Candidates for governor woo Democratic faithful

Posted May 22, 2010, at 7:27 p.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — The four Democrats hoping to become Maine’s next governor used speeches, songs, parties and old-fashioned politicking Friday and Saturday to woo party faithful in a primary race widely considered still up for grabs.

Although they were only a small part of the official agenda, the four candidates — Libby Mitchell, Pat McGowan, Steve Rowe and Rosa Scarcelli — were the dominant focus of the Maine Democratic Party’s two-day state convention.

Party leaders also used the June 8 gubernatorial primary as a rallying point for the roughly 1,100 convention attendees, predicting Democratic victories across the ballot in November despite anti-incumbent sentiments nationally and renewed confidence among Maine Republicans.

“Maine Democrats, the fight ahead is not for the faint-hearted,” said Democrat 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud in a speech Friday night. “It is up to all of us to make sure that we show the voters of Maine the choice that awaits them this November: the choice between the party of no and the party of change.”

But as evidenced by the hundreds of campaign signs covering the grass outside the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, it was the four candidates for governor whom many of the convention delegates had come to see and hear.

Mitchell was the first to speak on Saturday afternoon.

Leading about 100 enthusiastic supporters onto the coliseum floor to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s upbeat classic “Think,” Mitchell took the stage and told the crowd she is not running against her fellow Democrats.

Instead, the longtime lawmaker and current Senate president sought to contrast herself with Republican contenders who she said view government as the enemy and previous political experience as a negative.

“If you believe that government is best when it is saving lives and educating children, building roads and bridges, saving railroads, when it is not the enemy but the servant of the people, then you must be a Democrat,” Mitchell said. “Democrats know that a little experience is a good thing.”

Polls have consistently shown Mitchell with the most name recognition among the four Democrats, likely due to her terms as both Senate president and speaker of the House.

In a fast-tempoed speech interrupted frequently by applause, Mitchell accused Republicans of campaigning on fear and said she was creating a “Democratic Tea Party” more welcoming to families, teachers, the elderly and gay or lesbian Mainers.

She also disagreed with Republican candidates’ depiction of the state as “a mess,” pointing out that in recent years Democrats have reduced the size of government, cut taxes, passed several bond bills and helped improve access to health care.

“You want a mess, elect a governor from the other side,” she said to loud cheers.

Mitchell was followed on stage by McGowan, a former state lawmaker who most recently served as the commissioner of the Department of Conservation in the Baldacci administration.

On Friday night, McGowan chose an Irish pub in downtown Auburn as the location for his “hospitality” party for convention-goers, where he entertained the crowd with the guitar that has become an integral part of his campaign.

McGowan left the guitar behind during Saturday’s speech. But after a crowd-pleasing introductory speech by 12-year-old Nick Danby (son of Bangor Daily News editorial cartoonist George Danby), McGowan led his cadre of hooting and hollering supporters into the coliseum to the hard-driving music — but not the words — of the Celtic-inspired song “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” by the band Dropkick Murphys.

After the cries of “We want Pat!” from his supporters died down, McGowan highlighted his Maine roots and love of the outdoors as well as his decades of public service that began with his election to the Legislature at age 23.

He talked about his role in the creation of the Land for Maine’s Future program, his tenure as the regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and the preservation of nearly 1 million acres in Maine while he was conservation commissioner.

“I have fished the streams, I have canoed the wild rivers, I have climbed the mountains, I have been bitten by the black flies,” said McGowan. “I know this state like the back of my hand.”

But McGowan also touted his campaign’s “20/20 Vision” plan to focus on growing the private sector while investing in schools, hospitals, colleges, research labs and renewable energy.

“We will build things,” McGowan said. “We will put people back to work.”

The cavernous nature of the coliseum made it difficult to gauge which candidate’s stump speech generated the most crowd noise. But Rowe clearly led the largest crowd toward the stage, choosing the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” as the mood setter.

Rowe, who served eight years as attorney general and is a past House speaker, laid out his vision for “a better, brighter Maine” and “a new dawn” in a lofty speech focused heavily on education at all levels.

He called for stronger early education programs to help children succeed and a more robust economy that would allow them to find jobs and stay in Maine after high school.

“Education is a key to our economic prosperity, but education is about more than just academics,” he said.

Rowe emphasized the importance of community support for parents and the elderly, for veterans and military personnel returning from war. He also said his administration would make sure Somali and other immigrants feel welcome in Maine and, as the other Democratic candidates, pledged his support for the fight to legalize same-sex marriage.

“I will never apologize for believing government has an active role to play in promoting justice,” said Rowe, a West Point graduate who also served as speaker of the House. “I will never apologize for trying to make sure everyone has the opportunity to succeed. In short, I will never apologize for being a Democrat.”

The final candidate to speak was Scarcelli, who, as a political newcomer, was the least-known candidate and appeared to have the fewest supporters among the party loyalists gathered in Lewiston.

Taking the opposite approach of her three competitors, Scarcelli was accompanied only by her immediate family as they strolled to the stage to a Bruce Springsteen song.

Delivering a low-key speech than the other candidates, Scarcelli emphasized her family roots and experience as the head of a successful affordable housing company.

She spoke of growing up in Wilton in the shadow of the now-gone Bass Shoe factory and about the challenges facing Mainers, including skyrocketing health insurance costs.

“We have lost so much, but we can go back and embrace our future again,” she said. “We need a leader who is just as creative and just as resourceful. We need a leader who is going to be on the side of Maine people to get us back on track working again.”

Scarcelli at times seemed less comfortable in front of the sizable crowd than her three, more-seasoned political opponents, which surprised some observers given her polished and often aggressive performances at debates in recent months.

Continuing a central theme of her campaign, Scarcelli painted herself as a political outsider who will bring much-needed change to Augusta, saying the party can’t win in November with the “same-old, same-old.”

“Believe me, the anti-incumbency, throw-the-bums-out mood is alive and kicking in our state,” she said. “That is why we must give voters something new.”

That message, while potentially popular among the general public, received at best a lukewarm reception from the room full of longtime Democratic Party activists.

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