Korzen are glad the decision will be made by voters, as is Paulhus, believing the outcome will have more legitimacy than if it was just left to legislators.
Neither Field nor Korzen will venture a guess on which way the vote will go, if it comes to that.
“We’re neutral on this,” Korzen said. “It shouldn’t be divisive.”
But it is. Field believes most of her relatives in Auburn, where she grew up, will oppose it.
The decision to create the current flag, and its design, was carried out by legislative fiat, at a time when many other states were putting their state seals on their flags.
This time it will be different.
“Let the people decide,” Field said.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.