BINGHAM, Maine — Les Otten pulled up the pant legs of his jeans to walk across a puddle on the floor, but soaked his New Balance sneakers anyway.
The scene at the far side of the puddle was worth it: a gigantic blue tub full of thousands of tiny salmon, some of the 2.2 million fish in various stages of growth at the Bingham Fish Hatchery.
In another vast room, more tubs contained salmon that were 6 to 8 inches long. In concrete pools outside were the monsters: 20- to 30-pound lunkers stretching more than 2 feet long that live on feed the size of gumdrops.
Anyone who buys an Atlantic salmon filet labeled “Made in Maine” has a 40 percent chance of eating a fish whose life started in Bingham. That figure could be much higher, according to the hatchery’s manager, but most of the company’s fish are shipped to Canada for processing before being brought back to the United States labeled “Made in Canada.”
“That’s one of the reasons I was interested in coming here,” said Otten. “I couldn’t have made up a situation that better illustrates our problem in Maine.”
Regulatory hurdles that require the hatchery’s parent company, Cooke Aquaculture, to deal with five different state agencies, a virulent “Not in My Backyard” attitude and most of all, the prohibitively high cost of electricity in Maine are all reasons why it’s cheaper to ship fish north of the border than process them here, Otten learned during a tour of the hatchery.
One of seven Republicans competing in the June 8 primary for the chance to run for governor, Otten has put economic development front and center in his campaign, with his six-pronged “Jobs Plan” as the centerpiece. That plan includes overhauling the state’s tax code, reforming welfare, lowering health insurance costs, re-forming the business-regulation environment, erasing the state’s dependence on foreign energy sources and educating Maine people for jobs that are available in Maine now and in the future.
“Whoever gets elected, there’s going to be a mandate that comes along with that election,” said Otten during a recent interview. “That mandate is to create jobs. My platform is about jobs and real-world experience.”
In 38 years as a private-sector businessman, Otten said he created more jobs and economic development than any of the other candidates. Among Otten’s accomplishments is the expansion of the Sunday River ski resort in Newry to one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast.
While some of his opponents have attacked Otten on his record as a businessman — most notably a recent attack television advertisement paid for by Republican rival Bruce Poliquin — Otten said even the most casual observer can see the fruits of what he has created.
“Regardless of whatever attacks come my way, I’m proud of what I’ve done in my career,” said Otten on the day Poliquin released his advertisement. “All of the positions I’ve created are still there. The people in them have changed, but the positions are still there.”
In addition to his ownership role in creating Sunday River, Otten was part owner of the Boston Red Sox from 2002 to 2007 and helped found several small businesses in Maine, including Maine Energy Systems, a firm that sells automatic wood-pellet boilers.
Otten’s relatively high public profile seemingly has given him the political advantage of name recognition.
Last week, the Portland-based market research firm Critical Insights asked 600 people whether they could name any of the gubernatorial candidates. Otten scored the highest of any Republican or Democratic candidate with 30 percent of the respondents identifying him. Republican challenger Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, was second in name recognition with 16 percent.
Bates College professor emeritus Douglas Hodgkin counted Otten among the “top tier” GOP candidates, and said Otten’s high name recognition is also due to the fact he has spent more than the other candidates on his campaign — though most of it is his own money.
“The fact that he’s spending his own money is a concern that voters will have,” said Hodgkin. “Steve Abbott, for example, has touted the fact that he has raised more money from other people than all the Republican candidates combined. Some people find that more acceptable.”
Hodgkin said that negative attention Otten has received, including Poliquin’s attack on his resume and an incident last month when Otten fired a campaign writer for plagiarizing, could affect the race.
“Poliquin and Otten both suffered in their images as a result of that,” said Hodgkin. “That’s why candidates go negative. It sticks.”
Asked why he has been the target of negative campaigning, Otten said it’s because he’s leading the Republican field.
“I’ve been tested in ways the other Republican candidates have not,” said Otten. “Generally when candidates get attacked it’s because they’re perceived to be in the lead. We’ve been running an extremely strong campaign and people are looking for weaknesses.”
After his visit to the fish hatchery in Bingham, Otten proceeded north to The Forks, where he met with a small group of supporters at Three Rivers Whitewater. They offered yet another story of how state government is making their success difficult.
Joe Christopher, an owner of the rafting company, explained how his customers are taxed three times or more for the same trip, including a sales tax, taxes on their meals and lodging and a fee to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for access to the rivers.
“We’re looking for someone who talks reality,” said Christopher, who said he hopes voters support the June 8 people’s veto of a tax reform law passed by the Legislature. “This is like a totally different state up here. There are not enough people on this side of Route 2 to repeal the tax issues.”
Otten said he was “acutely aware” of the business’s plight because it’s common all over Maine, and he pledged that making things easier for businesses will be his first priority as governor.
“What we’re missing is leadership,” he said. “I’m not a career politician. I’m doing this because the state of Maine needs a clear new direction.”
Name: Leslie B. “Les” Otten
Age: 60. Born May 24, 1949.
Education: Bachelor of science with a major in business administration from Ithaca College 1971.
Career: Principal of Maine Energy Systems, a wood-pellet furnace company, as well as an owner and investor in a number of other small businesses including a golf swing simulator manufacturer, land and housing development companies and a restaurant at Sunday River ski resort. From 2002 to 2007, he was vice chairman and partner of the Boston Red Sox. From 1995 to 2001, he headed American Skiing Co., which owned ski resorts in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado, Utah and California. Before forming American Skiing, he ran Sunday River in Bethel, which he bought in 1980.
Family: Otten is divorced with three grown children, ages 31, 33 and 34. He lives in Greenwood.
Quote: “My top priority as governor will be aimed squarely at creating private-sector jobs.”