Gun talk continues to shape Maine Democrats’ race to replace LePage

Good morning from Augusta. A week before the primary election, the seven Democrats vying for their party’s nomination squared off in another televised debate that showed they are in lockstep with each other on many major issues, but apparent leaders in the race are clashing.

The talking points haven’t changed. The hour-long debate hosted by WMTW focused on health care, addiction, education and the economy — just like most any gubernatorial debate — and for the most part had candidates answering questions within their own silos and without pushback from moderators or other candidates. However, Attorney General Janet Mills and attorney Adam Cote continued a clash over gun control that has been simmering for weeks.

It’s not the policy that the disagree on, it’s the past. Both of them and all the Democrats say they agree on basic gun control measures such as a ban on bump stocks, universal background checks and allowing courts to seize guns from certain offenders. Mills opened the conversation by sharing a story about incident in which she said a former boyfriend had once held a gun to her head while he was drunk.

The tension point between Cote and Mills is whether Mills has been strong enough on gun control measures in the past. As a legislator, she received favorable ratings from the National Rifle Association. “You got three endorsements from the NRA,” argued Cote.

Mills replied angrily that “my record has been distorted once again” and noted that she now has an “F” from the NRA and has “never taken a dime” from the organization’s lobbying wing. “You can spend another million dollars on attack ads to attack me but don’t ever say I don’t care about gun safety,” she said. (Cote raised less than $1 million by this weekend.)

Cutting through the spin, it was a different era on guns when Mills was in the Legislature. She and Cote were moderate on guns then. While Cote has highlighted her 2005 vote against a bill mandating background checks before sales of firearms at gun shows and a 2007 vote against a bill allow public universities to regulate guns on campus, she agreed with the majority of her Democratic colleagues then. Cote ran for Congress in 2008 as a moderate on guns and was attacked for it in the primary.

All of the other candidates said again they they would never take donations from the NRA. They agreed on the need for more gun control measures but former House Speaker Mark Eves took it a step further, saying as governor he wouldn’t even allow the NRA at the negotiating table when it comes to gun control laws because “the NRA gets in the middle and scares politicians.”

Former sheriff and state Sen. Mark Dion differed on that point, saying “you can’t get anything done unless everyone is at the table.” Former state Rep. Diane Russell went to the other extreme, arguing that the NRA represents “violent criminals” and “arms dealers.”

Lobbyist Betsy Sweet took a broader view on the NRA’s influence, repeating her campaign mantra that special interest money from the NRA and all of the other lobbying groups needs to be excised from politics altogether.

Moody mailer dredges up LePage-era plagiarism incident

A mailer from a campaign run by Gov. Paul LePage’s strategist brought up a 2013 incident that was one of the first controversies of the governor’s first term. Businessman Shawn Moody’s campaign sent a mailer to Republicans this week highlighting his background and then hitting his three primary opponents. But the most interesting attack was on former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

In 2014, the Bangor Daily News discovered plagiarism in a report on the state’s Medicaid system from the Alexander Group, which got a $925,000 sole-source contract to do it. LePage did damage control, suspending a payment and saying he was irked by the report.

LePage’s political strategist, Brent Littlefield, is now filling that role for Moody. The mailer hits Mayhew for giving a contract to a “politically connected colleague whose report to the state was found to be plagiarized,” which led LePage to “step in and push for a refund.”

The contract was canceled and LePage said while he took responsibility for the report as governor, the state should “use a little bit more foresight when we sign contracts.” But he and Mayhew defended the Alexander Group before plagiarism was discovered, so the mailer may be distributing blame disproportionately — a common activity this close to an election.

Thursday is last chance for in-person absentee balloting

If you want to cast your votes in the primary election early, do it today or tomorrow. State law prohibits absentee voting three days before any election, and that deadline falls as of the close of business on Thursday. There are exceptions for voters who complete a special circumstances application with local election clerks, but if you can’t vote on Tuesday, your best bet is to head to your town’s or city’s offices by tomorrow.

Reading list

  • A gubernatorial candidate says she should be judged by the clients she’s served as a lobbyist. Sweet has earned $762,500 for her firm, Moose Ridge Associates, since 2008, making her the 12th-highest-paid lobbyist in the past 10 years. She says she doesn’t represent any causes she doesn’t agree with and has focused her lobbying career on social service agencies, mental health programs, environmental protection and Maine’s medical marijuana industry.
  • The federal government has released a scorecard about how states are doing with Medicaid but the nation’s top Medicaid official won’t talk about it. The Trump administration’s “scorecard” ranks states on a number of issues and shows that Maine and several other states have not provided data on a number of points, such as how well they are controlling high blood pressure or children’s health care issues. Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, refused to discuss the scorecard during a news conference on Monday.
  • A ranked-choice voting “test run” showed that voters understand how to do it. They also have a high level of understanding about a June 12 referendum question that could perpetuate or doom the new voting system in the future, according to reporting by Maine Public.
  • The case of a woman who injected herself with a fatal cocktail of recreational drugs while hospitalized reveals cracks in hospitals’ systems to treat addicts. Brewer woman Jennifer Bent went to the hospital for treatment of a hip infection in 2016 but then died after injecting herself with Ritalin and oxycodone. She had been under close supervision after drugs and a syringe were found in her possession but that supervision ended when she was moved to another department at Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Remembering RFK

Fifty years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy died after being shot late the previous night in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel moments after declaring victory in the California Democratic presidential primary. His assassination — barely two months after that of Martin Luther King Jr. and less than five years after that of his brother, President John F. Kennedy — deepened the scar in an American political psyche that had already been traumatized by the prior shootings and the Vietnam War. Journalist Pete Hamill, who was at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy died, has described it as the day the country lost “hope.”

I was 10 at the time. I think I was too young to lose hope — or to know if we as a nation were in the process of doing so. My first concern was that, as a newspaper delivery boy, I was again going to have to carry big heavy papers full of bad news to my customers. Just three days earlier, Andy Warhol had been shot. In my young mind, it seemed as if delivering news of famous people being shot was becoming a regular part of the newspaper delivery job. I was too young to realize how tragically depressing it was to think that way.

My most lasting memory of RFK’s death — which we on the East Coast learned about when we woke up 50 years ago this morning — is a deep sense of numbness that permeated our community. News that neighbors had died in Vietnam mixed with what had become the all-too-common national news about another assassination. I remember sitting on the swings at our elementary school with another Irish-Catholic kid, talking about Kennedy’s death and murmuring, “Can you believe it happened again?”

It took a long time for that numbness to wear off. In some ways, I think we’ve held onto it as a protective measure to buffer ourselves from having anything but low, cynical expectations about our leaders and government in general. In hindsight, I’m not sure the American people’s relationship with our political system has ever recovered from those sad days when leaders who made bold statements about their visions for a truly united nation were gunned down. But maybe that’s just baby boomer hubris.

Find hope today. Here’s your soundtrack. — Robert Long

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.

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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.