Eliot Cutler, Monday, Sept. 20
Paul LePage, Tuesday, Sept. 21
Libby Mitchell, Wednesday, Sept. 22
Shawn Moody, Thursday, Sept. 23
Kevin Scott, Friday, Sept. 24
The candidate breezed into Simones’ Hot Dog Stand — the political epicenter of Lewiston — at lunchtime on a recent weekday. He stopped at the first table, occupied by three women dressed in suits.
“I’m Eliot Cutler. I’m an independent running for governor,” he said with outstretched hand.
“We know who you are,” one of them replied.
It turns out all three were well-versed in Maine politics. Each worked in the local office of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
Another candidate might have cut his losses and moved on to the next table, but Cutler was undeterred. He smiled and chatted, and at one point even leaned in and grabbed an onion ring from a basket in the middle of the table.
As he walked away, Cutler offered some parting words: “You know you can vote for me even though I’m not a Republican.”
Cutler, the most well-known and politically experienced of three independents running for governor, needs votes from centrist Republicans, moderate Democrats and plenty of independents if he can mount a successful run at the Blaine House.
The Bangor native who now lives in Cape Elizabeth has plenty of confidence. He often talks about what he plans to do “when” he is governor rather than “if.”
Those close to him said he genuinely cares about shaping the future of Maine.
In between recent campaign events, Cutler said that he made a big bet when he launched his candidacy, a bet he has been doubling down on in recent weeks. He’s banking on a political dichotomy he hopes is shared by enough Maine voters: socially progressive but fiscally conservative.
“People are tired of the drivel that’s been put out by both political parties,” the 64-year-old said. “I set out to be the candidate with ideas not rhetoric.”
Political observers agree that Cutler has the best chance among the independents challenging Democrat Libby Mitchell and Republican Paul LePage, but he still trails significantly in early polls. To date, his support hovers around 15 percent.
Cutler does have history on his side, though. Maine has twice elected independent governors — James Longley in 1975 and Angus King in 1995, although King was further ahead in the polls — in the mid- to high 20 percent range — than Cutler at this point in the race.
“The political strength in this state is in the middle. It always has been,” Cutler told a small group of people recently during a private meet-and-greet fundraiser at a home in Topsham.
By now, it’s no secret that Cutler was a longtime Democrat. After leaving his hometown of Bangor in the late 1960s for Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, then Harvard University, then Georgetown Law School, Cutler worked for Sen. Edmund Muskie and President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.
Aside from his parents, he called Muskie his biggest role model because “he had the ability to see seven sides to every issue.”
Cutler effectively retired from public service in the mid-1980s and spent more than two decades in the private sector as an attorney and businessman.
He said his moment of gubernatorial aspiration came in January 2009 when he was asked to give a speech in Portland on education and was told his time allotment was 20 minutes. But 20 minutes wouldn’t cut it.
“I spent about an hour going through slides and ideas. After that, people kept asking me if I would consider running for governor,” he said in a recent interview.
By running as an independent, Cutler avoided a Democratic primary some observers felt he might not have won. Cutler is largely financing his own campaign and has significant means to mount a credible run.
But the candidate said he truly is independent, and his beliefs and actions support that claim. He’s pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage, but he also supports gun owners rights and believes government has become too big. He is against the expansion of gambling in Maine but supports the citizen initiative process that brought slot machines into the state.
He has backed Democratic candidates such as Tom Allen but also has supported moderate Republicans such as Peter Mills.
At this point in the campaign, political experts agree that Cutler has offered more specific proposals on education, government restructuring, energy and other issues than any of the five candidates. Some ideas, such as abolishing the Board of Environmental Protection and lengthening public school days and years, have been controversial, but his plans have yet to gain much traction.
Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, said he doesn’t know why Cutler hasn’t made gains. Given that Maine Republicans and Democrats nominated candidates from the more extreme flanks of their parties, Brewer said he expected Cutler to be a bigger player.
“For a third-party candidate, it’s crucial to make the case that you can win,” he said. “If people see your numbers start to go up and think you can win, it could build momentum. People don’t want to waste their vote.”
Criticism of Cutler has grown of late and it’s coming from both sides — about his commitment to Maine, his ties to a failed mortgage company and the notion that he’s a Democrat posing as an independent. The most caustic criticism is coming from an anonymous website,cutlerfiles.com, that launched last month.
The candidate, however, said he is committed to staying above the negative fray. He said criticism of him is the byproduct of the Internet age and the fact that he had a long record of successes and failures to draw from.
“People say a lot of things about you over the years,” he said. “What I say back is, ‘Here’s my record, here’s who I am, decide for yourself.’”
Although he was born and raised in Bangor and now lives in Cape Elizabeth, Cutler spent most of his adult life away from Maine. He admitted one of his biggest regrets is that he didn’t return to Maine sooner.
He also has been criticized for his ties to Thornburg Mortgage, which recently went bankrupt and has faced a flurry of lawsuits. The firm offered superprime jumbo mortgages, the opposite of subprime loans. Cutler, who sat on the company’s board, calmly explained that Thornburg was a well-respected and well-performing lender that was victimized by the financial crisis.
Cutler also has been taken to task for his years of lobbying on behalf of Chinese firms, a claim he disputes.
He said the biggest assumption people make is that he cannot connect with average Mainers.
“I do connect with them. I’m not finding that to be a problem,” he said. “Some things are just a matter of time. I’m still only at about 50 percent in terms of name recognition.”
However, the longer Cutler’s support stays around 15 percent, the better chance LePage has at winning the Blaine House, Brewer said.
Would the independent consider dropping out?
“That’s not even something I’ve considered,” Cutler said. ‘I am the only responsible alternative to both of these party candidates, and I believe I’m going to win. There is only one poll that counts and that’s on Election Day.”
Touring the Falcon Shoe Factory in Lewiston recently, Cutler stopped and shook hands with each employee on the floor. At the end of the tour, Cutler met two women who gave him the cold shoulder. They knew who he was but were not interested in hearing his views.
“We listen to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh,” one of the women said.
Larry Gilbert, Democratic mayor of Lewiston and Cutler’s host that day, turned away. Cutler, who was running late for another engagement, stayed with the women. He turned down the volume of his voice and shifted his expression to serious as he explained why he feels that he’s the person to turn Maine around.
“Will you at least give me a chance?” he said as he left.
The candidate might as well have been asking the entire state the same question.