This article originally appeared in the SunJournal.
WILTON — As he walked in the rain during the Wilton Blueberry Festival last month, trailing along behind the revving engines of little Kora Karts zigzagging through puddles, Republican state Sen. Tom Saviello joked that he’d probably get pneumonia.
But, he said, it was worth it to plug the congressional campaign of Democrat Jared Golden.
As the two soggy men walked along the parade route, Saviello hauled the Lewiston state representative from one group of dripping constituents to the next to make sure they knew he preferred Golden to the GOP incumbent, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who has represented the sprawling 2nd District in Congress for two terms.
For Saviello, the choice came down to a few simple points, especially Golden’s decision to quit college after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sign up for the U.S. Marine Corps. Saviello said he’s also “very disappointed” that Poliquin voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and voted in favor of a big tax cut for America’s wealthiest companies and people.
But there wasn’t time to talk policy as Golden shook hands with the hardy souls who lined the parade route, the culmination of a long morning that began at 6 a.m. when the candidate started grilling a serious pile of bacon for a blueberry pancake fundraiser sponsored by the Wilton Lions Club.
The 36-year-old Golden only had time for a quick handshake or a big grin as he tried to keep up with the carts circling incessantly.
A quarter-mile or so ahead of him, Poliquin, too, waved to the crowd, not quite close enough to see but perhaps within shouting distance — an easy metaphor for a race that’s come to be seen as a bellwether contest for the nation, a swing seat that Democrats hope to pick up on Nov. 6 with a bit of luck and some hard work.
Also in the running are Will Hoar and Tiffany Bond, both independents.
For Golden, the rainy parade in Wilton was just another day on the campaign trail — wetter than most, to be sure — that has taken him to a buckwheat farm in Aroostook County, a Down East lobster boat and scores of other places where Mainers struggle to eke out a living.
As he talks to Mainers in his quest for votes, he’s not a glib glad-hander. There’s a reserve to him, an unwillingness to go along with the political playbook, which has frustrated some.
Golden said he learned long ago to focus on the mission and not to worry unduly about the little things along the way.
Anyone can see at a glance that he’s different from the norm. Most apparent, Golden has many tattoos that he’s proud to show off, which may be common among his constituents but not in the halls of Congress.
A lot of them are about nature, he said, pointing out a sun, a moon, a tree and more. There’s a Celtic cross and a “devil dog” that represents his unit in the Marines.
And on his right forearm is a colorful Jesus that he said gives him comfort, though his family has never been especially religious.
“I kind of found that on my own,” Golden said. “I’m just a spiritual person. It’s important to me.”
It’s a way, he said, “to remind myself to try to walk the walk.”
GROWING UP ON A GOLF COURSE
When most people think of a golf course, they imagine famed athletes or powerful men in a posh surrounding that caters to the elite.
For Golden, though, it just seems like home.
He grew up on a family-owned, public course in Leeds — Springbrook Golf Club — where the atmosphere is casual and the labor unending. It’s a friendly place that’s anything but swanky.
“This place operates on a shoestring,” Golden said.
His mother, Jeannine Golden, has worked at the course she now co-owns since she was 14, half a century ago. His father, Joe Golden, has devoted much of his life, too, to the course that has provided the family’s livelihood for decades.
“It’s mom and pop,” Joe Golden said. “It’s a dinosaur, really.”
They divvy up the work, with Jeannine overseeing the pro shop and small restaurant inside an impressive post-and-beam former dairy barn while her husband handles the course itself.
Golden’s father said his three children — Seth, Ashley and Jared, the youngest — have always chipped in, often logging long hours. But Golden said his folks work more than anyone.
He compared its operation to a farm, a more familiar business to Mainers, because its demands are so incessant. He pointed out the need to mow daily with equipment older than he is and to operate an irrigation system that depends on an old firetruck to pump water from a brook to keep up the greens.
For much of his life, Golden has been doing “a lot of the grunt work” outside, including raking sand traps and whacking weeds. “If it grows, it goes,” Golden said, and is one trick to keeping the place looking sharp.
