Left versus inside: Recapping the Maine Democratic gubernatorial debate

Good morning from Augusta, where it feels a lot like March 2016 — and not just because of the weather.

The 2016 Democratic presidential nomination fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton framed much of Tuesday’s broadcast debate between Maine Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Sanders easily won the Maine caucuses in March 2016, but lost the nomination to Clinton, an established front-runner who went on to lose the general election — and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District — in a shocking upset to political outsider Donald Trump.

One problem with the debate, co-hosted by WGME and the BDN, was that there were seven participants. That limited the questions that could be asked and made it difficult for any of the candidates to stand out from the field.

The debate affirmed Janet Mills’ position as the perceived front-runner. With half of the other candidates directing questions at her, those seeking to cut into Mills’ perceived lead tried to put her on the defensive. But for the most part, she rebuffed their efforts to portray her as against raising the minimum wage or pro-gun with some of the most detailed responses in a debate that was starkly lacking in details.

For others, it was a battle for the Bernie Sanders voters. Candidates staked out positions to the far left, well into the realm of democratic socialism, while trying to portray themselves as populists by defending ranked-choice voting and championing the referendum process while shying away from questions about the repercussions of those ballot questions. Betsy Sweet tried to highlight her status as the only publicly financed candidate, while Diane Russell touted her crusade against superdelegates during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

There was lots of talk about universal health care, income inequity and “the will of the people,” but almost no mention of government stewardship, fiscal responsibility or what might have to be cut over the long term to increase funding for public schools or Medicaid.

Mark Eves is running against the National Rifle Association in the primary. It might win him votes from southern Maine progressives but it likely creates obstacles for him in the more rural, conservative 2nd District, where Democrats have shed voters in recent decades and where hunting is more prominent in the regional culture. It’s also worth noting that voters sided with the NRA to beat back a 2016 referendum to expand gun background checks in Maine.

Adam Cote tried, with limited success, to portray himself as an outsider, but his efforts to do so sometimes appeared calculated and rehearsed. His campaign seems to want to emphasize that he is different from other candidates who have spent years in Augusta, but that did not manifest itself in the debate.

Donna Dion, arguably the least well-known of the seven, used her time to try to introduce herself to voters, play up her underdog status and portray herself as a strong woman who had to overcome a male-dominated political culture during her tenure as mayor of Biddeford.

Mark Dion, who often offers sophisticated arguments on legal and energy policy matters in the Legislature, tried a more folksy approach. A former sheriff, he played up character issues, arguing that the next governor needs to be even-tempered and a good listener.

Maine Democrats, who have not won a statewide race in 12 years, continue to define themselves largely by who they oppose: Paul LePage, corporations and legislators who thwart citizen initiatives. The bulk of the candidates’ most fervent rhetoric was directed at past initiatives that stalled, such as Medicaid expansion and 55 percent funding for K-12 public education. We heard about how they want to drag some stalled Democratic initiatives across the finish line, but few presented a vision for how Maine would look under their leadership. In some ways, it was a throwback to the process-focused Democratic themes espoused by party nominee Libby Mitchell in 2010.

Campaign dynamics will shift often in the two months before the primary. But — for now — the framework of the Democratic contest for the nomination to succeed LePage remains one in which multiple candidates will court the progressive wing of the party that turned out for Sanders in 2016 while the most established party insider makes the case that her experience gives her the best chance of winning the general election in November.

Medicaid expansion funding bill advances

Two Republicans voted for a Democratic proposal to add jobs in the Department of Health and Human Services to accommodate Medicaid expansion. After voters approved Medicaid expansion last year, LePage placed conditions on how he wanted the Legislature to fund the law he has staunchly opposed. He said he would only implement expansion if lawmakers met those conditions. One of those conditions was money for just over 100 additional administrative positions in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Democrats on the Legislature’s budget committee have produced a bill to give the Republican governor those new employees and it came out of that panel with a 9-4 vote on Tuesday, with two Republicans — Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, a longtime expansion advocate, and Rep. Stedman Seavey of Kennebunkport — backing it. Other Republicans opposed it.

The bill would fund the new positions and some technology upgrades at a cost $10.4 million overall — with $3.8 million of that coming from the state budget. It will likely face an uphill road to passage if LePage opposes it, but when it goes to the chamber floors, we’ll get a look at how Republicans have moved — if at all.

