PORTLAND — With just 15 days until Election Day, the candidates in the race to be Maine’s next governor squared off in their second televised debate Monday, hitting on a range of issues from energy costs to education to health care.
In an hour-long and often fiery conversation, independent Eliot Cutler, Democrat Mike Michaud and Republican Gov. Paul LePage all criticized each other and fended off sharp criticism.
The debate at the University of Maine’s Hannaford Auditorium was broadcast by CBS-13/WGME and hosted by the television station and the Bangor Daily News.
LePage stuck to his “I’m not a politician” rhetoric to explain his often tough talk or sometimes offensive language but beyond suggesting Cutler was honest and Michaud was not, the governor stayed within the boundaries of political correctness and even at one point defended his wife, first lady Ann LePage.
After Michaud criticized LePage’s administration for not doing enough to help the state’s veterans by saying, “Taking care of our veterans is more than ice cream socials at the Blaine House.”
Michaud later recanted, saying he has also said Ann LePage is a “sweetheart” but his criticism was aimed at LePage not agreeing to expand the state’s Medicaid system, MaineCare, which would have covered some 3,000 Maine veterans with health care.
LePage and Michaud exchange several series of back-and-forth exchanges, with each blaming the other for not doing enough to fix the economy, improve education or expand health care.
Those clashes gave Cutler multiple openings to make his point that Maine’s two-party political system was broken by partisan gridlock.
“Maine people want something new, they want something else,” Cutler said after an particularly sharp exchange between Michaud and LePage.
In an opening question, the candidates were asked about University of Maine System’s struggles with enrollment and costs.
Cutler said as governor he would work to create a unified higher education system in the state that would merge the UMaine System and the state’s community college system.
Michaud talked about his plan that would see sophomores in the UMaine system receive a year of free education.
LePage said the UMaine System was currently in a leadership transition with a new chancellor and he believed in giving that new leadership a chance.
“I have many ideas but I don’t want to second guess him and put him in a position where he can’t do his job,” LePage said.
Michaud criticized LePage on an state income tax break that was enacted under a Republican-controlled Legislature during his first year in office saying it created a hole in the state budget LePage tried to fix by cutting back on revenue sharing with cities and towns.
Who benefited most from the tax break was in dispute as LePage pointed out 70,000 low-income wage earners, those who make under $19,000 a year, were made exempt from the state income tax entirely.
But Michaud noted those at the top end of the income scale in Maine also benefited greatly from the reductions and that cost cities and towns, which translated to higher property taxes.
Cutler then laid out his plan on property taxes and education, saying he would seek a slight increase in the state’s sales tax to pay for his proposals, including one that would cut property taxes for most Mainers by about 40 percent.
Cutler’s plan would also send more funding to public schools for prekindergarten programs that studies show help children become better students and lifelong learners.
“We need to start seriously and not just with a couple of dollars — start seriously on early childhood education,” Cutler said.
Michaud talked about his bipartisan work as the President of the State Senate, saying he was the only candidate on the stage that had a proven track record of working in a bipartisan manner to get things done. He noted his success in passing budgets in an evenly divided state Senate.
“One of the things I have been able to do is to bring people together so we can move forward,” Michaud said.
But LePage only took the opportunity to knock Michaud for running on a decades-old track record.
“Congressman, that was 30 years ago. What have you done since?” LePage asked.
Michaud also took his turn criticizing LePage.
“You say you are not a politician; you are the best politician I have ever seen,” Michaud told LePage, noting he was an expert at finding the issues that most divide people. Michaud said the choice for voters was clear.
“We continue to go back to the divisive, partisan and failed policies of Gov. LePage’s administration where Maine is once again 50th and the worst place to do business in and 47th on economic growth,” Michaud said. “I have the vision, the experience and commitment to move Maine forward, build upon Maine’s strengths, clean renewable energy, tourism, budget stability and making Maine the food basket for New England.”
LePage charged Michaud with, “altering the facts,” and said that the choice for voters between Michaud and Cutler was for “two liberals, one’s honest and one’s not.”
“We have the right to our opinion what we don’t have the right to do is alter facts,” LePage said. “I’m very proud of the direction we are going with our welfare-to-work, I’m very proud we’ve paid our hospitals off, I’m very proud we did lower the taxes — I will admit I am not a flowery prose politician, but what I do is not about talking it’s about action, it’s about getting up in the morning and getting to an action.”
He earlier credited Cutler with running an honest campaign but Cutler took the opportunity to attack the outside spending by political action committees that were working to attack or prop up the two major party candidates.
Cutler closed saying the exchanges between Michaud and LePage were all the evidence voters needed and both his opponents were products of a “broken political system.”
“If you believe with me that our democracy isn’t for sale,” Cutler said, “if you believe as I do that new ideas can build a bright new future for the state of Maine I ask for your vote . . . Together, we will send a powerful message across this land that Maine people have the independence and the courage to stand and say no, no more, enough is enough, this is our government and we are going to take it back.”