He’s seen enough to know it’s a tough business with a short season and many variables nobody can control that make the difference between profit and hardship.
It’s been his parents’ life, he said, and one reason he picked up good values growing up. To keep the place afloat, Golden said, he’s seen his parents pass up cashing their own paychecks when money was short.
Joe Golden said Jared — the “most laid back” of his children — was a solid but not outstanding student who stood out in part because he had “a good ability to communicate with people,” spurred by a rare talent for listening to what others had to say.
His mother said it may have something to do with an innovative school system when Jared was young that put him in classes that spanned three grades and kept him with the same teacher for three grades in a row — teaching him to deal easily with older and younger classmates.
Jared also got along well with the golfers who were often around, she said, recalling how her son would be waiting outside in the parking lot for the school bus to come, chatting away with adults heading for the links.
She said one member noted his absence one day, asking her, “Where’s that little kid who loves to talk baseball?”
Both parents mentioned that Jared would spend hours throwing a tennis ball against the interior side of the barn, catching it in his baseball glove before tossing it again.
Jared proved a “very athletic” youngster who loved team sports such as baseball, soccer, football and basketball, his father said. He’s not much of a golfer, however.
LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD MEN
During his senior year of high school, Golden said he thought about joining the military, interested in part by the knowledge that both of his grandfathers had served.
Seeing “Saving Private Ryan,” a graphic film about World War II soldiers on a dangerous mission after D-Day in France, also “had a big impact” on him, Golden said. Eyeing the big screen combat, he said he felt like, “I wanted to do that.”
Golden said, though, his parents opposed the idea.
Because his family had always emphasized the necessity of a college education, he decided to become a history teacher and headed for the University of Maine at Farmington.
Golden said he wasn’t the world’s greatest student, earning decent grades but not participating in the academic scene. He said he felt as if he was wasting money his parents couldn’t afford to pay.
So in the fall of 2002, he began talking to recruiters from the Marine Corps.
He secretly went away on weekends with them, and by October he signed up as a new recruit. Golden said he kept silent about his plans until a week before he had to depart for boot camp that December.
His parents knew nothing.
“I came home and just dropped it on them,” Golden said.
His father said his son simply declared, “I’ve joined the Marines.”
“We were caught completely off-guard,” his father said. “It just completely floored us.”
Golden told his parents he’d chosen to join the infantry rather than something that might prove safer.
“Why would you do that?” Joe Golden asked his son.
The young man answered, as if it was obvious, “Why would I join the Marines?”
Golden said he wanted to serve his country and do his part in cracking down on the people responsible for the slaughter on 9/11.
Joe Golden remembered that he could barely sit behind the wheel when he drove his son to catch a bus to Portland, where Jared had to report for a physical.
“It was so upsetting,” Joe Golden said.
Golden’s mother said when her son went off to boot camp, “I walked and walked and walked and cried and cried and cried.”
“Coming out of the ’60s,” Jeannine Golden said, “you didn’t want to see people going off to war” because too many of them didn’t come back.
Scared as she was for him, she said, she also felt “very proud” that he wanted to serve.
A MARINE IN AFGHANISTAN
Looking back, Golden said, boot camp at Parris Island was pretty easy — though he didn’t think so at the time — yet also eye-opening.
“It was the first time I was exposed to people from away,” he said. “I came from a small town. I thought Farmington was big.”
At boot camp he was thrown in with guys from the Bronx, Georgia, Boston, Philadelphia and even farther. There were men from Mexico, Ireland, Haiti and Russia at his side, hoping to become U.S. citizens by serving in the nation’s military.
Golden was the only one from Maine.
His training taught him to specialize in anti-armor warfare as well as low-level explosives and breaching doors, which meant he carried a rocket launcher, an M16 assault rifle and explosives, sometimes weighing as m
uch as 100 pounds.
He wound up in the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marines — an experienced unit that was sent in the spring of 2004 to Kumar Province in Eastern Afghanistan. A helicopter hauled them to a base about a mile from the Pakistan border in the Hindu Kush range.
