HERMON, Maine — In a red barn just off the highway in a sunken office ringed with stacks of paper and filing cabinets, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Steve Abbott sat in a circle of a dozen employees of Lafayette Hotels.
Although the chain has 27 hotels and more than 1,200 employees at peak season, to say its Hermon headquarters are modest or unassuming is an understatement.
But as Abbott learned, that says little about a company’s fervor, especially one that’s owned by someone like the gregarious, T-shirt-wearing Daniel Lafayette, who told Abbott the state is lucky hotels are heavy.
“We’re a good industry for Maine because we can’t move,” said Lafayette, who with his employees spent an hour decrying a range of taxes and regulations that give people too many reasons to take their businesses and themselves elsewhere. As a candidate building his campaign around lower taxes and a more consistent regulatory environment, Abbott agreed.
Abbott, the former longtime chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, is one of seven Republicans vying for his party’s nomination for governor.
His campaign has taken him around the state, but on this day, his next stop was at the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
In many ways, the stop at UM was the polar opposite of the Lafayette event. In the center’s glittering lobby with its displays of the latest in engineering science, Abbott found himself greeted by dean of engineering Dana Humphrey and professor Habib Dagher, the charismatic structural engineer who has become the face of the state’s march toward offshore wind power.
Their message was of a university struggling to meet the demand for more engineers while state government funding continues to shrink. To Humphrey and Dagher, it’s a question of whether the wind power industry will be built here or in another state. Winning that competition requires highly trained engineers and lots of them.
“We’re doing our best to create the industry and produce the grads, but boy am I worried,” said Humphrey. “The train is leaving the station. We’re either on it or we’re not. The next governor really has to understand that.”
Dagher agreed. “We don’t have the resources to teach that many kids,” he said. “We’re really shorthanded right now.”
With one group demanding reduced taxes and less government spending and another pleading for more state funding just an hour or so later, Abbott seemed like a candidate being pulled in opposing directions. But that’s not the way he sees it.
“In the long term, these goals are not incompatible at all,” Abbott said during an interview. “The number one complaint that I get from people is the lack of consistency from state government. We are creating barriers to people being Maine residents and businesses locating here. That’s crazy.”
The key to reducing taxes while devoting more money to worthy programs such as the university system is to attract more businesses, said Abbott. That requires more than an overhaul of the regulatory system and the elimination of certain problematic taxes; attracting businesses begins with a change in attitude in the State House, said Abbott.
Abbott referred to a bill debated in the last legislative session, “An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1,” as an example of how Maine is sending the wrong message to the business community. The bill, which died in the House of Representatives, would have required employers to provide up to five days of sick leave for employees.
“It would have been first-in-the-nation model legislation done on the backs of Maine businesses,” said Abbott. “Having a debate like that sends a terrible message to people outside of Maine. That discussion could have been extremely short if the governor had simply said, ‘I’m going to veto this.’”
Therein lies the core of how Abbott would operate as governor. As Collins’ chief of staff for the past 12 years, Abbott learned that successful legislation is born from weeks or months of internal debate before a bill is presented in public. With several Republican candidates insisting that Maine needs someone from outside the political process, Abbott sees his governmental experience as a remedy for a dysfunctional atmosphere in Augusta.
“We need to have better communication between the governor and the Legislature,” he said. “A lot of these conflicts can be worked out ahead of time with Republicans working with Democrats and vice versa.”
Despite his qualifications — which include a record of public service, a distinguished academic career at Harvard College and the University of Maine School of Law, and a law practice at Pierce Atwood in Portland — Abbott said his best attribute is an intimate devotion to Maine.
“I grew up in Orono” is how he usually introduces himself on the campaign trail. On the same day he visited the Lafayette chain and the University of Maine, Abbott ended his campaigning among friends at a wine-and-hors-d’oeuvres fundraiser in Orland. Several attendees attested to Abbott’s character and leadership abilities, which they said have always been apparent.
“Ever since he was a kid, it was obvious that he was headed for big things,” said a longtime Abbott family friend. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s accomplished what he has.”
Abbott acknowledges that despite his resume and Maine roots, the fact that he has spent his career largely behind the scenes until now is a challenge he must overcome.
“When people get to see me in person, they really like me,” said Abbott. “But I still have to earn it like everyone else.”
Name: Steven W. “Steve” Abbott.
Age: 47, born on Aug. 16, 1962.
Education: Degree in history from Harvard, where he was a football captain; graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 1991.
Career: Practiced law at Pierce Atwood in Portland; for the past 12 years, chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Family: Lives in Portland with his wife, Amy, and their two children, Hannah and Henry.
Quote: “My campaign is about transforming Maine from a state with a reputation for high taxes, low wages and an unwelcoming business climate to the best place in the nation to do business.”