On a recent afternoon, Shawn Moody sat inside the former junkyard office that now serves as his campaign headquarters in Gorham and explained why someone who has spent his adult life fixing broken and battered cars would want to be governor.
Moody is a political newcomer and self-professed “regular guy” who never previously ran for, much less held, elected office. But as the owner of a tightly regulated business operating in five Maine communities, Moody claims he is plenty familiar with government.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of government for over 30 years, so I understand it better than the people who are making the policies,” he said.
Moody, 50, is one of three gubernatorial candidates hoping Maine voters will forgo the major-party contenders this November and send an independent to the Blaine House for only the third time in the past century.
All three independents running this year — Moody, Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth and Kevin Scott of Andover — appear to be trailing well behind the front-running Republican nominee, Paul LePage, and Democrat Libby Mitchell.
Moody has consistently polled in single-digits in recent surveys of likely voters. And with less than six weeks left before the election, that’s a steep climb for any candidate, much less one with less name recognition than the race leaders.
But Moody, ever the optimist, cautioned against counting him out just yet.
“How many times have you heard people say, ‘Why can’t we have a good, honest, regular person go up to Augusta and straighten things out?’” Moody said. “I feel I’m that person.”
Driving past the modest houses lining Gorham’s Narragansett Street headed toward his campaign headquarters, a visitor might get the impression that Moody was the only candidate in the race. Virtually every house displays a “Moody for Governor” lawn sign, as do many businesses in town.
Moody is a well-known figure in this Portland suburb, and not just for his family’s successful business.
Michael Phinney, chairman of the Gorham Town Council, said while Moody has not been overly active in town politics, he has been involved in seemingly everything else in town.
“If there is a fundraiser, he is one of the people leading the cause,” said Phinney, who is still undecided in the governor’s race. “In the community, he is very well-respected and very well-liked. I don’t know if those things always go together, but in his case they do.”
Like many boys, Moody was obsessed with cars growing up. But his was not a passing fancy.
Moody rebuilt his first high-performance engine at age 15. A year later, he completed his first paint job on a 1976 Volkswagen Beetle.
By the time Moody was a 17-year-old high school senior, he not only owned his own business — named Midnight Auto Supply — but also the land and the 3-bay garage that housed it. He was also living on his own.
Looking back, Moody jokes that he had a business and mortgage before he had a high school diploma.
Through his high school’s co-op program, Moody attended class part time and worked the rest of the day — and night — at his garage. Business and Moody’s reputation in town gradually grew as word spread about the young man with the garage willing to fix anything.
Opportunity knocked literally on his back door about a decade later when the adjacent junkyard went on the market. He bought the business — widely considered an eyesore in town, he said — and introduced computerization and cleaned up the junkyard and the company’s books.
Then in 1999, Moody sold Gorham Auto Parts to a national auto recycling firm in a multimillion dollar deal. That deal allowed Moody, working with other family members, to focus on growing the business, which today is the largest independent collision repair business in New England.
“There is always a sense of urgency here, and they don’t have that in Augusta,” Moody said while strolling through the Gorham repair facility.
Not surprisingly, many of Moody’s policy proposals on the campaign trail can be traced directly back to his business and life experience.
Every worker at Moody’s receives a share of the company’s profits every quarter through the company’s “employee stock option program,” giving them a real stake in reducing overhead costs.
Moody believes the same idea could work in state government, only instead of “profit-sharing” it would be “surplus sharing” where employees receive a bonus for helping find efficiencies or savings.
“Now they have a vested interest, to gain from these savings,” he said. “Now they are much more receptive to changes and new processes.”
He wants to beef up the co-op and vocational education programs at the high school level for students who are headed into the work force rather than to college. He also believes he can replicate his company’s own centralized administrative structure in the public college system.
But if there’s one central theme of Moody’s campaign it’s this: Maine needs to do more to help small businesses.
“We’ve got to look to incubate those businesses so they can grow, so they can succeed and so they can hire and get our economy moving again,” Moody told members of the Bangor Rotary Club during a recent visit.
That’s a message Moody hopes will resonate with voters across party lines, especially those in business themselves or dissatisfied with the policies put forward by the other candidates.
A slight man with salt-and-pepper hair, a wide, toothy grin and a thick Maine accent, Moody is often the most enthusiastic candidate on stage during candidate forums. He’s also usually good for some comic relief, occasionally teasing his rivals or poking fun at himself.
In keeping with his atypical background for a gubernatorial candidate, Moody is also trying some unconventional campaign tactics as he tries to pick up hard-to-reach voters or habitual nonvoters.
Moody has been helped on the campaign trail by Bob Crowley, a former physics teacher at Gorham High best known as the oldest contestant to win the reality show “Survivor” in 2008.
Like Moody, Crowley said he was also considered “an outsider” and given little chance of winning his own race.
“I’m tired of politics as usual in Augusta,” Crowley said. “I think it’s time for a governor like Shawn, a self-made man who knows what it’s like to run a small business while raising a family in Maine.”
Over the summer, beach-goers may have seen the “Moody for Governor” message being trailed behind a plane flying up and down the southern Maine coast.
And race-goers at Speedway 95 in Hermon, Unity Raceway and Wiscasset Raceway may have noticed the “Moody for Governor” ads adorning the cars as they zipped around the oval. On Wednesday, Moody stopped by Green Point Auto Parts in Brewer to announce that more than a dozen businesses around the state have agreed to become designated “Moody for Governor field offices” in support of his campaign.
His campaign vehicle is his aging Chevy pickup with the “Moody for Governor” placard in the back. And whether at the shop or the campaign office, Moody is usually surrounded by family.
His brother, Thad, has taken over most daily responsibilities of the collision repair business while the younger Shawn pursues his political ambitions. At the headquarters, meanwhile, his 22-year-old daughter, Danielle, works as his scheduler while his son, Jim, is the campaign researcher who helps him prepare for debates.
Some observers suspect that, because of Moody’s focus on the plight of small businesses, he would most likely compete for voters with Republican nominee Paul LePage. Others see Eliot Cutler — the highest-polling independent in the race, according to recent surveys — as Moody’s chief rival.
Brian Duff, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New England, said he is surprised that Moody, with his appealing personality, has not “taken off” as a candidate.
But Duff said the reality is that independents have a more difficult time making headway in a gubernatorial campaign, as evidenced by the fact that Cutler, who is the best-known of the three nonparty candidates, also appears to be struggling in the polls.
And while he didn’t rule out the candidate’s chances of shaking things up in the gubernatorial field by Nov. 2, Duff doesn’t see a Moody victory in the cards.
“A candidate like Moody can have an impact on a race like this by being very articulate on an issue and forcing the other candidates to respond,” Duff said. “But something big would have to happen to have Moody be in the Top 3 in the race.”
Moody has, of course, seen the polls showing him running fourth in a field of five. But the Gorham businessman said he believes many of the people who would be drawn to his campaign — such as traditional nonvoters — might be less interested in participating in a poll.
“And there are a lot of folks who haven’t made up their minds,” Moody said.