AUGUSTA, Maine — In what organizers called the first televised gubernatorial debate on hunting, fishing and outdoors issues, the five candidates on the November ballot sought Friday to outline their attitudes toward issues ranging from the public’s use of private land to how to restore Maine’s declining deer herd.
The debate was part of an outdoors-issues cable program called “Wildfire,” which is hosted by Harry Vanderweide, editor of The Maine Sportsman, and George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. The program will be televised later this month on Time Warner Cable channels statewide.
Friday’s debate was a departure from several recent gubernatorial forums because of its conversational style without time limits. The format allowed the candidates some verbal jousting, though the moderators at times ended the conversations because they were off topic.
In one such case, the candidates discussed the very concept of making campaign promises, with independent Eliot Cutler stating that no candidate is equipped to make promises at this point.
“The people to my right have been making a lot of promises about what they’re going to do,” said Cutler. “I haven’t made a single promise to any group in the state of Maine. The first thing any of us will have to do is get our hands around the budget.”
Independent Kevin Scott called that a “cop-out” and Democrat Libby Mitchell said voters want details.
“People expect us as candidates to stand up and say what we’re going to do,” said Mitchell.
A portion of the debate was dedicated to discussion of how the candidates would fill Cabinet-level leadership positions, such as the commissioners of the Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Resources and Conservation. All of the candidates said they would base their decisions on who’s best for the jobs, not on politics. While Cutler said his appointments would clearly not be partisan because he is an independent, Republican Paul LePage vowed not to base his on politics, either.
“We need to drop our ideologies when we’re choosing commissioners,” he said, adding that he would choose commissioners who are talented in their fields “as long as they understand that profit isn’t a bad word” and as long as they’re willing to listen to Maine people. “I think the individuals out there would do a phenomenal job of self-policing if they know the people at the top will listen.”
Mitchell said the current process for choosing commissioners, which involves comment from interest groups and the Legislature, has a history of serving Maine well.
When asked how the state can replenish fish stocks, some of the candidates proposed expanding public-private partnerships at fish hatcheries, though Scott said that may have its pitfalls.
“Who’s going to make sure we don’t end up paying more than we already do?” he said. LePage all but rejected the notion that the government can do much to replenish fish stocks.
“The only government program I’ve ever seen that was done right is the GI Bill,” he said.
On the issue of combining the state’s natural resources agencies, a concept that was tried unsuccessfully by Gov. John Baldacci, none of the candidates expressed much support for it. While Scott and Cutler said they would move more control on issues such as land use to the county or municipal level, independent Shawn Moody advocated keeping the departments intact but moving around some of their functions where it makes sense.
“Inland Fisheries and Wildlife does a tremendous amount of work that could be moved to the Department of Conservation,” he said. “Let’s take away some of that overhead.”
In such a freewheeling and unscripted discussion about complicated problems, it was difficult for the candidates to differentiate themselves, Vanderweide said after the forum was over. However, he said the forum was valuable because it revealed their “attitudes” toward outdoors issues.
“We didn’t think there’d be any new ground broken,” said Vanderweide. “These are tremendously complex problems and none of the candidates has the solutions, but you can tell a lot from how the person chooses to answer a question.”
Friday’s forum will be aired on Time Warner channels statewide at 4 p.m. Oct. 16, at 6 p.m. Oct. 19, and at 9 p.m. Oct. 21. The show also will be available to watch online beginning Oct. 16 at the website www.wildfiremaine.tv.