Golden ended up on a mountaintop with four other Marines, helping to protect a unit of Green Berets engaged in the search for Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind of the 9/11 attack.
“By nightfall,” Golden said, “I was sitting in a fighting hole” on a pitch-dark mountain about as far from home as he could get.
to Afghanistan,” he thought.
Golden said that once evening slips away, a mountain “is a very scary place. You look forward to the sun coming up.”
The first time in combat, he said, “we got hit at night,” when he couldn’t see anybody, just an occasional flash somewhere.
“We were shooting basically in all directions,” Golden said, d
etermined to defend themselves.
Much of the time, things were dull, but not always.
Golden recalled a night when he crawled out to the perimeter to move Claymore mines around and discovered when he reached for one that it wasn’t there anymore. Somebody had cut the wire and taken it.
“He had to be close,” Golden said, which was not a pleasant feeling.
Perhaps the most frightening moment came on Oct. 9, 2004, when Golden sat in a 5-ton truck with fellow Marines on the day of Afghanistan’s first presidential election, an event that had eager Afghans lining up to vote.
Golden said his unit got hit by a roadside bomb.
What was it like? “Loud. Fast. Smoke everywhere. Ears ring a little bit.”
He said he jumped up and told everyone to get out of the truck and secure the perimeter in case the enemy struck again.
Golden said he “didn’t have a scratch” from the explosion but suddenly heard someone yelling in pain. He recognized the voice and climbed back into the truck to a buddy who’d taken a bunch of wood fragments in his eyes.
Golden cut his clothes off searching for any other wounds and making sure his friend got medical aid. When they whisked the man away, he thought his pal would wind up blind. But surgeons saved his eyes and the fellow later deployed again.
The unit returned to the United States in December 2004 and then shipped out again the following summer to the Al-Anbar province in Iraq, a Sunni stronghold that stretches west from Baghdad to the Syrian and Jordanian borders.
Golden said the unit encountered a lot of mortar attacks, roadside bombs and suicide missions. They rarely saw the enemy — usually a fleeting glimpse down a long alley.
He said he didn’t feel much when he fired on them. “I didn’t take it personal,” Golden said. “But there was no question in my mind who’s going down” if there’s a confrontation.
He remembered a session his commander had with village elders who told the Americans they appreciated the United States’ role in ousting Saddam Hussein. But, they asked, “Why are you still here?”
Another time, Golden said, he visited a school and while students went about their lessons he could hear mortar blasts in the distance.
“This isn’t like America,” he remembered thinking.
When political people mention that the campaign for Congress is akin to war, Joe Golden said they’re off the mark.
For his son, he said, “This is no war.”
Golden’s father took a folded sheet of paper from his wallet — a battlefield commendation from the unit’s commanding officer in Iraq, Julian Alford, who today commands Camp Lejeune as a brigadier general.
Alford awarded Golden a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal in 2005 for superior performance during Operation Steel Curtain.
Golden, a corporal, “led his Marines in advance of the platoon, clearing the path of possible improvised explosive devices or mines and gaining an initial foothold into the city of Husaybah,” according to the commendation.
“Once the foothold was established, his squad continued to move house-to-house, searching for weapons or ammunition caches, as well as establishing positions on rooftops to allow his fellow Marines to breach numerous courtyards and buildings, ultimately clearing those structures of insurgents and foreign fighters.”
Golden said he never doubted the need to go into Afghanistan and chase the al-Qaida leaders who had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But he wasn’t so sure about Iraq, which struck him as diverting attention from the real enemies of America.
He said most of the Marines he served with probably disagreed with him, but it didn’t come up much.
“We didn’t talk politics a lot,” Golden said.
In 2006, the unit came home, to the relief of his parents, who said they could hardly sleep during their son’s two combat tours, always worried that men in uniform would show up at their door with unwelcome news.
Some parents of men he served with weren’t so lucky.
