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Mills, LePage spar over abortion, immigration and economy in first televised debate

Gubernatorial candidate Republican Paul LePage, right, responds to a statement by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills during a debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Gubernatorial candidate Republican Paul LePage, right, responds to a statement by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills during a debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine.

After battling for months on television and in the media, Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage clashed over abortion, government spending, the opioid epidemic and immigration during their first face-to-face debate ahead of the November gubernatorial election.

The current and former governors wasted little time before taking swipes at one another on pocketbook issues during an election in which voters consistently rank inflation and the economy as their top concerns. LePage said he would have spent $250 million of a state surplus to subsidize Mainers’ heating costs this winter and suggested the $850 rebate checks sent to most Maine households were an attempt to “buy the election.”

Maine 2022 Gubernatorial Debate

"The governor may have gone to law school but she certainly didn't go to an economic school,” said LePage, a Republican.

Mills, meanwhile, pointed out that the idea of relief checks came from Republican lawmakers and she worked with them to expand the rebate. Echoing sentiments often used by GOP politicians, the Democrat also said that Mainers deserved the money back and knew better how best to spend amid rising prices. And she criticized the government she inherited from LePage upon taking office in January 2019.

"I've spent four years repairing the damage of his administration, rebuilding the infrastructure of Maine, rebuilding the Maine CDC, hiring back of public nurses and properly paying the state’s share of public education,” Mills said.

That was just one of the exchanges between Mills and LePage during a fast-moving debate co-sponsored by Maine Public, the Portland Press Herald and the Lewiston Sun Journal. Independent Sam Hunkler joined LePage and Mills on the stage at the Franco Center in Lewiston. But the action was entirely between the two front-runners as they sparred over education, the opioid epidemic, immigration and other topics.

Abortion has emerged as a leading issue, particularly among women and Democratic voters, since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And that was the subject of the longest back-and-forth between the current and former governor. Mills, who is a staunch supporter of abortion rights, challenged LePage after he said he would not sign bills brought to him by Republican lawmakers who seek to impose additional restrictions on abortion.

Mills pressed LePage on whether he would allow such a law to take effect without his signature – an option available to governors under Maine’s Constitution. After LePage replied, “I don’t know,” Mills said she would not allow additional abortion restrictions to get past her desk. LePage eventually said he would veto a hypothetical bill banning abortion after 15 weeks.

With the election just over a month away, the Mills and LePage campaigns are in the midst of a multi-million dollar campaign that is drawing a lot of attention and money from national groups. Mills has raised more money than LePage and led the former two-term governor in several recent polls. But LePage has been outspent in both of his two previous successful runs for governor. And the airwaves are already filled with attack ads as the two campaigns battle for what polls suggest is a relatively small pool of undecided voters.

Hunkler, who is a retired physician from Washington County, tried to use Tuesday's event as a chance to introduce himself to voters and to paint himself as a consensus seeker who wouldn't be beholden to partisan, special interests. But Hunkler has said he will only spend $5,000 on his campaign and hasn't outlined many specific policies.

"Well, I can tell you what I believe and I can give you my opinion and I can give you my policy ideas,” Hunkler said. “But I am one of 1.3 million people. And I would really like to bring people together."

On the issue of elections, LePage said he believes President Joe Biden won the 2020 elections — despite false claims by former President Trump and his supporters — but said “I’m just not sure who is running the country . . . he’s obviously not capable of running the country.”

All three candidates said they trusted Maine’s election system and that they would accept the outcome of the November elections. But LePage questioned why Mills and others oppose requiring voters to show identification cards, which he said can be issued by the state to voters who need them.

“Why are you against voter ID?” LePage asked Mills.

“We don’t need it here in Maine,” Mills replied. “We have integrity in our elections.”

On the issue of Maine’s record-high opioid deaths, LePage criticized Mills for not following through with his administration’s plan to open a new wing at the Maine Correctional Center where prison residents could receive detox and rehabilitation. And he said he supported an “all of the above strategy” that combined increased law enforcement with drug treatment to address the crisis. But Mills, who has seen drug deaths hit record highs in recent years, said her administration has added drug treatment programs in the jails and significantly expanded the availability of the overdose reversal drug Narcan, which LePage opposed as governor.

Hunkler, meanwhile, voiced skepticism about the focus on medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone and suboxone, saying it “treats addiction with addiction.”

“I would turn one of our prisons into a rehabilitation center, a detox and rehabilitation center,” Hunkler said. “If not one prison then two. Because if you think about it, half of the people incarcerated are there because of drug-related problems.”

It was obvious Tuesday that there's no love lost between LePage and Mills, who often clashed publicly when he was governor and she was attorney general. During one fiery exchange on recent immigrants, Mills criticized LePage for supporting former President Donald Trump's temporary ban on accepting refugees from largely Muslim countries.

"Janet Mills. You are a liar,” LePage said. “I have not joined and prevented Muslims from going to work ever. I did not join the Trump administration on any immigration."

But LePage did, in fact, support Trump's executive order restricting immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries. And he criticized Mills at the time for joining other attorneys general who opposed Trump's move. That prompted this retort from Mills: "Mr. LePage joined the Trump Muslim ban. He was very clear about that as governor. I opposed him on that."

The candidates did agree on at least one issue: all three say they would support spending state dollars to continue providing all public school students with free meals, which is the policy of the Mills administration.

Mills and LePage are slated to face off at least four more times before the election, including later this week during an event held by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.