Mike Sylvester worked for over twenty years as a labor organizer, helping low income workers throughout the country build bargaining units and negotiate contracts. He lives on Peak’s Island with his wife and three boys and currently works as the owner-operator of Mike’s Carts, a golf cart rental business serving visitors to the island. As the sun set on Memorial Day, we hung out at a picnic table by the carts, looking out over the waterfront, and discussed Mike’s run to be the next State House representative for Munjoy Hill, East Bayside and Downtown.
Rob: So, you live out here on Peak’s? How’s that?
Mike: It’s all good! Several times a month everyone will sort of spontaneously show up somewhere. We’re all too old for debauchery, haha, but, you know, the kids play down on the beach and you get to connect with everybody.
In the summer, we get sort of inundated with the tourists, and we all go our own ways. Before we opened the cart rental where the tourists were actually helpful to our situation, the kids would always complain, and I’d say, “Well, we could live somewhere that nobody wants to go!”
I grew up in Lewiston. We didn’t see a lot of tourism in the eighties in the Lewiston I lived in.
Rob: Tourism creates lots of jobs, but most of them aren’t very good. What are your thoughts about it?
Mike: Well, in New York, it used to be the case that if you were a restaurant worker in a union place, you’d make great money. The tourists are going to pay regardless of whether dinner costs $150 or $157.
Rob: What do you think about the argument you hear all the time from small restaurant owners that if they had to raise wages, they couldn’t possibly make money?
Mike: It’s a spurious argument. It’s always been untrue. But I don’t think they’re being disingenuous. I totally believe that they believe it. I have no question about that at all. It’s incredible. Industry propaganda comes out in every industry, but especially in hotels and restaurants. You just get indoctrinated over and over again.
Rob: That kind of indoctrination is a powerful force, though, especially in a citizen legislature like Augusta. How do you break through that? How do you win?
Mike: We win by having our facts straight. Having the right people talking. I push people when they need to get pushed, and I’m always happy to give other people the credit for doing something courageous. That’s my job. I’m a systems guy. I’ve been a politician for about two months, and an activist for over twenty years.
When I was working as a union organizer, I’d always sit down with the employers, no matter how egregious they were, and I’d try to figure out what they were trying to achieve as a business.
It’s the conspiracy of the bottom line. Most of the time, these legislators aren’t thinking about the big picture. They aren’t twiddling their mustaches trying to figure out how to tie homeless people to the rails. They care about being elected next time and doing the things that will make folks in their town happy with them.
Rob: But how do we get the folks in those towns to care? Most people are so detached from politics?
Mike: Look at the people who really pushed India Street over the top. They were just people. They weren’t known for stepping up and speaking. Here was a coalescing issue where normal people on the street thought it was a crappy idea to close this clinic and were willing to go and march on a Sunday and show up at the City Council to say, “I’m opposed to it!”
There’s no point in me going through all the sacrifice that our family’s going to have to go through to do this and just working on incremental changes.
I want to ban groundwater sales and leases. I want to inventory all the pipes. I want to let citizens who are sitting under these agreements vote on whether or not they want to nullify their contracts. The people are out there who care about this.
Rob: Do you think your job as a state legislator today is different than it would have been twenty years ago?
Mike: The way I look at it, in 1997, you could be a good Democrat and run because you’re a good person, and you want to do the right thing. And you could go and make the right votes and be seen as a real progressive because you voted down the anti-gay legislation and you voted to give money to the Natural Resources Council.
Today, we’re at a time where the income disparity is so stark. And the generational disparity is so stark. You have to choose a side.
You are either for people who have addictions, people who are HIV positive, people who are homeless, or you don’t want them in this city. There’s points where you have to pick one of those sides. And whether you pick one or not, you’re going to get put down on one.
Even if I’m the person coming and buying that $500,000 condo overlooking the brewery or whatever, I still want to have a stable neighborhood. I don’t want a neighborhood where my neighbors are moving in and out every six months because they can’t afford the rent. I want a sense of community in a way that Portland used to have, particularly my district on Munjoy Hill, where everyone knew all the characters.
It’s like that on the island. We have tons of people who are just characters, but they’re island, and we support them. They go through their troubles. They have their ups and their downs. We celebrate. And we help out when we have to.
Rob: How will you remain in touch with your constituents once you’re elected? How do you plan to keep people engaged?
Mike: So, the traditional model is that, if I win, I won’t talk to voters for another two years until I come around again and tell them what I did. But I’ve been going around and meeting all of these great people, and I’m hearing all of these great ideas!
I’ve promised people that I’ll be back to find out what they think when there’s stuff happening. We’ll go to St. Lawrence, and we’ll have a community meeting about what bills are coming up. Wouldn’t that be sweet? Imagine this, the folks from the Eastern Prom are sitting with the folks from upper Bayside with very different problems but also problem-solving on the same issues. That’s my vision.
