AUGUSTA — In a display of political solidarity with the leather-clad motorcycle set, Maine’s governor and congressional delegation joined an annual charity run that drew 10,000 bikers Sunday.
“I was amazed. I never realized how many are involved” in the annual Toys for Tots run, U.S. Rep. John Baldacci said amid the din of roaring engines from a sea of shining motorcycles filling a parking lot near the State House.
The 20,000 motorcyclists and passengers brought an estimated $200,000 worth of gifts — mostly stuffed animals — that were packed in three trucks and will be distributed by the Salvation Army to poor children across the state at Christmas.
A leather-jacketed Gov. Angus King drove a Harley-Davidson at the front of the miles-long pack that roared across Augusta. U.S. Sen. William Cohen and U.S. Rep. James Longley Jr., both Republicans, chose not to wear helmets as they were driven on motorcycles.
Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a veteran of past toy runs and longtime political ally of the motorcyclists, also turned out to speak and shake hands.
The annual run sponsored by the 20-year-old United Bikers of Maine started modestly in 1981, when about 300 bikers brought gifts to the capital. It has blossomed over the years into what Phil Reid, the group’s vice president for events, called the largest charity event in the state.
The group’s growth, organization and political activism have not escaped the attention of elected officials, who have been showing up in increasing numbers over the years for the annual run.
“I think it would tell anybody that this organization has tremendous political clout,” said Paul Vestal, a bearded, leather-wearing former state prison warden who used to preside over UBM. “The people of Maine have learned to look at motorcyclists in a whole different light.”
UBM’s strong stand against mandatory helmet laws has not as escaped the attention of members of Congress. A bill lobbied by UBM and its associate groups in other states would remove federal sanctions against states that fail to pass helmet laws.
Longley, who represents southern Maine’s 1st District, and Baldacci, whose district covers the rest of the state, support the measure.
Longley said he agrees with UBM’s view that the states should decide their own policies, and Baldacci said he resents federal “blackmailing” of the states.
King, an independent, has told UBM that he will not introduce a helmet bill in the Legislature, but will sign one if it reaches his desk. While acknowledging they are not in total agreement with the governor, UMB leaders say they respect his clarity on the issue.
King, meanwhile, has shown his support for other UBM initiatives by taking its motorcycle safety course. The governor drove a motorcycle 25 years ago, but said he wanted to freshen up his skills in the event he buys another one. He now has a permit.
Longley, whose son Matt rode in a sidecar during Sunday’s run, said he is also taking UBM’s state-approved safety course.