BANGOR, Maine — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell has pulled out of at least two debates among gubernatorial candidates because, she said, the debate organizers had not invited all five candidates.
Mitchell, Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler were invited to a leaders roundtable breakfast hosted by the Bangor Region Development Alliance, Maine Ahead and Bangor Metro. Two other independents, Kevin Scott and Shawn Moody, were not invited.
“By winning primaries or gathering signatures, five candidates earned a spot on the general election ballot,” Mitchell said in a statement. “At this early stage, when voters are still learning where the candidates stand and what their visions are for Maine, all of the candidates should be included in the debates.”
It would have been the first time the three major candidates shared the same stage during the election season.
Mitchell told the Portland Press Herald that she had also informed organizers of a Sept. 2 forest-products forum that she would not be attending because Moody and Scott were excluded. Organizers of a tourism-industry event set for Sept. 9 have invited only Cutler, LePage and Mitchell, though Mitchell had not yet contacted them to cancel.
Tanya Pereira, representing the Bangor Region Development Alliance, said Wednesday that the forum at 7:30 a.m. Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn would move forward as planned with or without Mitchell and that the other candidates would not be invited despite Mitchell’s plea.
Pereira said Cutler and LePage indicated that they still planned to attend and discuss energy and transportation issues shared by residents of Maine and bordering Canadian provinces.
Cutler spokeswoman Monica Castellanos confirmed that Cutler would participate in Thursday’s forum, but she declined to comment on Mitchell’s decision.
John Morris with the LePage campaign said the Republican candidate still planned to attend but he, too, declined to comment on Mitchell. “We are going to discuss energy policy and how to lower the electric bills of hardworking people in Maine,” he said.
David Loughran, spokesman for Mitchell, said the candidate didn’t have a sudden change of heart. In fact, he said, the campaign did not learn that not all candidates would be invited until recently.
“She has a long history of inclusion,” Loughran said. “She would like to debate all [the candidates] in Bangor.”
In addition, Mitchell plans to boycott another forum scheduled for Sept. 2 in Brewer hosted by the Maine Pulp and Paper Association and the Maine Forest Products Council because Moody and Scott have been excluded.
Loughran said he couldn’t say definitively if she would rule out all forums or debates unless all five candidates were invited.
Moody and a spokesman for Scott’s campaign both applauded Mitchell.
“I wouldn’t second-guess her motives,” Moody said. “Look at the primaries. There were five Democrats and seven Republicans. Were any of them not invited to debates?”
Added Michael Pajak on behalf of Scott: “We would like to extend our gratitude to Libby Mitchell for the sentiment, and we certainly share it. It’s unfortunate that the stakeholders host events where only three-fifths of the candidates are invited. It’s especially unfortunate to the electorate.”
Pajak said his candidate has been included more and more in the last few weeks, but he noted that no public polls have featured either Scott or Moody.
“There are a large number of forums, but they are all to the benefit of voters. We’re happy to attend each and every one that we can,” he said.
John Porter, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, which is helping to coordinate Thursday’s forum, called Mitchell’s decision a strategic political move. It’s not in the interest of LePage or Mitchell to debate Cutler without the two other independents on the stage, he said.
“They do better when the independent votes are split,” Porter said. “But you have to own your decision.”
Porter said time constraints and recent polls helped cement the decision to invite only LePage, Cutler and Mitchell.
Jesse Connolly, a senior adviser to Mitchell’s campaign, had a different opinion and suggested that organizations planning gubernatorial events are giving Cutler an edge he doesn’t deserve.
“The public polling shows that this is a two-person race between Libby and Paul LePage,” he said. “If organizations want a debate with the front runners, then they would invite those two. If they want to include the independents, they should invite all three of them. … At some point it may make sense to invite only the frontrunners, but at this early stage, doing so is a disservice to Maine voters.”
While the LePage campaign demurred on Mitchell’s move, the state Republican Party challenged the Democrat on her decision to back out of the forum.
“Libby Mitchell needs to explain her record on these issues,” said Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party. “She’s got a long, sordid record of anti-business activity. Her time as Speaker of the House and Senate President has left a trail of ruin through Maine’s economic landscape.”
Amy Fried, a University of Maine political scientist, said there have been other events that didn’t include certain candidates — notably LePage — but that was not because certain candidates were not invited.
“It’s always a tricky matter deciding who should be included, and it’s come up in national debates as well,” she said. “It’s interesting that [Mitchell] wants to include everyone. I’m not sure what it means. There are a lot of ways to cut it.”
Fried said while polls are a standard measure for choosing which candidates to invite, she also said ballot access is just as accepted a measure.
“There were multiple candidates who tried to get on the ballot for the governor’s race who did not make it,” she said.