It’s one reason Golden got the tattoo of Jesus between his combat tours, a symbol of faith and a reminder, as he put it, that, “If you believe in something, you should be willing to die for it.”
HARDSHIPS AT HOME AFTER SEEING COMBAT
After returning from Iraq, Golden began having bad dreams and felt startled by commonplace sounds.
He said that like many veterans, he didn’t always handle it well.
For example, Golden said, he attended a going-away gathering for a sergeant, where he had a few drinks. Driving away, he approached a checkpoint with police officers looking for drunk drivers.
Golden said he talked to a sheriff there who thought he seemed fine — an assessment Golden shared — but a state trooper insisted on a Breathalyzer test.
Golden blew 0.09, more than the legal limit, and was arrested.
“I remember being devastated,” Golden said. And he was mad at himself, he added, because even though “I felt strongly I was not drunk,” he recognized that he should never have gotten behind the wheel that night.
At trial, Golden said, the verdict came down that he was not guilty.
But, he said, “it was a failure of leadership” to put himself in a position where his character and his judgment could be questioned. It still stings.
When he returned to the civilian world not long after, Golden headed to Maine, uncertain of his future.
He wasn’t quite the guy he’d been when he left.
Joe Golden said his son was “kind of floundering.”
He recalled a trip up to Augusta with his son driving, “his eyes going back and forth, scanning the road,” the sort of hyper-vigilance needed in Iraq and Afghanistan but a little much for rural Maine.
After taking a test, Golden received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs that let him know he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress from his wartime service, a concern he has spent years dealing with.
At first, Golden took a low-wage job at a motor home sales center — and soon began working nights and weekends at two other jobs so he could get by.
Golden said the money was so tight in those days that he barely had enough to eat.
Some days, he said, he made do with a piece of bread for lunch, or skipped the meal entirely to stretch his budget a bit further.
He helped make pizza at one of those part-time positions, working for George’s Pizza in Auburn, a spot he’d come to know when his Leavitt Area High School’s football team packed the place.
Its manager, George Stamboules Jr., said that even back in high school, Golden was “a very likable” guy and they got to be friends.
So he was happy to provide a little job to Golden when he returned from the military and “was trying to get his bearings straight.”
Stamboules said Golden mentioned that he wished he could go to Bates College but doubted he had the credentials to get in. As it happened, the longtime admissions dean at the elite college, Bill Hiss, was a regular at the shop.
Hiss recounted that one Friday night, when he stopped to pick up a pizza, Stamboules mentioned Golden’s interest. Hiss asked if he could meet the young man.
“Out came Jared with his big, honking tattoo for the Marine Corps and literally wiping sauce off himself” as he walked out of the kitchen, Hiss said.
A few days later, they met again at Bates and Hiss heard what he thought was a “pretty astonishing” story about Golden’s background. He wound up writing a recommendation letter for the aspiring Bobcat.
After reading tens of thousands of recommendation letters over the years, Hiss said he knew just what to say. He said he figured there is “nothing like four years in the Marine Corps to help you focus” and had no hesitation telling his colleagues “to grab him. He will be a star.”
Golden said that every day that spring he would rush home to check his mail to see whether anything had arrived from the college to let him know one way or another.
When the college said yes, Golden said, he came back to the sales center and proudly declared that he’d been accepted at Bates.
His boss thought he’d secured a job there as a janitor, Golden said.
Taking courses as the oldest student in his class, Golden didn’t quite fit in. He said he tended to be quiet and to hang back.
In one class, he said, the professor and students were expressing outrage at a video of American troops shooting into a crowd. Golden said he felt compelled to explain what might have been going on — spotters and other enemies trying to blend in — and urging those around him to have more empathy for the soldiers in a chaotic environment.
Hiss said that one year at Bates, Golden took the time to learn to speak Pashto so he could spend a summer in Afghanistan working on a leadership program for Afghan teens — while the war still raged.
“How many Marines go back to the combat zone?” Hiss asked.
While he was there, living with an Afghan family, Golden met a girl who had acid thrown in her face for attending school. It’s a searing memory, and one that reminds him of how lucky he’s been.
