PORTLAND, Maine — An energy forum billed as the first time Maine’s three candidates for governor would speak in the same place did not come off as planned.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage abruptly declined to participate in Friday morning’s forum about policy on home heating, energy and the environment. His campaign said the governor’s last-minute decision not to take part in the forum with Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler arose from an apparent misunderstanding about the format of the event organized by E2Tech.
At a separate event elsewhere in Portland on Friday morning, LePage said he believed the three candidates would be provided time to speak about energy initiatives separately but said he found out “last minute” the three candidates were expected to be on stage together.
“You’ve got to keep the integrity of the process,” LePage said. “If you set up a format, you’ve got to stick to that format.”
Jeff Marks, executive director of E2Tech, said it was not clear to him why there was a last-minute misunderstanding about the event, which was scheduled to feature 30-minute presentations from each candidate, with the governor speaking first. Michaud was scheduled to speak second, and Cutler was scheduled to speak third.
Marks said Scott Van Orman and Lauren LePage of the governor’s campaign staff informed him Friday morning at the event that there was a misunderstanding about the format and stage setup, which included a podium and a table with place cards and a microphone for each candidate.
The LePage campaign said in a statement that the event “attempted to arrange a setting to put politics ahead of public policy.”
In a statement Friday afternoon from E2Tech, the group blamed the governor for putting politics first.
“There was no intent to place politics before policy today, nor has there ever been by E2Tech,” said Marks. “Unfortunately, the governor’s decision at the last minute not to participate in the forum because of the presence of the two other candidates in the room has distracted many from focusing on the important policy issues discussed this morning by the speakers and audience.”
The organization noted that LePage delivered the keynote address for its annual Augusta forum in March and that it has previously held forums and debates with candidates, including a 2010 debate with LePage, Cutler and Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell.
Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters, said after the talk that she was one of many who saw the governor’s car leave the parking garage outside of the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center at about 8 a.m. He was in the passenger’s seat, she said.
The event left only Michaud and Cutler to speak on their policies. Both candidates are perceived to be competing over more of the same voters on the political spectrum than LePage.
“Our hope was to have all three candidates to provide their energy strategies to a room of government, nonprofit, business and education officials,” Marks said.
Marks said his group hoped to have all candidates express their thoughts on heating and energy policy, as the new governor will enter office in the dead of the upcoming winter and face that issue on the first day in office.
“That’s not going to happen today, but we hope it does soon,” Marks said.
Organizers of the event said about 275 showed up to hear the three candidates, in addition to a group of about 85 students from the charter school Baxter Academy. The audience included those who registered and walked into the event.
The candidates were allowed to divide their 30 minutes as they wished for speaking and for answering questions from the audience.
The three candidates for governor have sparred publicly about exactly how, when and under what conditions they’d appear on stage together. LePage has been evasive in committing to appear at debates or forums at all. Michaud has said he wouldn’t participate in debates that didn’t include LePage, who he views as his only real opponent, thanks to Cutler’s lagging poll numbers. Cutler has said he’ll show up anywhere and share a stage with one or both of his opponents — or neither.
Later Friday, LePage said five debates scheduled in October would give the candidates ample opportunity to be in the same room, sharing their positions.
The stalemate has left various debate and forum organizers frustrated as they attempt to nail down attendance and schedules.
LePage’s no-show Friday resulted in a favorable scenario for his campaign, leading to inevitable questions about whether it was carefully orchestrated, though LePage’s campaign said a change in format from what was agreed upon by the governor was the cause for his sudden departure.
The governor’s campaign denied that Friday’s withdrawal was politically motivated, but his re-election strategy relies, at least in part, on Cutler and Michaud splitting the support of voters who oppose LePage. Whether his no-show was a clever political trick or because of a miscommunication regarding format, the result is the same: Cutler and Michaud were together, outlining their differences, and LePage was gone.
State politics reporter Mario Moretto and Portland bureau chief Seth Koenig contributed to this report.