Bid to tighten referendum process passes, but not by enough

The House of Representatives voted 92-55 Tuesday in favor of a concept many have long said they favor: requiring that more signatures for citizen-initiated legislation come from northern and rural Maine and not just from the more populous south. LD 31, which was carried over from last year, would require petitioners to collect signatures from each congressional district equal to at least 10 percent of the total gubernatorial votes in that district during the most recent election. The measure would require an amendment to the Maine Constitution, which requires a referendum.

However, the first step is a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and that didn’t happen Tuesday. The bill faces more votes and an uphill battle because of Democratic opposition in the House and Senate.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are both in this morning, and the Senate, especially, has a heavy calendar. In addition to a number of vetoes, the Senate is scheduled to consider a long-debated bill to implement a sales and regulation structure for recreational marijuana. Also on the docket is the direct initiative bill we mentioned above and a controversial bill that would specifically outlaw female genital mutilation.

According to the House calendar, which today looks lighter than the Senate’s, a handful of vetoes are up for consideration and there are a number of bills in the “unfinished business” section that could come up for votes at any time.

There is some committee action scheduled for this afternoon, including confirmation hearings for two potential district court judges — Stephen D. Nelson and Lea-Anne Sutton — in the Judiciary Committee.

The Maine Bureau of Human Resources will host the first-ever state government career fair beginning at 3 p.m. in the Hall of Flags, which is on the second floor of the State House. Representatives from 15 state agencies and departments will be present and the event is scheduled to go until 7 p.m. According to a news release, there are more than 50 open positions to fill.

Reading list

  • The creation of a sales and regulatory system for recreational marijuana appears to be back on track. After an omnibus bill failed last year following a gubernatorial veto, lawmakers continued their work on a new version and presented it to the House for consideration on Tuesday. The bill got a 112-34 vote, which is more than the two-thirds majority to override an almost certain gubernatorial veto. It’s expected to come up for an initial vote in the Senate today.
  • Questions about whether there will be a Republican primary in this year’s U.S. Senate race will be answered in court. State Sen. Eric Brakey’s U.S. Senate campaign announced Tuesday it will appeal a recent decision by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to allow Max Linn into the race despite finding 230 signatures on Linn’s ballot access petition that could not be verified. Brakey argues that all of the petitions from certain people who collected signatures for Linn should be thrown out, which would disqualify Linn from the race.
  • A bill to encourage people to generate their own solar electricity is dead. Despite procedural wrangling by Democrats, LePage’s veto of a heavily amended bill designed to promote large-scale solar energy development and clarify metering standards was sustained Tuesday in the House by a vote of 96-50. As a result, a Maine Public Utilities Commission rule that would gradually reduce credits designed to reward solar development remains in place.
  • President Donald Trump has nominated a Maine Superior Court justice to the federal bench. Justice Lance Walker of Falmouth was nominated by Trump for the U.S. District Court. Walker’s nomination to the lifetime Bangor-area post is subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Walker was became a Maine District Court judge in 2014 and became a Maine Superior Court justice a year later.
  • A state lawmaker who was a Democrat until last year wants to unseat U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford, who unenrolled from the party in 2017, announced Tuesday he will run as an independent against the Democratic congresswoman from the 1st District and Republican challenger Mark Holbrook of Brunswick in this November’s general election.
  • The University of Maine System has chosen a new president for its Orono and Machias campuses. The system’s board of trustees has chosen Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who is currently chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation, to start in the new post over the summer. Ferrini-Mundy, who is from New Hampshire, is in Maine this week meeting faculty, staff and students.

Lewiston’s gift to song

Rene Rancourt, who was born 78 years ago in Lewiston, retired Sunday after 42 years of singing the U.S. and Canadian national anthems before Boston Bruins’ home games.

He had his own fan club and was a beloved fixture in Boston, dating back to when the Big Bad Bruins played in the rat-infested old Boston Garden. He provided the soundtrack for that team’s triumphant return and many other great moments in Bruins history, so it was only fitting that the Bruins and their fans sent him off in grand style on Sunday.

But his swan song would not be complete without a Daily Brief soundtrack. Left Bank obviously refers to the Androscoggin. Or maybe a canal. — Robert Long


Tuesday’s Daily Brief said Rep. Teresa Pierce represents Yarmouth. She is from Falmouth. Here is an appropriately apologetic 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.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.