PORTLAND – The three candidates in Maine’s hotly contested race for governor gathered Wednesday morning at Portland’s Holiday Inn by the Bay for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce gubernatorial debate.
Public polling on the race so far has shown Republican Gov. Paul LePage virtually tied with Democratic candidate U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, while independent candidate Eliot Cutler’s campaign has struggled to recreate the momentum-building it saw in the final weeks of his 2010 bid.
The format of the debate included six policy questions, a three-minute closing statement for each candidate, no opening statements and no rebuttals. Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce President Chris Hall moderated.
Michaud started the morning off with an unprompted jab at LePage which elicited muffled laughter from the more than 650 people present for what Chamber officials said was the largest Eggs & Issues in the event’s history.
The first question Hall posed centered on the University of Southern Maine and what each candidate would do to improve the university system in general.
“The university system needs to reinvent itself,” said LePage, who pointed to Maine Maritime Academy in Castine and the University of Maine at Fort Kent as models for other state-run university out-posts. The governor said the community college system needs to focus more on the trades and less on the liberal arts.
Michaud said we need to “bring people together” to focus on a long-term strategy. “Part of that has to look at jobs and economic development,” he said. “Education is an investment in our future.”
Michaud briefly mentioned his “Maine Made” plan which called for the state to offer college sophomore’s a free year of tuition.
Cutler proposed that the state merge the community college and UMaine systems as a way to begin saving money. “We’ve got to do this better,” he said. “We’ve got to do this right.”
Hall’s second question hit on the recently announced closure of the Verso Paper mill in Bucksport and asked candidates how Maine can grow its manufacturing sector.
Michaud blamed LePage’s lack of cooperation with other New England governors for the high natural gas prices which precipitated the mill’s closure. But both LePage and Cutler put the blame on Massachusetts’ Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s decision to stymie regional natural gas projects.
The next question revolved on K-12 education. Hall briefly alluded to the controversial Common Core State Standards, but all three candidates stayed far away from that issue and focused on schools and funding. The candidates responses mostly dealt with the issues of school funding, taxes and revenue sharing – all hot topics under the LePage administration.
“Education is an investment in our future,” said Michaud. “K-12 is crucial. Pre-k, actually, is crucial.”
Michaud said he has been talking with “philanthropies” across the country to find a way to fund Maine’s pre-k programs, and he stressed the need for Maine to fund local schools at the yet-to-be-achieved voter-approved goal of 55 percent.
Cutler agreed with Michaud that the state needs to hit the 55 percent mark, but took a swipe at the Democrat: “The difference between you and me, is I’ve figured out how to pay for it and you haven’t,” he said.
On revenue sharing, LePage said municipalities need to find ways to work together and share services, because the state cannot afford to support growing local budgets indefinitely.
“Revenue sharing is code for ‘we don’t want to work with our neighbors,’” said LePage. “Everybody loves local control, but local control is expensive.”
The fourth question hit on the hottest topic of the 126th Legislature: Medicaid expansion.
Over the last two years, LePage vetoed a proposal to expand Maine’s Medicaid program pursuant to the Affordable Care Act five times, making him the only New England governor to reject the proposal. Both of his opponents reiterated their pledge to expand the medical welfare program their first day in office.
“We’ve gotta take the Medicaid money,” said Cutler, adding that not doing so was one of LePage’s worst decisions.
“I think that we have a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has access to healthcare,” he said. “And I think we have a financial responsibility to ourselves to do it,” he said.
LePage pointed to previous Medicaid expansions and the failure of those expansions to reduce Maine’s uninsured population despite high costs, and touted his role in securing a repayment of roughly $750 million in old Medicaid debates.
In support of Medicaid expansion, Michaud delivered the familiar talking points legislative Democrats used when advocating for the move.
“Maine will save over $600 million of a 10-year time frame,” said Michaud. “It’s estimated that it will create about 3,000 jobs as well,” he said.
Question number five asked the debaters to respond to the city of Portland’s pending proposal to raise the minimum wage within the city limits – a proposal Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has been trying to garner support for this fall.
LePage said Portland’s attempt to raise the minimum wage will be unconstitutional and implored Portland officials to read Maine’s State Constitution. He tied Portland’s minimum wage issue to the city of South Portland’s failed Waterfront Protection Ordinance, both of which he said were bad for business.
Michaud said he would propose raising the state-wide minimum wage to $9.00 an hour over three years, and said he would work with the business community to make it happen.
