PORTLAND, Maine — Whoever wins the election to become Maine’s next governor, the temperament of the Blaine House occupant will be starkly different in 2019 than it has been for the past eight years.
That was one takeaway from Wednesday morning’s gubernatorial debate before the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, an event that kicked off a two-day sprint of debates for the four candidates trying to make lasting impressions on voters in the month or so before Election Day.
Republican Shawn Moody, Democrat Janet Mills and independents Alan Caron and Terry Hayes are also slated to make their cases in debates in Westbrook, Waterville and Rockland through Thursday night.
They are all seeking to replace current Gov. Paul LePage, a two-term Republican known nationwide for being a political brawler whose off-color comments have often grabbed more headlines than his policy proposals.
While LePage was never referenced by name, Caron, Hayes and Mills all pitched the Greater Portland business crowd on their bipartisanship and lamented the lack of Medicaid expansion in Maine — a largely federally funded increase of government health care coverage for lower income residents that voters have supported, but which the governor has thus far blocked.
Even Moody, who defended the governor’s fiscal responsibility and has some of LePage’s top advisers on his campaign team, differentiated himself in terms of tact.
He described his own approach to leadership as “positive.”
“I want to lead with humility,” Moody told the audience of 200-plus. “I’m a servant-style leader. I want to empower, not overpower.”
Mills, who as the state’s attorney general has sparred with LePage on a number of legal issues, promised she wouldn’t “sit on bonds” that have been approved by voters to fund things like senior housing and environmental protection, as the current governor has done in some cases. Caron ridiculed LePage’s famed “Open for business” highway sign, saying no state ever proclaims it is “Not open for business.”
The independents on the stage sold themselves as the candidates who can break the cycle of partisan gridlock.
“We have two major parties … focused more on stopping the other party than getting anything done,” said Caron, a Freeport consultant who has co-authored two books on Maine’s government and economy. He later added that “excess negativity and the attack ads we see every night in our homes [are] grinding us to a halt.”
Hayes agreed, decrying what she called a “tit-for-tat” government where parties try “ruling by press release.”
Both independents stepped out to acknowledge that grappling with some of Maine’s pressing issues will likely take investment.
Caron said partisans are so terrified of being cast as “big spenders” by political opponents they won’t consider seeking new revenue sources, a step he said will be necessary as the rising costs of road work continue to outpace the gas taxes intended to help pay for them.
Hayes said the state needs to put money into the treatment of Mainers battling substance abuse problems in order to make progress in the opioid crisis.
“We’re going to have to pay for it,” she said.
Moody, in some contrast, pounded the drum of “fiscal discipline.”
He advocated for building up state reserves when the economy is strong, then spending on infrastructure projects during downturns, when prices go down and the economy needs the government boost.
Moody, a self-made business leader who famously started a statewide chain of auto body shops, suggested smarter spending is better than more spending. He said decades of Democratic control of the Legislature led to hundreds of millions of dollars in hospital debt and a $4.3 billion state pension “crisis” that LePage and Republicans inherited when they took control of the government in the 2010 elections.
“Those bills have been paid,” he said, adding, “If we didn’t have to pay our bills, we could have invested more in education, health care and infrastructure.”
The Republican also addressed a television advertisement, paid for by the progressive super PAC Priorities USA Action, blasting Moody for once saying Maine’s schools are “overfunded.” He said the ad cut out the larger context of his comment, which he said included that he wants schools to “operate efficiently and effectively,” targeting what he described as the skyrocketing costs of administration and bureaucracy cannibalizing funding for teachers and classrooms.
“The teachers are overworked, they’re stressed out, there’s too many administrative demands, they need help and I’m coming to the rescue,” he said.
Mills, who has running neck-and-neck with Moody at the top of the four-person race in terms of fundraising and polling, told Portland business leaders Wednesday morning about progress she’s already made battling some of the issues facing Maine in her role as attorney general.
She said her office has distributed the overdose-reversing drug Narcan to 85 police departments, which has been used to save 535 lives, and has also secured funding to launch plumbing programs in four school systems, an example of the work she said is needed to reinvigorate workforce development through education in Maine.
The Democrat said as governor she will be the “recruiter in chief,” “promoter in chief” and “closer in chief” in terms of business attraction, promising to build up the state’s broadband and cellphone coverage to accommodate economic growth in rural and urban areas alike.
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