FRAMINGHAM (08/02/2000) - He's the unconventional Independent governor who confounded the pundits by emerging victorious in his first bid for public office. Whizzing around the state capital on his motorcycle, he presents an incongruous, and surprisingly approachable, image for a politician. In fact, folks around the state just refer to him by his first name. Although this description also fits a particularly illustrious veteran of the WWF, we're not talking Jesse here. We mean Angus King--the full-follicled, 71st governor of Maine--and the lesser known of the nation's two Independent governors.
Long touted as "Vacationland," Maine is known largely for its lobsters, ski resorts and craggy coastline. But, since taking office in 1994, King has been on a mission to attract businesses to the state, particularly technology companies and dotcoms that have traditionally steered their jobs and money to high-tech meccas like California and Massachusetts. Recently, King has turned up the heat in his technology crusade with innovative programs like the lunch-boxes-to-laptops proposal that would give every seventh-grader in the state a laptop--for keeps.
Recently, we spoke to the second-term governor about his views on technology leadership, the challenges of growing Maine's economy and his vision for the state's future.
DARWIN: What made you realize that Maine needed to pursue technology more aggressively?
Angus King: Before running for governor, I owned and managed a small company. I couldn't afford to hire a lot of people, so I bought a Mac. The company revolved around technology, because to compete, we had to be able to do more with less.
So basically I took that private-sector experience and multiplied it by several thousand to try to do the same thing for Maine. When I came into office, there was a shortfall of money, and we had to cut the state's workforce by a thousand people--about 10 percent. To meet the needs of the public, which continue to grow, we have to increase our productivity through investments in technology.
DARWIN: What it investments have you made so far?
King: Well, when I came in, there was no e-mail in state government. We had 10,000 people, no e-mail connections and 24 different word processing programs, most of which were incompatible. In other words, we were in pretty bad shape.
Now, virtually everyone in state government, even at the remote offices, has e-mail. I just met with some people from the Department of Transportation, and they talked about how they can now submit all of their project descriptions and pictures electronically to the environmental agencies. The environmental agency can look at the pictures and the map right on their desktop and make a decision instantly. Five or 10 years ago, there was a lot of paper that went back and forth. It took longer and required more manpower.
DARWIN: Are you advocating technology because it's the right thing to do, or are citizens demanding it?
King: I was riding my motorcycle up in the northern part of Maine one day, and I stopped at a general store to get some gas. I walked in, and the lady behind the counter saw me, and the first words out of her mouth were, "Ha, the tax man!" in a kind of negative way. Then, when I finished paying for the gas, she said, "Where are you going from here?" I said, "I'm going south down the road here." She said, "Well, I hope you have a bumpy ride and maybe you'll fix the road." That sort of summarizes the dilemma of public service in the year 2000.
The public wants the road fixed, but they don't want to pay the taxes. So we've tried to reengineer a lot of what we do in order to be able to provide a higher level of customer service at the same or lower cost.
DARWIN: And how is information technology helping you do that?
King: We're just beginning with the Internet filing of income taxes, and next year it will be completely up and running. To process one paper tax return costs US$3.50. To process one Internet return costs 50 cents. I think that's probably as dramatic an example as you'll find. Plus, the Internet returns are 100 percent accurate. There is a tremendous savings down the road to that as well.
We're pursuing technology for the very same reason that business is doing it:
We have high customer demand for services and low customer tolerance for higher prices. I issued a directive at the beginning of the year that I want it to be possible for citizens to have all of their interactions with state government on the Internet by July 2001.
DARWIN: How wired is Maine presently?
King: Parts of the state have MediaOne's Road Runner service, and Portland has the highest percentage of customers using that high-speed Internet connection of any place in the country. We have about 100,000 miles of fiber-optic cable, and we were the first state in the country to have a fully digitally switched phone network. We have a fabulous telecommunications infrastructure. It is truly one of the best in the country--probably the best--and remarkable for a small state.
