BANGOR, Maine — The five Democrats hoping to become Maine’s next governor pledged to support key labor union issues on Thursday while offering proposals to strengthen the state’s papermaking and forest products industries.
Candidates fielded questions on issues ranging from prevailing wage requirements to defending Maine’s interests in the global marketplace and corporate tax credits during a forum hosted by the Maine Labor Council of the United Steelworkers Union.
But the candidates received the heartiest applause from the union members — most of whom work at paper mills — when it was announced that all five had agreed not to purchase ad time on a Portland television station involved in a labor dispute.
The five Democrats — Steven Rowe, Rosa Scarcelli, Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, John Richardson and Patrick McGowan — agreed to the boycott of CBS affiliate WGME-TV, Channel 13, at the request of the Manchester-based IBEW Local 1837. The station’s management and ownership, Sinclair Broadcast Group, apparently declared an impasse on contract negotiations and forced concessions on more than 40 workers.
During the question-and-answer session, the candidates largely agreed with one another on the major issues.
The five Democrats pledged to fight against trade practices allowed by the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, that harm Maine mills. They all endorsed the tax reform bill that passed the Legislature last year and is the subject of a June referendum.
They also threw their support behind attaching a prevailing wage requirement on construction of public schools as well as the recent bond proposal to preserve 240 miles of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway lines into Aroostook County.
But the candidates sought to differentiate themselves in their approaches to government.
Scarcelli, a Portland resident who runs a company with affordable housing units around the state, said she often hears from business leaders that Maine’s regulatory environment is so complex that it discourages job growth. Scarcelli described herself as the only Democratic candidate who “is not part of the establishment.”
“We have to recognize that if Maine isn’t a friendly place to invest in, we are all going to have a problem finding jobs and maintaining jobs,” Scarcelli said. “We need to fix the climate we are in.”
McGowan, a former regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration who most recently served as Maine’s conservation commissioner, touted a plan to encourage long-term contracts between mills and landowners whose forests are certified as being sustainably managed. That plan, called the “Great Maine Forest Initiative,” would also permanently conserve high-value areas.
“The land is tied to the mills, to the jobs and to families,” McGowan said.
Richardson talked up his 20 years as an attorney working on labor disputes. A former commissioner with the Department of Economic and Community Development, Richardson said his “Start Up Maine” economic development plan would benefit mills by encouraging investment in innovative technology and simplifying corporate taxes.
“The problem we have right now is we have a corporate tax code that does not reward investment,” Richardson said.
Rowe, who served for eight years as Maine’s attorney general, said he would work with other states to fight against harmful NAFTA policies and would get heavily involved to resolve the stalemate with Canadian officials over liquefied natural gas tankers in Passamaquoddy Bay. But Rowe said the state needs new ideas and new approaches to improve the business climate.
“We have to change the way we are doing things,” Rowe said.
Mitchell, a former speaker of the Maine House who currently serves as Senate president, pointed out that she has earned labor union endorsements in each of her legislative elections. She also said the state’s business environment cannot grow “at the expense of working men and women.”
“If Maine’s work force is our biggest asset, then let’s treat it with respect,” she said.
Mitchell’s comment came in response to a question about whether the candidates would support requiring that employers offer workers paid sick days as well as additional paid leave for family emergencies. That question revealed one of the few major differences among the candidates.
Mitchell had introduced a paid sick days bill into the current Legislature, but it failed after encountering staunch opposition from the business community. Rowe and McGowan said they supported the initiative.
Scarcelli said that while her company offers employees a minimum of 21 paid days off a year, she was concerned that Mitchell’s bill might make Maine appear unfriendly to businesses. Likewise, Richardson said he regarded the bill as another government mandate on businesses.
“Great idea, bad timing,” he said.