ROCKLAND, Maine — Four of the five candidates for governor discussed alternative energy, the challenges facing Maine’s fishing industry and other issues important to island communities on Friday during the first official debate of the fall election.
The four candidates — Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler, Kevin Scott and Shawn Moody — smiled and occasionally teased one another during their first joint appearance.
But each also offered audience members a glimpse of their campaign strategies over the next 2 and a half months as they attempt to woo an electorate frustrated with politics and concerned about the health of the economy.
Cutler, a lawyer and businessman who also worked in the Carter administration, emphasized his business experience while calling for leaner government and smarter regulations. As the only veteran lawmaker in the field, Mitchell highlighted the importance of bipartisanship and coalitions but also pledged to continue focusing on bringing down energy and health care costs and tax rates.
Moody, the owner of a chain of southern Maine collision repair centers, talked repeatedly about finding ways to ensure state government helps, not hurts, small businesses in order to grow the economy. And Scott, who operates a recruiting firm and has been involved in the venture capital industry, promised to bring innovation, outside perspectives and fresh eyes to government.
Sponsored by the Island Institute and Maine Islands Coalition, the forum was meant to address issues that resonate with Maine’s shrinking island communities as well as coastal regions struggling to retain their historic identities in the face of rising property values.
On the issue of energy, all four candidates expressed support for wind energy.
Moody said policies appear to be “stuck in the mud just like politics.” as evidenced by Maine’s high energy costs. While he supported continued research and development of offshore wind technology, he said the state must investigate all options.
“We can’t forget about hydro, solar and biomass,” Moody said.
Scott, who is chairman of the Andover Water District board of trustees, suggested that the state look into the same sort of state revolving funds for energy project development used for drinking water infrastructure.
Mitchell said she would support the state helping islands develop the type of community wind power project now operating on Vinalhaven, although she acknowledged the project has its critics. She said such community-based alternative energy projects are benefiting local residents and companies, not large energy firms.
Cutler, meanwhile, began by going after the lone candidate missing Friday — Republican Paul LePage — for expressing support for exploring for oil off the coast of Maine. Cutler called the position “unconscionable” given the importance of Maine’s fisheries and tourism industry.
All four candidates said they believed the state should be more actively involved in helping lobster processing facilities open in Maine. Maine lobster meat now is processed mostly at Canadian plants.
“Why do we not add value here in Maine?” Mitchell said. “Why are we processing only in Canada?”
Scott accused lawmakers of standing in the way of developing “value-added” products, while Moody said the state needs to help lobstermen find ways to get more money from their products.
The candidates also said Maine needs to do a better job marketing its fisheries, especially lobster.
“There may be a market in South China or Vassalboro,” said Cutler, “but there’s a bigger market in China. A billion people … want our lobster.” Cutler said he also would work to expand Maine’s markets.
On the issue of education, Cutler and Scott spoke in strong favor of allowing charter schools in Maine. Cutler called for more attention on preschool and early education while Scott said he would listen more to the people in the field.
“It’s time to put an end to the practice of the past 50 to 60 years of sitting around Augusta trying to solve problems when the answers are out there in the hallways,” Scott said.
Putting on his business hat, Moody called for more public-private partnerships to strengthen education and said he would “stamp on” Maine’s high dropout rate with both feet.
Mitchell, a former teacher, said having an innovative and passionate principal often makes a huge difference in student learning and parent engagement. She said the state needs bold leadership and vision but also that the government needs to “stop creating programs like No Child Left Behind and let people learn.”
There were only a few back-and-forth exchanges. The most notable was between Cutler, who vowed to end Maine’s state vehicle inspection system, and Moody, who said they are important to driver safety because of the ice and salt on Maine roads.
Friday’s forum marked the unofficial kickoff of what is expected to be a marathon of debates through November for the five candidates.
In recent days, the Maine Democratic Party portrayed LePage’s decision not to participate in Friday’s debate as a sign the candidate was trying to duck questions or avoid debating.
LePage spokesman John Morris said the candidate had a prior commitment on Friday but that he already has agreed to at least 20 debates beginning in September.
“Paul is clearly looking forward to the opportunity to discuss the issues with the other candidates,” Morris said. “He is not afraid to debate them.”