LEWISTON — U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud was on familiar and friendly turf Friday as he mingled among the guests at a luncheon of the Franco-American Heritage Center.
Lewiston, after all, has long supported Michaud, a Democrat from East Millinocket. He's won Lewiston, one of Maine's Democratic strongholds, in all five of his elections starting in 2002.
In the last two presidential elections Michaud has pummeled his Republican opponent in Lewiston. In 2008 Michaud won the city with 12,361 votes while his Republican challenger John Frary garnered 3,711 votes. In 2004 Michaud won 12,316 votes and his Republican challenger picked up 4,852 votes.
Michaud shook hands with and collected lunch tickets from nearly 400 guests.
"I like Mike, he's my man," said Flo Roux of Lewiston as she waited in line to shake hands with Michaud. "He's not a millionaire so we don't worry about the rich buying him and taking away from the poor and the seniors."
Others at the luncheon, which is a monthly event for the Heritage Center, echoed Roux's sentiment including a continuing reprise of, "I like Mike."
Campaigning at the center of Lewiston Franco-American community was like visiting his second home, Michaud said.
"I spend a lot of time down in this area and have been involved in Lewiston-Auburn even before I got elected to Congress," Michaud said.
During his time in the Maine Legislature, Michaud was one of the chief advocates for a $1 million bond that was the start to converting the former St. Mary's Catholic Church into the Franco-American Heritage Center.
"I felt very strongly that when you look at the number of Franco-Americans that are in Maine, that we should be very proud of our heritage and do whatever we can to promote it," Michaud said. "It's been a real economic boost for the region and a fabulous resource for the community."
Michaud said many at the luncheon thanked him for his work on veterans issues over the years, including his advocacy for a new Veterans Affairs medical clinic in Lewiston.
"Either them or someone in their family has visited or been taken care of at the CBOC (community-based outpatient clinic) here," Michaud said. He said during one visit to Lewiston a lady said to him that the clinic could use some additional staff as the demand was high there. "And actually we were able to get them some more help," Michaud said.
Michaud, who serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said when he entered Congress the Veterans Administration was grossly underfunded. He said during his time on the committee, the VA's budget was increased from an estimated $60 billion a year to more than $140 billion. "Yes, it's a huge increase," Michaud said. "But the U.S. government had forgotten veterans for too many years."
He said some of that increase was an acknowledgement by the government that many Vietnam-era veterans exposed to the defoliant known as "Agent Orange" were suffering from long-term heath effects from those exposures.
Michaud said he enjoys being out and in touch with the people that elected him noting he gets feedback, ideas and even constructive criticism on the campaign trail.
"The people here are just fantastic, they speak from the heart, it's always good," Michaud said. "It's a good morale booster. But it's also an opportunity to see what's on their mind and see if there is anything we can do to help. They are not bashful and they keep me grounded."
Michaud's rival, Republican challenger and outgoing state Senate President Sen. Kevin Raye was also in Lewiston campaigning on his support for veterans Thursday. Raye, like Michaud, was back in Lewiston again Friday touring the Walmart distribution center.
Raye, according to his campaign manager Robert Caverly, was in the midst of a barnstorming tour trying to spend time in each of the counties in the state's 2nd Congressional District.
On Friday, Raye was in Androscoggin, Oxford, Franklin and Somerset counties, Caverly said. He also noted that Raye was undaunted by Michaud's strong election track record in Lewiston.
"Kevin is not afraid to take his message anywhere," Caverly said. "We've got to be prepared to go after the entire district. The poor economy that we have doesn't just affect some towns it affects everyone, and we are out their talking about jobs and economy and how Kevin will be a stronger voice for Maine down in D.C., and it's a message we want to get everywhere, so we are not going to shy away from any town."