DARWIN: Has that telecom infrastructure helped you attract high-tech jobs to Maine?
King: I don't think we do as well as we should because most people outside of Maine think of us as vacations and lobsters. But we're working hard to dispel that image. We've got a burgeoning software industry, we've got dotcoms, and we've got some very high-powered biotech stuff going on. We have two major semiconductor manufacturers, a good telecommunications infrastructure, a fabulous quality of life and great schools.
There are some people who just plain won't leave Silicon Valley, Manhattan or Route 128 [outside of Boston]. But for everybody else, Maine is a pretty desirable location. The key to the future for Maine is that you can now work where you live instead of having to live where you work.
DARWIN: Many analysts are predicting that the next few years will bring a lot of consolidation among the dotcoms. Do you worry that you only have a limited window in which to attract such companies to Maine?
King: The decisions about where companies locate are very idiosyncratic. They depend on where the boss wants to live. In doing this for almost six years, I've learned that there's no firm predictor of what will happen. I mean, who would have said 25 years ago that the world's largest software company would be in Redmond, Wash.? Or that the biggest mail-order computer center would be in Austin, Texas? It has something to do with Bill Gates and Michael Dell. So it's hard to predict those things.
DARWIN: What kinds of high-tech jobs are you focused on attracting?
King: Let's face it, we're in the infancy of the Internet commerce business.
Nobody really knows how it's going to go. But one thing that seems to be emerging is the model of Internet plus people. You go on the Internet and look at the online catalog, but then you can connect to a real person. Five years from now everybody is going to have a little camera on their computer and you're going to be able to talk to somebody and see a real person, wherever they are. There are currently something like 15,000 people in the country engaged in customer service relating to Internet transactions, and in a year that number is going to be 70,000. It's huge growth.
The fastest-growing company in Maine started four years ago with four people and is now up to almost 2,000 people. Envision Net provides telephone technical support for online companies. It has a contract, for example, with Microsoft.
If you're on the MSN network and you have a problem--the screen freezes or you can't download--you call a number and it rings in Brunswick, Maine. Obviously we don't want only those jobs. We want the headquarters jobs and the engineering jobs and the design jobs, and I think we're going to get our share of those.
DARWIN: Many technology companies that are looking for a presence in the New England area are naturally drawn to Boston or the route 128 corridor. How do you sell Portland against Boston?
King: The availability of workforce, cost of living, housing and telecommunications infrastructure are all as good or better here than in Boston. Half the people in Boston spend all year wishing they could be in Maine for two weeks. There are 4.5 million people in the United States right now, while we're talking, who are thinking about their Maine vacation. Well, what about living here? Look at Silicon Valley, where a two-hour commute is not unheard of and a fixer-upper is $500,000. You come to Maine and you have a 20-minute commute, you can be at the ocean in 15 minutes, and you can buy a pretty nice house for $200,000. That's got to have some appeal. Last year [the Children's Rights Council] in Washington, after studying all these criteria, said that Maine was the best state in the country in which to raise a child.
DARWIN: Those are attractive selling points, but how much water does the quality-of-life argument hold with companies?
King: As I talk to businesses, the biggest thing that they look for--they don't ask about taxes, they don't ask about permits--is qualified people. That's the most attractive thing a state can offer, and what we have in Maine are just really good people. We've probably added 15,000 to 20,000 telecommunications-based jobs in the last five years--call centers, customer service and that kind of thing. And it's mostly been because of the quality of the people.
The classic story is MBNA, the Delaware credit card company. Charlie Cawley, the president, had a summer place up on the coast near Camden, and he wanted to have a little piece of his bank based up there so that he could deal with it in the summer when he was up here. Their plan was to have 70 people; they now have 4,000. They've gone into the smaller communities, like Farmington, Fort Kent, Presque Isle, and opened 200- and 300-person facilities. You look at the map and these are little tiny towns in rural areas, and that's where they're finding these wonderful people who have a great work ethic, are very pleasant, good on the telephone and intelligent. That's what we can offer.
