RUMFORD — Matt Bean stood in a corner of Dick's Restaurant in Mexico, his spaghetti and meatballs getting cold.
Bean, dressed in millworker clothes, was deep in conversation with a man who had just ditched the dark gray suit coat and orange-patterned tie he was wearing minutes earlier at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Rumford Library.
U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud had changed from a sweater and slacks into a suit earlier in the morning, between campaign stops. Then, before making the rounds at Dick's tables, he shed the coat and tie.
But here in this western Maine mill town, it was what was in Michaud's wallet that made the biggest impression on people like Bean.
Like Bean, Michaud carried his membership card to the United Steelworkers Union. Both worked at paper mills for more than two decades. And both are worried about trade imbalances on coated paper that put Maine pulp and paper mills, such as Rumford's NewPage, at a disadvantage.
Michaud, who has represented Maine's 2nd Congressional District since 2002, successfully lobbied the International Trade Commission last spring to impose a temporary tariff on imports from Indonesia and China, which had been dumping coated paper in the United States in an effort to corner the market.
Bean, president of Local 900 of the United Steelworkers Union, said he appreciates having someone in Washington who understands the manufacturing industry.
“He's been very instrumental in this trade issue,” Bean said.
Michaud, 55, is seeking a fifth term in next month's election.
To accomplish that, he must defend his eight-year voting record in Congress at a time when incumbents, especially Democrats, face voters worried about finding jobs or keeping jobs, and who blame Washington for their fiscal woes.
Despite his dress suit and nearly a decade spent navigating the halls of the U.S. Capitol, Michaud appears to feel more at home among the blue-collar workers who populate the Mexico lunch crowd.
It was union backing that helped Michaud win the Democratic nomination in 2002 and it was the union's get-out-the-vote effort that helped him clinch the U.S. House seat that November.
Of the nearly $1 million he's raised to bankroll his campaign this year, more than one-quarter comes from labor. Jason Levesque, his Republican challenger, described Michaud's war chest as "75 percent special interest."
Michaud's latest TV ad appears aimed at burnishing his image as a Washington outsider and a common Mainer. The ad is set in a mill and shows Michaud sporting a hardhat, shirt and slacks. Michaud says: “In Washington, I can't believe the things I hear. They have no idea what families need.”
Words scroll across the screen touting the nearly 30 years he worked in an East Millinocket paper mill.
Hoping to tap into voter anger against Washington, the ad opens with a voice-over touting Michaud's vote against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or “Wall Street bailout,” as the announcer calls it.
Munching on a grilled cheese sandwich at Dick's Restaurant, Michaud explained that he opposed TARP because there was “no transparency and no accountability” in the program. He believes Congress should have waited to couple it with a finance reform bill he supported that came wrapped in regulatory strings.
Levesque has tarred the incumbent Democrat with repeated reminders of Michaud's 96 percent voting record with House leadership.
Michaud doesn't dispute the figure, but said he doesn't bother with such sterile calculations.
“When I look at an issue, I look at how it affects my district,” he said after attending a meet-and-greet for young professionals in Auburn last week. “If it affects it in a negative way, I'll either vote against it or, if there's a way to improve the legislation, I will definitely vote to improve it.”
By way of example, he pointed to his vote for a cap-and-trade bill that passed the House.
Had he been from a coal state, he likely would have voted against the legislation, he said.
But because Maine is a forested state, Michaud worked with the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to change the bill so that it would cast biomass fuel as a renewable energy resource, a boost to pulp and paper mills in Maine. He also had the bill clarified to include sustainable forestry on the list of sustainable agriculture practices and projects.
When he was a senior in high school, he was recruited by Great Northern Paper Co. to go to work in the local mill like his four brothers, his father and his grandfather.
He entered politics to put a stop to the pollution choking the Penobscot River, where he often went fly-fishing. He went on to serve seven terms in the Maine House of Representatives and four in the state Senate.
He kept his job at the mill, returning home to work night shifts and weekends. He remains an employee and still has his duct-taped lunchbox. He said he would have picked up shifts during congressional recesses, but he wouldn't want to bump another worker.
Although he never served in the U.S. military, Michaud has become known as a champion of veterans' issues. He serves on the Committee on Veterans Affairs and is chairman of the Health Subcommittee.
He voted against spending for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for several reasons: The spending isn't pegged to an exit timeline – a condition Levesque vehemently opposes – and it isn't included in the budget. Moreover, Michaud said intelligence reports indicate that Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and only roughly 100 members of al-Qaida remain in the country.
Republicans are running on an austerity platform, painting Democrats as big spenders.
But Michaud has cultivated a thrifty image, joining the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, composed of roughly 50 fiscally conservative Democrats who caucus every week to review budgetary issues.
Michaud voted for the historic and controversial Affordable Care Act that became law in March, despite its several flaws.
When asked why he supported legislation still mostly unpopular with many Americans, he said, “We could not keep going the way we were going,” he said, adding that health insurance premiums were rising by double digits, health care costs have been on a crisis trajectory. Something had to be done.
Michaud doesn't boast about his vote for the new law in his TV ad, but he defends it when asked.
The upside: It closes a gap in coverage of elderly drug costs; eliminates the ability of insurers to bar coverage of children for pre-existing conditions and allows children to remain on their parents' policies until age 26. The new law also gives tax breaks to small businesses that offer health care insurance and is aimed at lowering hospital costs by reducing the need for charity care.
A downside of the legislation is a requirement starting in 2012 that participating small businesses must file 1099 forms, a provision Michaud has already targeted with a bill to repeal it.
As a Blue Dog Democrat, he points to the bottom line in the bill, showing that it will save $143 billion in the first 10 years, a figure confirmed by the Congressional Budget Office.
Another vote he doesn't trumpet in his TV ad is his vote for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus bill.
He defends that spending, but says he wishes it had earmarked more money for infrastructure projects.
Still, 114 of Maine's small businesses benefited through tax cuts, and it paid for water and sewer projects, keeping Maine workers from filing for unemployment, he said.
But the Blue Dog in him wouldn't support a second stimulus bill anytime soon, he said.