There’s so many seats turning over because of term limits. There’s all these new Democrats coming in. And they don’t have a sense of how it’s supposed to work, how you’re supposed to do all these things behind closed doors.
I want to get people really talking to each other. I won’t just sit around waiting for a bill to come up, and then see if anybody in my district tells me they care about it? Nobody? Then I guess it doesn’t matter here!
Rob: How did you get into activism?
Mike: My mom worked at Bates. She was a secretary in the Admissions Office, and I would hang out in the library waiting for her to get out of work. I would meet all these guys who would turn me onto all these books. Oh, you’ve got to read Howard Zinn!
I was a book radical. I would hang out with my sister, who’s four years older, and she had friends who were political and turned me onto punk rock music, but as poor as I was, I didn’t make that class jump to the fact that they were talking about me.
My mom never made more than $20,000 in her peak year. We lived in Little Canada and then managed to get a house because her husband at the time had a VA loan. We didn’t have a car lots of times. Lots of skimpy meals. We were dirt poor, and that’s how I grew up.
How I became radicalized had nothing to do with class politics. It had to do with my cousin Kevin. He was a year older than me, and when I was 11 and he was 12, he told me he was gay. We were Catholic in Lewiston in the eighties. Not the most popular thing to be.
Kevin was in one of the first waves of people who caught AIDS, just as I was going to college. All of a sudden, it was incredibly personal. He was living down in Ogunquit at the time, and I didn’t find out that he was sick or that he was dying until the last hours. The family didn’t want to tell me because it was embarrassing. That just incredibly angered me.
So I went down to New York City for a big AIDS rally, and I met these guys who were standing there with a sign saying, “We need a token straight guy.” So, I walked up and volunteered. They literally dressed me up as a subway token, and they’d roll me in, and I would do my little speech, and then they’d roll me back out. We did it once or twice a month in different neighborhoods in New York City. We became a little family. They just let me in.
This put a face on my anger. Here were guys who were dying because Reagan couldn’t say the words. Because the government couldn’t put money into research. It’s like suddenly, this in the book, oh, these are the guys, who are being oppressed, left out, marginalized and allowed to die because the top 1% are pretending they don’t exist! So that is really when I start becoming a real activist.
I was the first man to graduate with a Gender Studies degree at Bard, partly because I just took all the classes that were Gender Studies and realized I was one class away. Senior year, I’m trying to figure out what does the Lacanian mirror theory mean in real life, and my professors didn’t want to talk about that.
These are important ideas. Why wouldn’t they mean something to real people? We would argue about it endlessly. And that’s when I was like, academia? Not for me! I got into grad schools, and I turned them all down. And I said, I’m going to go organize nursing homes in West Virginia!
Rob: Fast forward twenty years, and you’re now an experienced labor leader with a couple decades of hard-hitting organizing work under your belt. That’s a lot of history to go through, but I’m curious what a typical week would look like when you were organizing workers in Boston and living out here on Peak’s?
Mike: At my pace, a lot of it was driving. I’d get up at 6:15. Hop into town. Jump either on the bus if I had writing to do or stuff to read, or I’d jump in my car. Then I’d work until midnight. I had a place down there. I’d go to sleep. Get back up at six. Do it again the next day and then drive home, do a day here. And then do it again. And then another two days down in Boston. So, when I was there, I would put in 16, 17 hour days.
Rob: Eventually you left Boston for an organizing job that ended up not panning out here in Maine. What led to you opening the golf cart rental business?
Mike: So, I’d been working 20 years, 80 hours a week, and I decided, I’m going to hang out on the island and enjoy some life! I took the risk. Dug into my retirement. We now have 15 golf carts, and they’re all out all day.
My sons work with me. It’s great. They get to see my work ethic. When I was organizing, they’d come on the marches, but they never get to see me negotiating a contract, or any of the really great moments in my career.
My wife is a labor organizer, but we can shut it off. We tell each other what’s happened and give each other advice. Then it’s done, and we can go back to talking about what flowers she’s going to put in the garden.
Rob: Any final words? How do you remain hopeful? The State House is such an imposing thing to take on?
Mike: When I was working on the Bernie campaign this spring, I met a bunch of younger folks who hadn’t come into my orbit when I worked in the union, and I was struck by just their hopelessness and stark reality.
I think growing up in the eighties, even as horrible as Ronald Reagan was, he gave you a sense that there was hope. You could work hard and get out. That dream was still alive. It never occurred to me that I was going to be a failure, that I was going to do everything right and it still wouldn’t work out.
Out of 500 kids in my class at Lewiston High, five us went onto college out of state. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how I got out when others who were smarter or got better grades never did.
I’ve always got these crazy situations that I was supposed to lose, where the job was just to figure out how to lose less. But you just break it down into those little manageable hills. My bosses would always ask me what we were going to do. And I’d say, we’re going to win!
When you’re speaking and somebody’s actually listening, it’s a great feeling.