Maine’s top candidates for governor throw jabs but no knockout punches in debate

Good morning from Augusta. We got our first look at the interplay between 10 of Maine’s top 2018 gubernatorial candidates — four Republicans, four Democrats and two independents — at a Portland debate hosted by the Associated General Contractors of Maine on Wednesday.

It was an infrastructure-heavy event where candidates could agree that fixing Maine roads and the jobs that work creates are good things, but there were still some squabbles that help us discern how the party candidates are stacking up in their crowded primary fields and how the independents plan to split them.

There were small Republican breaks from termed-out Gov. Paul LePage … The Republican governor’s specter is hanging above his party’s primary, but it was interesting to watch certain candidates break from him in small ways on Wednesday. Responding to LePage’s recent move to set up a commission to review wind energy in Maine that isn’t subject to public meeting laws, former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew called for “transparency in anything that government does.” Mayhew, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and Senate President Mike Thibodeau said they would release senior housing bonds stalled by LePage (though Fredette, who has voted against their release, qualified that by saying “if done right”).

… except for one candidate. Businessman Shawn Moody, whose campaign is run by LePage allies, found ways to be LePage-like on Wednesday. He was the only candidate opposing the bond release and advocating for a questionable merger of the Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority. To fight Maine’s opiate epidemic, he advocated going after “criminal organizations” and said Maine must “scare” people away from using drugs. But after Moody noted that he was one of few on-stage who aren’t lawyers or politicians, Fredette (a lawyer and politician) hit back and posted a clip of it on Twitter deriding Moody as “pro-choice” and noting his 2010 run for governor as an independent.

Democrats had their own more friendly divides. Attorney General Janet Mills said she “probably” didn’t support a 2016 referendum calling for a surtax on high income to fund education — a progressive cause celebre — while former House Speaker Mark Eves and state Sen. Mark Dion did. Lawyer Adam Cote demurred, saying he supports “fully funding” education, but “we need to look at other ways to do it.” The Democrats were all over the place on the concept of a “buy America” bill. Eves said he would support on if it’s “practical.” Mills cited “concerns.” Cote said “the devil is in the details.” Dion told business owners that they should purchase “in your best interest,” but hoped that they would support other Maine businesses.

And the independents looked … independent. State Treasurer Terry Hayes and consultant Alan Caron are former Democrats. But Hayes followed Republicans in saying she’d veto a “buy America” bill. Both she and Caron said they opposed the surtax. But they also signaled openness to finding aggressive new tax-and-fee mixes to help replace the gas tax.

Senior Safe Act clears U.S. House

A bill to protect senior citizens from financial exploitation and fraud hangs in limbo between the House and Senate. The Senior Safe Act, versions of which were authored by U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, has been in the works since at least 2016 when the two Republicans appeared together in a press conference promoting it. The proposal, which calls on financial institutions to implement better protections to ward off fraudsters, could be headed toward approval. Poliquin’s version emerged from the House last week with unanimous approval as part of a larger package of bills called the Housing Opportunities Made Easier Act. The Senate version has been bundled into larger bll banking bill and according to Collins’ staff, should be considered “soon” by the full Senate.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in this morning. Check out their calendars here and here. Notably missing is a joint order to condemn white supremacy in the aftermath of the deadly rally last summer in Virginia, which Senate President Mike Thibodeau told the BDN last week was coming. It’s possible that could come up in a supplement to the calendar; we’ll keep you posted. The Senate may take up a bill that would delay the implementation of a recreational marijuana sales and regulatory structure until May 1 while the Legislature continues work on an omnibus bill that can survive a gubernatorial veto. Under current law, that structure should have been in place by today. Also of note is a new $100 million bond bill on the Senate calendar which is backed by LePage.

There’s a busy committee schedule this afternoon, which you can check out by clicking here. The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee could be interesting, where recommendations are possible on a resolution that’s been kicking around for years to amend the Maine Constitution to include the right to hunt and fish. There is also a bill that seeks to amend youth bear hunting laws to allow an accompanying adult to possess a firearm as a safety measure.

Reading list

  • In Maine, Joe Biden sorta predicted a Democratic wave election. The former vice president and longtime U.S. senator from Delaware sat down with George Mitchell on Wednesday evening in Portland. He was less fiery in his condemnation of Republican President Donald Trump than he has been in the past, but did admonish Trump for blaming “many sides” for violence at an August white supremacist rally in Virginia, where a counterprotester was killed and many others injured after they were run down by a car.
  • U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was on a train Wednesday that crashed into a garbage truck, killing one person. The Republican from Maine’s 2nd District suffered a few bruises but was “OK,” according to his spokesman. The chartered train carrying dozens of Republican members of Congress was en route to a partisan retreat in West Virginia. One person on the truck died. Another was seriously injured, according to local authorities. Amtrak reported that five people on the train suffered minor injuries.
  • The Maine Republican Party’s executive director owes thousands in unpaid taxes. Jason Savage said personal strife in his life caused the debt but that he is in the process of paying it off. He said he was unsure of how or if the situation will affect his job. None of the Republican candidates for governor, nor the Maine Republican Party, responded to questions about the situation on Wednesday.
  • A spate of minke whale deaths along the East Coast has triggered a federal investigation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says 29 stranded whales have washed ashore between Maine and South Carolina since January 2017 — 19 of them dead — which is an unusually high number. NOAA is investigating the causes.

Left out in the Cold … War

The Doomsday Clock, which supposedly measures how close we are to nuclear Armageddon, ticked closer to midnight last week. Not that we are worrywarts, but the Daily Brief team is nothing but prepared, so we explored our safe haven options.

Much to our delight, we discovered this note on the Wikipedia page for the Maine State House: “A side tunnel leads to a cold war fallout shelter, large enough to house the Maine senate, house and various other officials and aides. Construction of the shelter started on May 5, 1983, under the pretense of renovation; completed September 3, 1985, and it has been fully stocked and staffed ever since.”

We’ve been asking about it for the past week. No one will tell us anything about it. Maybe the people with all the answers are already in the tunnel. Maybe we aren’t invited. Maybe Dan Brown wrote that Wikipedia entry. Why doesn’t the costs of staff and supplies show up in the biennial budgets? Here is our soundtrack. Here is one for the people who won’t tell us how to get into the tunnel. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.