The brief but intense quarrel over Equality Maine’s endorsement for governor says a lot about the election 10 months off, but even more about the candidate who wasn’t endorsed – Eliot Cutler.

Equality Maine has become a sought-after endorser, for several reasons. As a leading force for equality based on sexual orientation, and now for equal marriage, the group has what all candidates need – strongly committed, youthful volunteers.

There aren’t a lot of places for young talent to go these days. In 2010, the average age of finalists for governor was 65. It’s been decades since Maine had winning candidates as youthful as former governors Ken Curtis and John McKernan.

But Equality Maine’s marriage campaigns in 2009 and 2012 had a youthful accent, and its talent is in demand. Matt McTighe, who ran the 2012 campaign, is heading Mike Michaud’s team. Betsy Smith, former executive director, went with Cutler.

So it’s not surprising the Cutler camp ‘s response to news that Michaud was Equality Maine’s choice had an anguished tone. This one hurt.

The Cutler campaign fired back that Michaud voted against equality bills in the 1980s and early ’90s, which he did. Back then, he represented one of the most socially conservative districts in Maine, and doubtless voted as his constituents wished. And, as we now know, he was 25 years away from coming out as a gay man.

Since being elected to Congress in 2002, Michaud has had an exemplary record on these issues, voting numerous times for equality even at the risk of irking his constituents.

By comparison, Cutler has actively supported Equality Maine, donating money and making public statements. But the contrast may be part of his problem.

While Michaud was making dozens of public votes, Cutler had no record. He’s never been elected to any office before asking Mainers, twice, to choose him for the top one.

His path, the second time around, depends on distinguishing himself both from Michaud, and from incumbent governor Paul LePage, the certain Democratic and Republican nominees. As an independent, he needs a vision compelling enough to interest voters of all stripes.

One foray was his campaign book, “A State of Opportunity,” subtitled, “A plan to build a healthier, smarter, stronger, younger and more prosperous Maine.”

Sounds good, but as Walter Mondale once said, “Where’s the beef?”

There’s much earnest policy discussion, nice pictures and helpful graphs in “A State of Opportunity.” As a visual production, it beats Angus King’s stapled-together “book” that helped pave his way to victory in 1994 – the campaign on which Cutler’s is based.

King had enough specific proposals to make his candidacy plausible. Cutler doesn’t offer anything similar.

Take his chapter on government reform. It consists largely of pledges for streamlining and efficiency; the only specific is a commission to repeal old statutes. Is this going to put state government back on its feet?

There have been so many state employee reductions, from King onward, that the real question is whether the state can offer competent service with its current staff – as the LePage administration’s weekly crises underline.

Cutler emphasizes tax reform. There’s recent history here – including the ambitious tax reform plan Democrats enacted in 2009, but subsequently repealed in a Republican-led referendum. Then there’s the $500 million tax cut the GOP pushed through in 2011, which crippled the state’s ability to meet commitments to towns and schools, and removed 25,000 people from health insurance on Jan. 1.

Cutler doesn’t acknowledge all this mayhem, and instead provides an abstract critique, concluding we should “reform Maine’s tax structure . . . in ways that would help us leverage our competitive advantages, create and protect opportunity, and grow our economy.”

How would we do that? Cutler doesn’t say.

In fairness, he may eventually roll out a plan addressing his contention that income taxes bite too deeply on the middle class, and that property taxes are too high.

But he doesn’t have forever, as the Equality Maine endorsement shows. Polls show Michaud leading LePage, but barely, and Cutler with half their support – the level he enjoyed in 2010 before his late surge.

That surge came when supporters abandoned Democrat Libby Mitchell, as it became clear she’d never overtake LePage. This dynamic won’t be repeated. Michaud is a much younger, much stronger candidate.

If Michaud and LePage are still close in the fall, there will be tremendous pressure on Cutler to withdraw, since his support – as polls already show – is drawn from Michaud, who’d beat LePage easily one-on-one.

To avoid that fate, Cutler is going to have to do something dramatic, and soon. Caution won’t work.


Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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