PORTLAND, Maine — It’s not often you see a member of Congress in sneakers handing out palm cards to colleagues ahead of a vote, but U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was doing that in June.
The Republican from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District helped head off an attempt to strip language from a defense budget bill reinforcing the Berry Amendment, the longstanding law requiring many products issued to military members — including athletic shoes — to be made domestically.
But the federal government has long issued cash allowances for athletic shoes, bypassing that law. It’s a fight in which Maine’s congressional delegation is heavily invested because New Balance — with 900 employees in Maine — is one of the only companies making athletic shoes in the U.S.
Poliquin called the vote “a milestone victory” for New Balance and in an interview, company spokesman Matt LeBretton praised him for “advocacy at the grass-roots level that I have never seen from a member of Congress.”
“It’s not an act. It’s not a show,” he said. “There’s show horses and workhorses, and Bruce is a workhorse.”
But the effort to get the Obama administration to abide by the law builds upon Berry Amendment groundwork started by Democrat Mike Michaud, Poliquin’s predecessor.
Now Poliquin is running a nationally targeted re-election rematch against Democrat Emily Cain, staking much of his campaign on advocacy for issues once championed by Michaud, such as trade and veterans. He’s getting high marks from some. Democrats, however, are questioning his authenticity, trying to focus on party-line votes and Wall Street ties.
In the 2014 contest, Poliquin’s camp criticized Cain for specific votes during her 10 years in the Maine Legislature. Democrats could not do that with Poliquin because he had no record in elected office. Now they can, and they are.
‘Dedicated public servants’
Michaud and Poliquin’s backgrounds and political profiles couldn’t be much more different, but Poliquin didn’t hesitate to draw a connection between the two in an interview after a Portland event Friday.
“We have very different life experiences, but the way we’re similar is that we’re both French Canadian Catholics who were born and raised in central Maine,” he said. “So we have those similarities. And he’s a committed, dedicated public servant, and so am I.”
Michaud never went to college and worked at the Great Northern Paper Co. in East Millinocket during his 22 years in the Maine Legislature before going to Congress in 2003. He left Congress in early 2015 after running against and losing to Gov. Paul LePage in 2014.
Poliquin, a Harvard-educated Waterville native who made a fortune as a New York City investment manager, served as state treasurer for two years and lost two primaries for statewide office before beating Kevin Raye for the GOP nomination for the 2nd District, then Cain in the 2014 general election. It was the first time a Republican had represented the district in 20 years.
‘Poliquin picked up the ball’
Trade and veterans issues defined Michaud’s tenure in Congress.
For years, he championed New Balance sneakers, famously giving President Barack Obama a pair when he visited Maine in 2012. Michaud proposed bills and helped keep the issue in the news, but most work on the Berry Amendment was done behind the scenes in meetings, keeping pressure on the Obama administration, said Peter Chandler, who was Michaud’s chief of staff stretching back to his legislative days.
Chandler said he “chuckled” when he saw news of Poliquin’s “victory,” particularly because a 2014 federal policy change said the government would assess Berry Amendment-compliant shoes. But nothing has changed, as a key testing program has been halted.
“If you can pass a bill and hold a press conference or put out a press release on claiming victory on something, that’s not the same as getting it done,” he said.
But LeBretton said Michaud and Poliquin showed “a let’s-get-it-done mentality,” saying he’s “never seen a more effective freshman member of Congress” than Poliquin, who wrote a letter with fellow members in July to ask the government to continue the shoe-testing program.
“We were disappointed when Mike decided he wasn’t going to run for re-election, frankly,” LeBretton said. “Bruce Poliquin picked the ball up where it was and ran with it.”
As key to Michaud’s profile, however, was opposition to free trade agreements. It was key to each of his House campaigns, and he was a reliable vote against them in the House. That’s common in Maine. Olympia Snowe, the last Republican in Maine’s 2nd District, opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been blamed for manufacturing job losses here.
While Poliquin opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal between the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries that is largely supported by Republican leaders, he only announced that in April. During the 2014 campaign, he made statements in support of free trade, but since taking office, he has assailed Canadian subsidies to paper manufacturers and pushed for duties on Chinese fabric.
Cain criticized his wait to offer a position on the trade deal, saying if he were “seriously interested in protecting Maine workers and manufacturers,” he would have opposed it from the start.
Michaud also was closely identified with veterans issues: When he left Congress, he was the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and now working in the Obama administration as head of the U.S. Department of Labor’s veterans employment service.
His advocacy led to the creation of the Access Received Closer to Home program, which started in 2011 as a pilot project in Aroostook County and four other sites nationwide, allowing area veterans to be treated there instead of at facilities hundreds of miles away.
The Obama administration extended the program this year, which Poliquin and the rest of Maine’s delegation hailed while pushing legislation for a permanent extension. He doesn’t have a Michaud-type record on veterans, but Peter Meisberger, a Caribou veteran and Veterans of Foreign Wars official who has used the program, said Poliquin’s getting his vote this time.
“Whatever issue we’ve brought to him, he looked into it and did the best he could to solve it,” said Meisberger, a Republican who supported Michaud.
Donations tell a different story
Democrats, however, bristle at comparisons of the two. Chandler said Michaud knew he wouldn’t raise much money on the Veterans Affairs Committee, but he went on it to throw his full weight behind those issues because the 2nd District has more than 66,000 veterans, more than any other district in New England.
Poliquin, however, is on the House Financial Services Committee. While Michaud got lots of campaign support from labor groups, Poliquin has raised more than $750,000 so far from the financial sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Ads from Democratic interests have shown a push to link Poliquin to Wall Street, while Cain has hammered him for a host of votes, including one in 2015 for the House Republican budget that would have turned Medicare into a voucher program for people younger than 56.
It’s on those pocketbook issues where the “huge difference” lies between Michaud and Poliquin, said Chandler, who now is chief of staff to Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan.
“I don’t think you can point to a vote or two and say you’re continuing in the same mold, because it’s not at all,” he said.
But while Michaud and Poliquin aren’t much alike, Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist in Maine who has worked for Obama, said Poliquin’s positions on these attention-grabbing issues could be tough for Cain to counter, because “he’s been doing what he needs to do to position himself for re-election without alienating his base.”
“The thing that Emily has to do is convince people that there’s a reason to fire Bruce Poliquin. Fundamentally, that’s what she has to do,” Cuzzi said. “Given the fact that Bruce has shown a willingness to take some of these stances on some of the big votes with an eye toward his re-election, I think he’s made prosecuting that case harder.”