Golden graduated from Bates in 2011 with a degree in politics, emerging with no debt and the opportunity to do almost anything.
Joe Golden said Jared decided at some point after his service to “use all this energy” he possessed to do something positive.
“There was no doubt in his mind that he could accomplish something,” Joe Golden said.
DISCOVERING A DIFFERENT WAY TO SERVE
Fresh out of school, Golden returned to the Middle East to work for a logistics business, a job that kept him hopping. One time, for example, he had five days to move a U.S. Agency for International Development office from one side of Baghdad to the other, without interrupting its work flow.
But when the opportunity came along soon after to go to work for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, Golden took it. He became a staffer for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington.
Golden said Collins impressed him with her detailed scrutiny of his work — she’s a tough boss, he said — and her willingness to delve into the details of proposed policies.
That she was a Republican didn’t stop him from going to work for her. After all, politics wasn’t something big in Golden’s life.
Joe Golden, who leans left, said that watching on television as John F. Kennedy gave a campaign speech in 1960 “created all of my interest” in politics, leaving him a solid Democrat. His wife, he said, didn’t take an interest until Donald Trump’s election.
Their son was kind of a mix.
During that time on Capitol Hill, however, Golden “figured out he was more of a D than an R,” Hiss said, but “a thoughtful, centrist, listening” sort of Democrat, someone who “comes at it from the position of ethics and service.”
He said Golden saw enough in the nation’s capital to absorb the understanding that unbending ideology is “not a sensible way to run a government.”
After his time working for Collins, Golden worked as an aide for the Democrats at the State House in Augusta. It didn’t take him long to decide he’d rather serve in the Legislature than serve legislators.
So in 2014, he ran for a House seat in Lewiston.
And that is where he met Isobel “Izzie” Moiles, a Waldoboro native active in Democratic politics.
Oddly, they both graduated from Bates the same year with the same major.
Even so, “we weren’t friends,” Golden said, and didn’t really know one another.
Hiss said, though, he remembers the day Golden talked to one of his classes about countries going through cataclysms that included a slide show that had some pictures of the young Marine weighted down with equipment, standing in a moonscape of rocks and sand.
Moiles was right in front of him, watching starry-eyed, Hiss recalled.
Golden said when he met her during the campaign — Moiles served as a regional field director in Lewiston — “I just knew” she was the one.
“She came into my life at this tough moment,” Golden said. And “it’s been go-go-go for us” ever since.
In less than three months, he asked her to wed. They married in 2015, the same year she won a council seat in Lewiston.
“In our vows, I promised not to run against her,” Golden said.
Now, though, she’s traded in elected office at least temporarily to study law. She enters her second year of law school this fall.
“We live a pretty tight budget life in a tiny, little, beautiful home in Lewiston that we bought for less than $100,000 because that’s all we could afford,” Golden said. The couple purchased the two-story Diamond Court house for $98,500 two months after their wedding.
In Augusta, Golden has championed veterans’ issues. He’s also proven his political savvy enough to serve as the assistant majority leader, also known as the Democrats’ whip, the third-ranking member in the House leadership.
Saviello, a former Democrat, said what’s impressed him is that Golden, who differs from him on many issues, always seeks “to work both sides of the aisle” in Augusta.
“He tries to listen and he tries to bring people together,” Saviello said.
Golden hopes to do the same in the U.S. House — if he can win an election that’s virtually certain to be ugly.
Golden is enjoying parts of the campaign. He said he likes getting out and talking to people, mentioning how much he enjoyed sitting with lobstermen recently in Stonington, having coffee before dawn.
But he’s not one to easily accept the strictures of electioneering.
He skipped off for a bit one day recently to get a closely cropped haircut, something his staff opposed. Golden said they wanted him to grow his hair longer because it would seem more friendly.
And he won’t take their advice to put a campaign bumper sticker on the back of his truck.
“I just can’t bring myself to do it,” Golden said. It’s too self-promoting for a guy who hasn’t quite gotten used to the spotlight.