The final question asked the candidates about Maine’s demographic trends and what we can do to keep young Mainers in Maine and attract new families.
LePage said it’s tough to get middle management to come to Maine because they look at Maine’s income tax as a 8 percent pay cut.
Cutler, who dedicated much of his campaign book, “State of Opportunity” to reversing Maine’s demographic trends, restated his proposals and levied his most direct attack on his Democratic opponent: “Mike, you’ve never created a job, ever. And you’ve never managed a business, ever,” he said.
All three candidates closed with powerful statements and a plea for voter support.
“We need a vision and a plan and a strategy for the 21st century,” said Cutler. “Prosperity in Maine isn’t going to be an accident.”
Cutler also seized his last speaking opportunity of the debate to zing Michaud again. “Mike, you’ve worked across a lot of aisles… But you’ve never created a job,” he said.
“The job of the next governor is the biggest most complicated job in the state of Maine,” he said. “If you love Maine as I do, I ask for your vote.”
“Liberals talk and talk and talk, and that’s all I’ve heard for four years,” said LePage. “I believe my actions speak for themselves. Despite what you hear from my opponents, there are some good things happening in Maine.”
Regarding his penchant for making sensational, off-the-cuff comments, LePage said that most of the comments came during his first two years in office, which shows “even a Frenchman can be taught to calm down.”
“I’m not as polished as my opponents,” he said. “But I’m a businessman, not a politician.”
LePage sought to define the election as a choice not between three candidates, but between two competing political philosophies: “You don’t have three choices, you have two choices. You have a liberal mentality and a conservative mentality,” he said.
Michaud, the last candidate to speak, derided LePage and made the case that the state of Maine is worse off than it was four years ago.
“People are fed up, they’re tired of the divisiveness,” he said.
UPDATE: Here’s video of the full debate, courtesy of the Cutler campaign:
The debate was perhaps most important for Cutler. His campaign has spent heavily on social media ads, web videos and television advertisements aimed at elevating the visibility and importance of debates.
Over the summer the independent called from 16 debates – one in every county. But his opponents were unwilling to grant him the opportunity—a reflection of the prevailing political wisdom which suggested that Cutler, who has worked as an environmental lawyer and is viewed as the most articulate of the three, would fare well in debates.
The first debate was presaged by more than a few political spats between Michaud and LePage.
Last month, LePage signaled he may not share a stage with Michaud unless the Democratic candidate ceased claiming that LePage believes Social Security is welfare. The governor eventually relented and has said he will participate in all scheduled debates.
And, on Tuesday, the night before the debate, the Maine Republican Party and the Maine Democratic Party traded ethics complaints.
The Democrats complained that LePage shared a handful of car rides with his campaign’s communications director, Alex Willette, in a taxpayer-funded vehicle.
“Gov. LePage is clearly campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.
Grant’s complaint also questioned whether emails sent from state government accounts were too political.
Republicans responded shortly after with a complaint of their own which centered on Michaud’s use of federal campaign funds for the promotion of his gubernatorial candidacy.
In an Oct. 7 letter to Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, Maine GOP Executive Director Jason Savage noted that Michaud illegally accepted contributions to his federal campaign committee after he has terminated his candidacy and was forced to refund those donations.
Savage further questioned the legality of several expenditures made by Michaud’s congressional committee well after he had ended his run for Congress. Those expenditures include a $7,900 contribution to EqualityMaine, $1,989.10 on a personal computer for Michaud, $1,150 at a hotel in Chicago, and several more payments to consultants and liberal activist groups.
Savage also highlighted a $500 “event sponsorship” payment to the AFL-CIO which came from federal election funds. According to the letter, the Maine GOP has photographic and video evidence of Michaud pitching his gubernatorial campaign at the event.
“This means that Michaud used federal election funds to sponsor an event which he attended for the purpose of promoting his state campaign for governor,” said Savage. “Such an expenditure, and any of the other above-referenced expenditures in furtherance of Michaud’s state-level campaign, should have been filed by Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign committee as a contribution from Michaud’s congressional campaign committee.”
“These payments represent nothing more than the use of federal funds as a slush fund to bolster a state-level political campaign,” said Savage.
The five-member commission will now have to convene this week – unless both parties agree to delay the investigation – to decide whether to conduct a formal investigation into either complaint. If the commission moves forward with an investigation, it is unlikely either would reach a conclusion prior to Election Day on November 4th.