DARWIN: How do you convince Mainers that the charm of the state and the quality of life that you evangelize about won't be disrupted by luring dotcoms and big business to the state?
King: That's a very good question. The challenge that we face is to increase the level of prosperity and opportunity without screwing up what we all love about Maine.
I've recently put a lot of emphasis on the issue of sprawl. How do we keep from losing the small-town quality, the open land and all of that? We're doing everything from buying development rights from farmers to keep the farms open, particularly near urban areas, to trying to put state office complexes downtown instead of in the suburbs. If part of our appeal is the quality of life, we don't want to ruin that very thing by not paying attention to the effects of economic growth. There is no way you can avoid it entirely. If you have more people and they make more money, they're going to start wanting things like malls and golf courses.
To say Maine will forever be charming, with small, rural towns and white churches, and won't change--I can't guarantee that. But I'm hoping that we will be able to maintain the quality of the environment. I met an old man in the campaign in 1998 who summed up what we're trying to do. He said, "What we want up here is a good place and the money to enjoy it."
DARWIN: For now, Maine does have a lot of small towns in some pretty rural locations. How are you using technology to improve educational opportunities in small-town schools?
King: This summer we'll be implementing the most advanced interactive school television system in the country. It's based upon what's called an ATM--asynchronous transfer mode--switch. It's a very fast fiber connecting every high school. The idea is for the kids at a school of 200 to be able to take an advanced chemistry, Japanese or Latin class in another high school.
It's a way of sharing resources and enriching the curriculum of a small school without closing a school and busing all the kids somewhere else.
DARWIN: Your much-publicized proposal to give every seventh-grader in the state a laptop has been criticized by some as gimmicky. What do you say to those critics?
King: First, from purely an economic development point of view, it's good for Maine to be known as a place where hot things are happening in technology.
The president of the United States, one day after I announced this initiative, happened to be making a speech in Silicon Valley to 500 executives. And in the middle of the speech he stopped and said, "Have you heard about this amazing thing they're proposing in Maine, where every seventh-grader is going to have their own laptop?" I guarantee, that's the first time in the history of Silicon Valley that the terms Maine, amazing and technology have been used in the same sentence. Businesses will pay attention to that, that's what they want. My job as a leader is to try to look out into the future, see what's necessary and then equip my people with whatever it is.
No. 2, it's a tremendously powerful learning technology, on par with the chalkboard and the pencil. The idea of being able to teach the history of Rome and go to a website to watch an archeologist excavating the catacombs in real-time--that is much more powerful than reading a book. It's a book plus! I want computers to be second nature, an integral part of learning for our people.
No. 3 is the haves and the have-nots. It's a big issue nationwide and in Maine.
We've got a lot of small towns, a lot of people whose parents didn't go to college and a relatively low number--about 20 percent--of our people have college degrees. This proposal is for every school, every kid, rich, poor, north, south, east, west, rural and urban. At a stroke, it would begin the elimination of the division between the technological haves and the have-nots.
DARWIN: How do you counter arguments that the state should be investing in books, teachers and facilities--education's more traditional needs?
King: Well, it's not an either-or situation. I think we ought to do both.
Some people make fun of my laptop proposal, saying that the kids would need umbrellas to keep their laptops dry because the roof is leaking. That's a little exaggerated. I believe that access and skills in technology [are important], and to say that we have to wait until we've fixed every leaky roof in the state really misses the point.
So much of what government does is incremental, little stuff. A business school guy once told me, "You never get ahead by keeping up with your competition."
The only way to jump ahead is to do something bold and dramatic. I saw this as a way we could do something first and give our kids something that a larger state might not be able to manage. It was a chance to really take a leap, and that's the whole idea.
I don't have the slightest doubt that what I'm proposing is going to happen all over the country. The only real question is whether Maine is going to be first or 35th.
Senior Writer Daintry Duffy went to college in Maine. And she doesn't even like lobster. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.