LEWISTON — In a city that's often supported him by more than a 2-1 ratio, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said Thursday he was officially running to be Maine's next governor.
In front of a boisterous crowd of about 200 at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston's Little Canada neighborhood, Michaud said he wanted to return home and serve as governor to end a bitterly partisan climate in Augusta and restore Maine's dignity on the national stage.
At his entrance and interjected throughout a speech that lasted for more than 30 minutes, the crowd chanted, "We like Mike." That was clearly going to become a campaign slogan as signs and new campaign buttons replicated the motto.
In a speech that was as much an indictment of incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage as it was a praise of Maine's working class, veterans and the elderly, Michaud charged LePage with creating an overly charged political atmosphere.
"The tone in Augusta has turned into endless strings of angry rants and partisan, personal attacks," Michaud said. "It's a shame and an embarrassment but it's not the way we do things here in Maine. That's not the Maine that I know. It's not the Maine that we all love."
He promised to forge a "new path" for the state.
"A path that honors the hard work of Mainers who get up every day and punch the clock," Michaud said. "Who fishes our seas, who builds our ships, who waits on tables, teaches our kids and cares for our elderly . . . who grows our food, who repairs our streets, who builds our houses. That's who I'm here to fight for."
Michaud, a Democrat from East Millinocket who has served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, noted LePage's ability to draw national attention but not always in a good way.
"Our state has become a punch line on the late-night TV news," Michaud said. "An abrasive, 'my-way-or-the-highway' agenda alienates and divides our people. There are too many folks who are hurting."
Michaud touted his time as a mill worker in northern Maine and also his support for environmental protection and health-care policies that have been rejected by LePage, including the Affordable Care Act.
He said he first got involved in state politics to clean up the Penobscot River.
"The Penobscot, like the Androscoggin here in Lewiston, was the lifeblood of our region and it was being poisoned," Michaud said. "I ran for a reason, to clean up the river and we did just that."
He challenged LePage's rejection of an expansion of MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program, under the new federal law.
"And it sure as heck isn’t leadership to say no to health care for 70,000 people, including nearly 3,000 veterans," Michaud said.
Michaud also reminded those in attendance of LePage's response to a string of arson fires in Lewiston in the spring and chastised him for not doing more.
But LePage did release $30,000 from an emergency contingency fund that went to help those left homeless from the fires.
LePage also ordered state agencies to immediately begin to do whatever they could to help the city in the wake of the fires and settled a dispute between the city and the Maine Department of Transportation, relieving the city of an estimated $300,000 debt related to a joint city-state street reconstruction program.
Both men have made a point of their connections to Lewiston via their Franco-American heritage. LePage, a Lewiston native, grew up on the streets around the Franco-American Heritage Center — formerly St. Mary's Cathedral, a Catholic church. In a visit to the center soon after taking office in 2011, LePage addressed the audience in French and told stories of his childhood in the neighborhood.
LePage carried Lewiston in his 2010 election, getting more votes than either the Democrat, Libby Mitchell, or Cutler, who also sought election in 2010.
"While he talks of civility, Michaud’s record is one of extremism and liberalism having supported Californian Nancy Pelosi with votes up to 96 percent of the time," LePage's campaign adviser, Brent Littlefield, said. "While Paul LePage is fixing a hospital welfare debt that existed for years, Michael Michaud is advocating more welfare spending that will send Maine back to the growing welfare of the (Gov. John) Baldacci years."
Littlefield said they were looking forward to the race against Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler. It's a race Littlefield predicted Michaud would lose. He also said it has been 59 years since an incumbent governor lost a re-election bid in Maine. Littlefield said throughout his political career Michaud has never faced as formidable an opponent as LePage.
It was ironic, Littlefield said, that Michaud chose to open his campaign in LePage's hometown of Lewiston talking about job creation while LePage and his administration had focused a lot of energy and effort on getting a mill reopened in Michaud's hometown of East Millinocket.
"Gov. LePage has literally created hundreds of jobs in Mike Michaud's backyard," Littlefield said. "He worked to reopen that mill and he's still working on that and they are up to 200-plus workers there now as a result of Gov. LePage."
Republican minority leaders in the state Legislature also issued statements Thursday in support of LePage and warning voters against Michaud.
"I think once people look into Mike Michaud’s record, it will become a question of whether he finishes second or third in this race," state Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said.
Maine House Minority Leader Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Maine's economy was on the rebound under LePage.
"Unemployment is down, private sector jobs are up, debts are being paid, taxes are lower, and our welfare spending is finally being reined in," Fredette said.
Meanwhile, Cutler said Michaud's official entrance to the race made it even easier for Maine voters to pick him over either the Democrat or a Republican.
"If Paul LePage and Mike Michaud are their parties’ nominees, voters will have a clear choice among three different directions for Maine’s future," Cutler said in a prepared statement. "We can remain hopelessly stuck, we can go backward, or we can move forward together to make Maine healthier, smarter, stronger, younger and more prosperous."
Cutler said both Michaud and LePage should be rejected by the voters.
"Maine voters want something better than the cynical and partisan party politics that have overtaken Washington and Augusta and have denied opportunity to thousands and thousands of Maine people," Cutler said.
But those in attendance Thursday, especially a large contingent of war veterans, said Michaud had kept his promises as a politician, especially regarding a VA clinic in Lewiston that Michaud helped bring to the city.
The clinic, which opened in 2012, was supported by Maine's entire Congressional delegation but Michaud, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House's Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote the enabling legislation.
Maurice "Moe" Marquis, a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War, said he supported Michaud's bid for the Blaine House but worried about losing Michaud's advocacy for veterans in Washington.
"I have already told him, 'Mike we need you over there in D.C.,'" Marquis said. "I wish he could be in both places, he's just a fantastic person and he's for us, not only for us veterans but for the people of Maine."
Several high-profile state Democrats were in attendance for the event as well, including Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and the state Senate's Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. Jackson and state Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, have both announced campaigns for Michaud's Congressional seat. Cain was also in attendance Thursday.
Mills said she was there as a Democrat to support Michaud because, "He knows how to get things done. He's a problem solver and not a problem creator."