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LEWISTON, Maine — The six other Democratic gubernatorial candidates didn’t mention Attorney General Janet Mills’ name or one another at the party’s state convention Saturday, but Mills’ front-runner status in the June primary to replace term-limited Gov. Paul LePage loomed large.
Attorney Adam Cote, state Sen. Mark Dion and lobbyist Betsy Sweet highlighted their support for the sovereignty of Maine Indian tribes — an issue on which progressives have hit Mills, who led the June 12 primary field in a poll released earlier this month by the Bangor Daily News.
Mills played up clashes with the Republican governor at the Colisee in Lewiston on Saturday as Democrats make rural Maine a priority after losing ground in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District since LePage took office in 2010.
“Today, right now and once and for all, reject the politics of fear and division and reaffirm in the politics of trust and hope and love,” she said.
But she has been targeted over the state’s position in support of a 2012 court ruling holding that the Penobscot Nation includes islands in the Penobscot River, but not the water itself. Her office is also fighting federal water quality standards backed by Maine tribes, a stance her office has said was recommended unanimously by nonpartisan staff.
Cote said he would “stop being miserable to the first Mainers,” Sweet said her administration would “start respecting tribes and their sovereignty,” and Dion said, “I trust the Penobscot Nation.”
Former Maine House Speaker Mark Eves was introduced by a Mainer recovering from opioid addiction and a graduate of the Florida high school where 17 students were killed in a February school shooting. That was no mistake as he courts progressive voters.
He has hit Mills for supporting a 2016 bill to increase drug penalties, although Mills backed it as a way to get addicted people into treatment, and high past marks as a legislator from the National Rifle Association, though she agrees with the field on gun control.
“The way that we can do better is if we have a governor who is willing to stand up to powerful interests and stand with those who have suffered under a broken system that is rigged against them,” Eves said.
Cote, an Army veteran who ran for Congress in 2008, pitched his general election viability and outsider status, promising, “If I’m the nominee, we’re going to win” and that his campaign is “about rejecting the status quo.”
Dion argued that Democrats must reconnect with working-class voters including union workers and teachers, saying, “Until we know what and who we stand for, we in the Democratic Party will continue to lose” elections in Maine.
Sweet and former state Rep. Diane Russell tacked to the left, touting their support for universal health care programs. Sweet said the state should offer every high school student two years of free tuition at a state institution in exchange for a year of community service. Former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion, the seventh Democrat running, didn’t speak at the convention.
Supporters of Mills in the rank-and-file at the convention cited her practicality. Carol Cuddy, a retired paralegal and delegate from Holden, cited her plain-spokenness and “good facts” in legal and political battles with LePage.
“She’s got perspective and she doesn’t get hung up on the idealism that Democrats can sometimes get hung up on,” Cuddy said.
Ronni Connolly, a Navy veteran from Sanford, said she backs Cote, who lives in her city, because it would “be nice to have somebody who cares about the military” in the Blaine House.
Hilary Ware, a retired nurse and delegate from Norway, said she supports Eves because he’s calm, young and experienced after a four-year tenure as speaker.
“He gives an honest answer whether it’s what you want to hear or not, and that’s so refreshing,” Ware said of Eves.
Those three candidates along with Mark Dion took the top four spots in the poll released by the BDN. But Sweet had a large presence at the convention, with supporters citing her status as the only Democratic candidate using Maine’s taxpayer-funded campaign system.
“She’s a strong progressive and that’s really important,” said delegate Jill Linzee of Bristol.
The Maine Democratic Party said that an estimated 2,000 people attended the convention, which ran from Friday to Saturday and was keynoted by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas. The weekend’s business will conclude with a state committee meeting on Sunday.
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