The four candidates in Maine’s race for governor offered up their views on the economy, the workforce and education Wednesday morning, during a forum hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The sold-out event drew a crowd of local civic and business leaders, as well as the attention of political observers who are waiting for the relatively low-key gubernatorial contest to increase in intensity.
The race to see who will succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been decidedly different than the one that took place four years ago. Unlike then, Democrat Janet Mills, Republican Shawn Moody and independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron have rarely engaged with one another publicly.
Mills and Moody, who most recent polls have shown as deadlocked, have generally let the political ads blanketing the airwaves and internet do the dirty work of attacking one another.
Wednesday's forum at Portland's Holiday Inn-By the Bay was no different. The exchanges between them were never direct and almost subtle.
"When it comes cutting a business deal, or any other deal in the state of Maine, I will be true to my word," Mills said when responding to a question about whether Maine was a state that welcomes business growth.
But instead of attacking Moody, Mills focused on the man he appears to emulate — Gov. LePage. She criticized LePage for refusing to authorize voter-approved bonds and for chasing away an offshore wind deal that supporters said would create jobs.
"I won't pull the rug out from under business deals as we have seen in the last few years,” said Mills. “I will not sit on bonds that the majority of the people — 60 and 70 percent of the people — have voted on and the Legislature has supported by two-thirds votes.”
Mills's campaign seems to hope that tying Moody to LePage's controversial decisions as governor will give voters second thoughts about supporting what she's described as the status quo.
Moody, meanwhile, has continued to beat the drum that a businessman, an outsider, is what's needed in the governor's mansion.
The founder and owner of a chain of auto body repair shops repeatedly defended the LePage administration, as well as a gloomy jobs forecast by the Maine Department of Labor that is projecting nearly zero growth over the next eight years.
He also defended himself against an attack ad from Better Maine, a group funded by Maine Education Association and triumvirate progressive mega-donors, which says that “Shawn Moody would be a disaster for Maine Schools.” The ad uses a remark Moody made during the Republican primary, in which he said Maine's public schools are overfunded.
Moody told the audience on Wednesday that the ad is misleading. He said Maine schools need to be efficient and effective. While he wasn't entirely clear how he would do achieve those goals, he said the that political arm of the teachers union was afraid of the change he would bring.
"I mean, they are scared to death to have somebody like me — an outsider — come in and do the real reform that K-12 education desperately needs...the teachers are overworked, they're stressed out, nobody's listening to them, they have way too much administrative work and too much bureaucracy pushing down on them,” Moody said. “They need help and I'm coming to the rescue."
While the focus of the race has been on Mills and Moody, the two independent candidates are trying to gain momentum.
Terry Hayes, a former Democrat, hit familiar notes. She told the crowd that change will only come if voters elect someone outside the two major political parties, which she says are too engaged in partisan battles, allowing the state's opioid crisis has continued to flourish.
"Politics have become about keeping score and tit-for-tat and ruling by press release, instead of actually focused on the problem," she said. "So, I want to be focused on the problem.”
Independent Alan Caron also blamed Democrats and Republicans for the state's lack of economic vision. When asked if the state was open for business, Caron argued that every state is, but that Maine is stuck lurching between Democrats pushing one set of stale policies and Republicans pushing the other.
"We always talk about doing the things that every other state is doing, as though that's an economic strategy. It isn't,” he said. “A strategy would look at what we have uniquely as assets, what we can do," he said.
The candidates' remarks during Wednesday's forum were consistent with what they've been sounding for several months. With about a month to go before Election Day and no recent public polling, it's hard to know which of those messages will most resonate with Maine voters.