AUGUSTA, Maine — Pat McGowan was 34 years old in November 1990 when he gave U.S. Rep. Olympia Snowe the biggest Election Day scare of her then 12-year career in Congress — and in the two decades since.
Bolstered by his near success — losing by just a few thousand votes — the Democratic state lawmaker from central Maine targeted Snowe two years later only to fall short once again, this time in a three-way race.
A day later, McGowan said he was taking a break from political campaigns but added: “I’m not going away.”
Eighteen years later, McGowan is once again on the campaign trail as he vies for the Democratic nomination for governor. He has added another 15 years of public service to his resume, including the past seven as Maine’s conservation commissioner.
But as in his 1990 and 1992 campaigns for Congress, McGowan is hoping that his familiarity with the plights of small businesses as well as his personal knowledge of the state of Maine will give him an edge over his three opponents in the June 8 primary.
“I was born in Maine, and I know this state better than not just the other Democrats, but I think better than all of the candidates running for governor,” he said after a campaign stop in Orono.
“I know the best fishing spots. I know the best hunting spots, and I think I know the best hiking spots. I know what small businesses need, and I know the challenges they face.”
That’s a theme that McGowan, now 54, drums home at nearly every debate and in every stump speech he makes.
It is part of a carefully crafted message meant to appeal to what he and others regard as his core constituency — those outdoor-loving, blue collar Democrats in central and northern Maine who nearly elected him to Congress twice — and to the more populous areas to the south.
The Hallowell candidate’s campaign platform — found in a blueprint he has dubbed his “Vision 2020” plan — calls for boosting state support for higher education by nearly one-third and using seed money and venture capital funds to help small businesses grow.
McGowan is also promoting a public-private partnership — which he helped develop as conservation commissioner — that aims to modernize and expand Maine’s forest products industry while protecting from development vast swaths of working forest that also are important to Maine’s tourism economy.
“It ties the land back to the paper mills and more importantly … to the people and to the jobs,” McGowan said recently while standing inside a University of Maine Pulp and Paper Process Development Facility.
Born in Bangor, McGowan was part of a large, extended family with deep roots in the business and political scenes of central Maine. His father is a former state lawmaker and business owner, while his mother was the longtime editor at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville.
“There has always been public service in my family,” he said.
McGowan’s career in public service began at the age of 22 when he was elected to the state Legislature not long after graduating from the University of Maine at Farmington.
He served five terms in the Maine House and lists among his proudest accomplishments his sponsorship of the bill that created the Land for Maine’s Future program. Since that time, the land program has protected more than a half-million acres in the state by leveraging voter-approved bonds with matching dollars.
In 1990, McGowan took on Snowe in an aggressive campaign that created a buzz around the young Democrat who nearly unseated a popular, six-term Republican incumbent.
Snowe was better prepared for the challenge two years later, however, in a three-way race with McGowan and Green Party candidate Jonathan Carter, who siphoned off votes from the Democrat in key areas.
But those losses to Snowe could prove beneficial to the candidate, said James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Melcher said that although McGowan’s position in the Baldacci administration was relatively low profile, his showings against Snowe have given him some lasting name recognition.
“The one thing people always say is if he can really bring in a lot of votes in the 2nd District, then he certainly has a chance,” Melcher said. “He’s used to talking to environmental groups and to sportsmen’s groups, and that could be helpful.”
Not long after his loss to Snowe in 1992, McGowan was tapped by President Bill Clinton to serve as New England regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration.
But McGowan is arguably best known as commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation — and more specifically, as Maine’s “flying commissioner.”
During his tenure, the percentage of public and private forestland permanently protected from development tripled from 6 percent to 18 percent of Maine’s land base. The vast majority of it is maintained as a working forest and open to public recreation.
One of the smaller but highest-profile conservation projects in which McGowan was heavily involved as conservation commissioner was the hard-fought battle in 2006 to add Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park.
As part of a complicated land swap negotiated with the tract’s owners, McGowan ferried potential big-money donors, lawmakers and others in his personal floatplane to the secluded lake near the base of Mount Katahdin.
In fact, McGowan regularly used his plane for business. On one occasion, McGowan became the subject of a federal investigation when allegations arose that he improperly used his plane to help hunters locate moose during the 2007 season.
McGowan was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Now on the gubernatorial campaign trail, McGowan periodically flies his four-seater, 1958 Cessna 180 to far-flung campaign events.
For instance, last Thursday McGowan began his morning at a breakfast-candidate forum hosted by the University of Maine at Farm1/4 ington, attended a lunchtime event in Augusta and ended the day at another debate at the University of Maine at Machias.
An amateur guitar player, McGowan has incorporated music into his gubernatorial bid by adopting an official campaign song — “Back in Maine” by Mark “Guitar” Miller — and along the campaign trail. McGowan and a campaign staffer, Leo Trudel, often stop by nursing homes to play anything from Eric Clapton to Woodie Guthrie and Creedence Clearwater Revival for the elderly residents.
McGowan hopes to hold events later in the campaign —likely in historic mill towns — seeking to revive the days when political rallies offered attendees food and music to accompany the political stump speeches.
“It’s a lot of work,” McGowan said of the campaign trail. At the time, he was seated in a Brunswick eatery-watering hole where he and Trudel had planned to play a few tunes during the “open mike” session, had an earlier debate not run long.
“If you’re going to do it, you might as well have fun with it,” McGowan said. “We’re serious, but we also want to let people know that Maine is a great place to live and have fun.”
Schedule of coming gubernatorial profiles
May 4: McGowan
May 5: Mitchell
May 6: Rowe
May 7: Scarcelli
May 10: Abbott
May 11: Beardsley
May 12: Jacobson
May 13: LePage
May 14: Mills
May 17: Otten
May 18: Poliquin