It's been one of the best kept open secrets in Maine politics for more than 20 years, and now Democratic Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud has confirmed it: "Yes, I am gay but - you know, so what? I am who I am." Michaud says coming out was a personal decision. He thought a lot about it. But he wanted to get it off the table amid what he calls "the whisper campaigns, insinuations and push polls" those opposed to his candidacy have raised in the high-stakes race for governor.
In his 33 years as a state legislator and congressman representing Maine's 2nd District, no reporter has ever asked Mike Michaud about his sexual orientation. And, until this week, Michaud has never felt the need to disclose anything about it.
He outed himself in op-eds that appeared in the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald Monday morning. And he sat down for a series of interviews with reporters a few hours later.
"You know, I was born and raised in Maine, and people of Maine are very respectful of individuals' private lives," Michaud says. "And so I never worried about it, and it never was an issue - up until now. And for whoever it was or whatever group that's out there trying to make this an issue, you know, I thought that it was important to get it off the table up front."
Michaud says it's not clear who was responsible for the poll trying to raise questions about his personal life, and to get people to question whether he is gay.
"Whoever is doing it, hopefully they'll see that it really doesn't make a difference," he says. "Mainers are interested in moving Maine forward in a positive direction. And my personal life has never factored into how I do my job, whether punching a time clock at Great Northern Paper Company for over 29 years, serving in the Maine Legislature, my term in Congress, it's never factored into it. And my personal life will definitely not factor into how I will be governor."
"This is an entirely personal matter that has no bearing whatsoever on his or on any candidate's qualifications to be governor," says independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. Cutler says his campaign has done polling and focus groups, but hasn't asked - and wouldn't ask - voters anything about a person's sexual preferences.
Cutler says such questions are "irrelevant." "It has no bearing whatsoever on the campaign, hasn't - in my view - shouldn't, won't."
A spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage said he had no response to Michaud's announcement. But in an email, Brent Littlefield said he looked forward to coverage of the "major news of the week" coming Tuesday night. That's when LePage is expected to make his entry into the race official.
Meanwhile, Michaud is getting praise for his decision to come out. Ben Grant is chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.
"I'm just really impressed with Mike," Grant says. "I think it took a lot of courage to do this. He's been in public office for many years. This issue hasn't come up before, but now he's at a point in his life where he's personally comfortable with it enough to make it a public issue. So, I just really am proud of him, and really impressed with him today."
Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, describes Michaud as a personal friend, and says he's happy for him. Bennett says he does not think Michaud's sexual orientation will be a big factor for voters. "I think people have bigger issues on their mind about the direction of the state," he says.
As a state legislator, Michaud originally voted against a bill to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. And he was not an early supporter of same-sex marriage. He says his positions have evolved over time, just like Mainers who legalized same-sex marriage last year.
Ali Vander Zanden, of the group Equality Maine, says Michaud's congressional record on LGBT issues gets high marks. And, for Vander Zanden, so does the fact that he's willing to stand out as one of the only openly-gay candidates in Maine to ever run for higher office.
"As a lesbian and a Mainer, I think every openly LGBT elected official and candidate is good for Maine and good for LGBT people," Vander Zanden says. "So, I definitely read the announcement with happiness."
Michaud says reaction to his announcement has been overwhelmingly positive from his supporters. "Because they know they can trust me. They know I'm not afraid to take on the tough issues. And I think that's a good thing."
With Michaud's announcement, there are now seven members of the U.S. House who are openly gay, along with one member of the U.S. Senate.