What the first televised debate tells us about Republicans who want to replace LePage

Good morning from Augusta. The four 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidates sparred on Tuesday night for the first time in a television studio in a dense and hour-long debate hosted by WGME and the Bangor Daily News.

It came with just over two months left in a primary race between businessman Shawn Moody, former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason and Maine House Minority Leader Ken Fredette that is shifting from under-the-radar grassroots work in party circles to more public campaign activities.

The debate illuminated the influence of Gov. Paul LePage and divisions developing between longtime and relatively new Republicans. But there were scant policy differences as the candidates look to make a case that they’re the most trustworthy conservative.

Mayhew and Moody were under attack for much of the debate over their conservative bonafides. Mayhew was a longtime Democrat before becoming a Republican in 2014 while Moody joined the party in October 2017 after running for governor as an independent in 2010.

During Mayhew’s tenure in the LePage administration, she was the governor’s top lieutenant in the fight against Medicaid expansion. But Mason highlighted her support of a 2001 expansion as a lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association and her history as a Democratic operative.

Mayhew walked a tightrope of claiming credit for sweeping changes to Maine’s welfare system while also trying to distance herself from problems in the state’s child protective and mental health care systems, the former of which is under investigation after the deaths of two girls.

Fredette went after Moody at one point over his pro-abortion rights stance in 2010 and a donation to a Democratic legislative candidate in 2016, leading Moody to give a relatively calculated defense of his enrollment as a Republican, saying he didn’t want to be a “spoiler” like two-time independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

LePage still looms large. All four candidates tried to lay claim to his conservative victories, but Mayhew and Moody both had trouble answering a question about an area where they disagreed with the governor as they look to highlight similarities to LePage, who polls well in party circles.

Moody eventually said he would be “more of a collaborator” than LePage. Mayhew mostly breezed past the question — even after being pressed — and highlighted her work with the governor before hinting that they may have had disagreements during budget negotiations.

Mason was also hit by Moody over the Republican-led Senate’s efforts to often override LePage vetoes, but Mason schooled him on legislative procedure, noting LePage’s 2013 threat to veto all bills until the Legislature acceded to a plan to pay hospital debt. Moody looked relatively uninformed and light on policy at times as he tried to play up his “outsider” persona.

There is no true moderate in the field, but Fredette may have the most moderate governing philosophy. The candidates’ pitches are clear: Moody highlighted his business background, Mayhew her work on welfare issues and Mason and Fredette their reliable conservative records and experience in Augusta.

But while Fredette has stood with LePage in helping block voter-approved Medicaid expansion to date, he was the only one last night to say that it should be implemented because “the people have spoken,” though the law may have to be “tweaked” a bit.

After Mayhew said it “must be repealed” and Fredette hit back by saying repeal is unlikely because “you actually have to have the votes to do that” in the Legislature, but that “at the end of the day,” the law will have to be implemented.

LePage has said something similar, though it has been mostly stagecraft to this point, since he has said he would only implement expansion if Democrats agree to fund it on his own virtually unreachable terms. Fredette isn’t going to become an expansion advocate, but his stance was bold among the field.

Medicaid expansion supporters aren’t rushing into court

A key advocate said that her group will likely wait for the Legislature to finish its work for 2018 before suing the LePage administration. The Medicaid expansion law approved by Maine voters in 2017 gave the LePage administration until Tuesday to submit a plan for expansion to the federal government, but it apparently came and went without one.

Expansion proponents have teased that they would sue if LePage left it unimplemented past that deadline. But Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a progressive group that helped pass expansion, said that’s not happening immediately.

Merrill said while LePage is in “clear” violation of the law, her group will wait for the Legislature to finish business for 2018 before suing. But it’s unclear if the closely divided Legislature will be able to advance funding for expansion before it is scheduled to leave Augusta later this month.

“That will happen sooner if they do their job than if we have to fight it out in court,” Merrill said.

Maine House rejects LePage bid to limit wind farm permits

LePage’s attempt to limit where wind farm permits can be issued is on thin ice. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives rejected the governor’s bill to limit Maine’s “expedited permitting area” to a portion of eastern Aroostook County. The bill also sought to greatly extend the distance from a proposed project for which a visual impact assessment is required from 8 to 40 miles, but the majority of lawmakers don’t support it.

The Legislature’s energy committee recommended killing it and the House accepted that recommendation Tuesday on a mostly partisan 89-53 vote with Democrats leading the opposition to the bill. Concurrent with proposing the bill, LePage issued an executive order with similar directives, which is currently the subject of two legal challenges in Kennebec County Superior Court.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are both in session this morning. Check their calendars here and here.

As unfinished business continues to stack up, it’s difficult to predict what will be debated on the floor each day. We’re told the House might use some of its floor time today to consider LePage’s veto of LD 1444, a heavily amended bill to address conflicts over solar power metering and development. The Senate already voted to override the veto.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will consider advancing four bills that have been enacted but are in funding limbo. One is a bid by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to require a life sentence in convictions for domestic violence murder. It doesn’t call for a specific allocation but would increase ongoing costs for the Department of Corrections to imprison offenders longer. The committee will also consider a bill to de-organize Cary Plantation in Aroostook County, which would actually save the state money — though voters there would have to approve the concept in a November vote. The other bills up for consideration today are one to make changes in the Department of Environmental Protection and another to launch a study of Maine’s indigent legal services system.

We’re also keeping a close watch on Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, who will soon release her decision on the latest ranked-choice voting legal tangle.

Reading list

  • Attorney General Janet Mills wants to fund the first year of Medicaid expansion with tobacco settlement money. Mills, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, held a Tuesday news conference where she proposed initially funding expansion with $35 million in one-time tobacco settlement money. However, lawmakers would have to fund expansion fully going forward and LePage said in a statement that if Mills “thinks a one-time settlement is enough to fund Medicaid expansion, she won’t make a very good governor.”
  • LePage wants a federal appeals court to throw out the former House speaker’s lawsuit against him. The governor was dealing from afar with another Democratic gubernatorial candidate on Tuesday — former House Speaker Mark Eves. A federal appeals court in Boston heard Eves’ appeal of his “blackmail” case against LePage over his role in a nonprofit’s move to rescind an employment contract with Eves. It’s unclear how long a decision will take.
  • Democratic gubernatorial candidates lambasted LePage during a Tuesday forum in Auburn. Six candidates who participated in the Central Maine Community College event focused their attacks not on each other or the Republican field, but at the sitting governor. The six candidates who participated called for more civility in Maine politics, better health care, a more welcoming stance toward immigrants and greater job training opportunities, according to the Sun Journal.

Burning rubber, free screech?

No, we’re not talking about condom snorting. This is a family friendly blog (usually). We’re talking about a young man with a souped-up truck in Oakland who made eye contact with a cop and proceeded to roast his tires, spewing screeches and smoke everywhere.

When pulled over, the young man said he was immune from charges because spinning tires is an accepted form of free speech. He pulled up a story from the satirical New Maine News website as “proof.”

Here’s the crazy part: it worked and the driver didn’t receive a ticket.

This kid hasn’t been identified publicly, but we at the Daily Brief officially endorse his candidacy for whatever office he might choose to pursue, whenever he chooses to pursue it. Here’s his soundtrack.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and 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.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at ccousins@bangordailynews.com, mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.

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.