AUGUSTA, Maine — John Baldacci has taken no official steps to launch another bid for the Blaine House. But the Democratic former governor has increasingly found himself the target of criticism from his Republican successor recently. And Gov. Paul LePage has cited his predecessor as the reason some of his new initiatives are needed in advance of next year’s gubernatorial election.
While LePage didn’t name Baldacci during his second State of the State address Tuesday night, he mentioned his “predecessor” twice during the hourlong speech as the jumping-off point to discuss plans to repay a $484 million debt the state owes its hospitals and to fast-track the development of natural gas infrastructure.
The State of the State came about 12 hours after LePage’s campaign committee issued a nearly 800-word fundraising email that appeared to set the stage for a LePage-Baldacci matchup in 2014. The email accused Baldacci, whose second term ended in January 2011, of leaving LePage with “a balance sheet held together by duct tape and gimmicks” and “runaway welfare spending that has been eating up Maine’s budget.”
Tuesday morning’s campaign email followed a handful of radio addresses over the past month that LePage used to characterize his plans to pay off the state’s hospital debt and renegotiate its wholesale liquor distribution contract as attempts to correct “two very costly mistakes of my predecessor” and to take on Baldacci’s energy policies.
Neither Baldacci nor LePage has officially joined the 2014 gubernatorial race. But LePage has set up a campaign committee with the Maine Ethics Commission that has raised more than $200,000 for a re-election bid, and Baldacci has been publicly weighing a gubernatorial bid for about two months. He recently told WCSH 6 that it’s “more likely than not” he’ll make an attempt to move back to Augusta next year.
Baldacci had not responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
In addition to LePage and Baldacci, independent Eliot Cutler has formed a campaign committee so he can start raising money for a 2014 run. And Steve Woods has joined the 2014 fray as a Democrat after running for the U.S. Senate in 2012 as an independent.
A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found LePage has a good shot at prevailing in a three-way race against Baldacci and Cutler even though the North Carolina pollster labeled LePage one of the least popular governors in the nation. Thirty-nine percent of voters surveyed approved of his job performance while 51 percent did not.
Baldacci didn’t fare much better in the survey. He was viewed favorably by 40 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 46 percent. And he left office with low approval ratings. A poll in October 2010, the month before LePage was voted into office, found Baldacci had 35 percent job approval and 55 percent disapproval.
It’s a smart move for LePage to, early on, make Baldacci a regular part of his radio addresses and campaign emails, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
“It doesn’t look like [Baldacci has] been rehabilitated to any significant degree,” he said. “I don’t know if this is so much a case of LePage trying to define Baldacci or to reinforce to Mainers what their thoughts were during Baldacci’s eight years as governor.”
“When I became Maine’s governor, hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid bills to Maine’s hospitals were stacked on my desk,” LePage told both chambers of the Legislature. “My predecessor left no plan to pay them, just IOUs.”
LePage on Tuesday night discussed his plans to renegotiate the state’s wholesale liquor distribution contract and use the proceeds to repay $186 million the state owes its hospitals going back to 2009. That $186 million payment would leverage nearly $300 million in payments from the federal government.
The plan to renegotiate the state’s liquor contract comes nearly a decade after the Baldacci administration leased the wholesale liquor business to Maine Beverage Co. in exchange for a $125 million upfront payment and an annual cut of sales revenue. The upfront payment helped plug a gap in the state budget.
LePage on Tuesday also made mention of Baldacci’s Wind Energy Act, which streamlined permitting for wind energy projects.
“My predecessor fast-tracked permitting for wind projects,” LePage said. “I am going to do the same for all natural gas infrastructure and Maine businesses.”
And the blueprint for LePage’s natural gas proposal? While the administration hasn’t released all the details, Patrick Woodcock, who directs LePage’s energy office, said Tuesday night that Baldacci’s wind legislation could serve as the model.