BIDDEFORD, Maine — Former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse made his first speech as a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate on Saturday. His message to a state he’s getting reacquainted with was simple — he wasn’t always a Google executive.
There is room for skepticism as the 49-year-old steps late into a primary for the right to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins that has a heavy favorite in House Speaker Sara Gideon. Maine Democrats have long climbed the political ladder into high-profile races. But his background and an apparent willingness to spend his own money could make him potent.
He announced his run last week. In a Saturday speech in Mechanics Park in Biddeford, LaJeunesse highlighted his working-class background as the grandson of French-Canadian immigrants and growing up on an Arundel farm. He remembered his family’s hardware store closing before his parents got a loan to open another one on Elm Street in Biddeford.
“I remember when the bank assessors came to my parents’ home to see if they were going to foreclose on the mortgage,” LaJeunesse said. “That’s a thing you don’t ever forget, no matter how old you get, what job you get, how well you do.”
After working for Democratic U.S. Sens. George Mitchell of Maine and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, LaJeunesse went to Harvard Law School. As he tells it, his expensive student loans prevented him from taking jobs as an attorney in Maine. By the early 2000s, he was in California.
He was an aide to former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger before leaving for Google in 2008. LaJeunesse was a key figure in a 2010 decision to stop censoring search results in China, later running international relations for the company as a sought-after speaker on free speech, technology and LGBTQ rights. He would be the first openly gay man in the Senate.
He left Google in May, when he registered to vote in Biddeford, and he is trying to distance himself from the company after a 2018 employee walkout over harassment and later revelations that it was considering a censored search engine in China before abandoning that this year.
On his campaign website, he says the company is “abusing its corporate power” and he left after Google “tried to buy his silence.” He didn’t elaborate in a Saturday interview, saying he would speak about it later and that he wanted the focus to be on his announcement.
That stint has made LaJeunesse wealthy. He has given nearly $143,000 to federal causes and candidates, including $5,600 to Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination and would be the first openly gay president.
LaJeunesse closed on a Biddeford home in June, though he still owns a Washington, D.C., house valued by the city at $2.3 million. He kicked off his campaign with a $50,000 advertising purchase and he said he is entering when he thinks most voters are beginning to pay attention.
“I feel really confident about my ability to get out there and get my message out there and run a very strong campaign,” he said.
Organizationally, he is behind. Collins, a Republican, has raised more money than any politician in Maine history. Gideon outraised her this summer and raised $4.2 million by Sept. 30. Lobbyist Betsy Sweet and lawyer Bre Kidman are running leftward primary challenges to Gideon.
On policy, LaJeunesse looks most like Gideon. His website is full of mostly safe Democratic stances. For example, he and Gideon back a public Medicare option instead of the more aggressive Medicare for all, a litmus test in progressive politics that Sweet and Kidman back.
Gideon’s backers focus on her service in Augusta. A spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said her record “makes her the best candidate” and is “why she’ll win next November” in the nationally targeted race against Collins.
Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, has gotten contributions in the past from LaJeunesse but has endorsed Gideon. While he said he was happy LaJeunesse is back in Maine and ready to make a contribution, “I just don’t think it’ll be in the U.S. Senate.”
Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, was at LaJeunesse’s kickoff event, though she hasn’t endorsed anyone. She said while she loves Gideon for her service in Augusta, the new candidate comes from “good stock” and Democrats “will really have a choice” in the race.
“He’s got to get his message out and I think there’s a lot of promise,” she said of LaJeunesse. “I think he’s got a big hurdle, but he’s going to be interesting in the mix.”