At first I couldn’t quite believe my ears. A candidate for governor was explaining in a radio interview why some “elected leaders” were failing to bring new jobs to Maine. These leaders, he said, “think their mission is to maintain people in poverty.”

Matt Jacobson is a middle-of-the-pack Republican among seven trying to gain the nomination. A former railroad company executive and head of the job-recruitment firm Maine & Co., he doesn’t have as much campaign money as his business-candidate rivals, Bruce Poliquin and Les Otten. He doesn’t have the political connections of Peter Mills or Steve Abbott. Perhaps he was just trying to make headlines?

I checked the MPBN website, and yes, that was exactly what Jacobson had said.

His reasoning was that these unnamed “elected leaders” have “never had a real job,” so they don’t understand how to create them. Republicans were presumably excluded, so I ran quickly through the Democratic candidates for governor to see who he might have been thinking of.

Rosa Scarcelli is a housing developer and business candidate herself. Steve Rowe, a West Point grad, was an executive with Unum before running for the House and later becoming speaker. Pat McGowan owned a store for 20 years before running for Congress. Libby Mitchell did enter politics early, but also served as director of the Maine State Housing Authority. And being House speaker and Senate president are real jobs, even if they’re in the public sector.

So far, Jacobson’s “elected leaders” seem to be straw men.

But it is the second part of his statement that is chilling, the idea that politicians want to “maintain people in poverty.”

Everyone who lives in Maine for long has met plenty of poor people. I have never met one who was happy being poor, nor have I met a single politician – Democrat, Republican, Green or independent – who saw it as their mission to keep them poor.

Poverty is a hard, disabling condition, particularly for children, and far too many of them grow up poor in Maine. But we trivialize poverty when we fail to respond to statements like Matt Jacobson’s casual bigotry.

Now is a moment of pervasive financial anxiety. Not only are many people out of work, but many more fear joining them. The Wall Street implosion that led to this long and difficult recession remains unaddressed, though the U.S. Senate is finally working on it.

The sources of economic insecurity are many, and much debated. Republicans tend to emphasize a lack of competitiveness with other countries, and particularly the rapid rise of China as the world’s next economic superpower. Democrats point out that wages for American workers have been stagnant or declining for three decades, even as more people are working more hours than ever before.

At the state level, we’ve witnessed the departure of key manufacturing industries and their replacement by much lower-paying service sector jobs for most of those earning paychecks.

Add to this the sheer financial manipulation bordering on lunacy that inflated the latest, and worst Wall Street bubble since the Great Depression, and it’s no wonder that people are frustrated, angry, and looking for someone to blame.

In such a time, it’s particularly important to frame the issues accurately and watch one’s words. I have no idea what lies behind Jacobson’s apparent contempt for the people who run this state, but his attitude speaks to what is most troubling about politics at the moment.

There are legitimate differences in the long debate about what creates prosperity. Broadly speaking, over the past half century, the dominant arguments have been between those who see government as an obstacle to prosperity, and those who believe it can provide a foundation for prosperity.

Those who believe the former emphasize tax breaks, looser regulation, and privatization. Those in the latter camp argue for government spending during recessions to prevent a collapse in economic demand, public research and development, and investment in infrastructure, including roads, rail, ports, communications technology. In practice, Maine does a bit of both. Sometimes it seems to be working; other times, not.

Jacobson talks as if the primary job of Maine’s governor is to be business-recruiter-in-chief, that private-sector business experience is all that matters. Others would point out that there are other jobs state government has to do, from keeping the peace to educating the young.

But no one believes in keeping Mainers poor, the better to manipulate them. Jacobson should take that back.