From left, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, businessman Shawn Moody of Gorham, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China and Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport. Credit: Christopher Cousins

WATERVILLE, Maine — The five candidates vying for the Republican nomination in Maine’s 2018 governor’s race bucked a national tide by agreeing during a Monday night debate at Colby College that the way to make schools safer isn’t through stricter gun control laws.

The debate comes amid an intense national gun control debate, spurred by a number of mass shootings that culminated Feb. 14 with 17 people being gunned down at a Florida high school. It came the same day that Republican Donald Trump told governors, including Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage, that states could act more rapidly than the federal government to enact measures to improve school safety, including arming teachers and raising the age to buy firearms.

The event, hosted by Colby College, Thomas College and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, was the first debate in the 2018 election that included all of the candidates from a major political party. Present were former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport and businessman Shawn Moody of Gorham.

Candidates received the questions ahead of time and the format did not allow for rebuttals. The school safety question came from one of the student moderators.

“Taking someone’s gun away from them is not going to make our schools safer,” said Thibodeau. “We have approached this problem that way and it’s the wrong way.”

Thibodeau said he supports a voluntary training program that could lead to some teachers carrying concealed weapons in classrooms.

Mayhew and Moody said they would spearhead funding for armed guards or school resource officers at all schools. Mason and Mayhew said the problem would best be addressed by redoubling efforts to improve the mental health system, including, according to Mayhew, having stricter mental health reporting requirements so background checks work better.

“I can tell you that’s not happening now,” Mayhew said. “Before we pass more laws, we need to make sure the ones we have today are enforced.”

Fredette said people are also killed with knives and by other means, suggesting that guns themselves aren’t the problem.

“What are we going to do — start taking knives away?” he said. “We’re not going to do that here in Maine if I’m governor.”

Many of the questions involved the economy and jobs. In general, the candidates provided standard responses aimed to win favor from primary voters likely to be more conservative than the general electorate. All repeated variations on LePage’s core themes since 2010: reduce taxes and regulations on businesses and invest in job training programs to help Maine businesses find the employees they need.

Moody said more attention needs to be paid to students of all abilities — not just those headed to college.

“There’s a disconnect between the white-collar academia and the blue-collar needs of our employers,” said Moody, while advocating for investments in education. Mason differed from the field slightly on this point, calling for the University of Maine system to freeze its tuition rates, which it did for six years under LePage before raising them in 2017.

“The next four to eight years will give us the opportunity to press the gas pedal on Gov. LePage’s accomplishments,” Mason said.

For many, the major question about the Republican gubernatorial primary is whether voters will opt for someone more or less like LePage. The candidates agreed that LePage has made progress, but not necessarily about his methods. Thibodeau framed himself as a consensus builder, which he said he learned running meetings with customers for a family contracting business.

“Not once did I think the best thing was to go in and insult everyone in the room,” said Thibodeau. “The governor has been very successful in his approach. … I would do it a little differently.”

LePage has not endorsed in the primary race, but Moody has hired some of the governor’s top political advisers and counts Paul and Ann LePage as signatories on his ballot access paperwork. He said LePage brought an era of accountability to Maine, which Moody said he would continue.

All of the candidates were critical of Maine’s citizen initiative process for enacting legislation through referendums. Moody, Mason and Thibodeau took particular aim at the process, calling for measures to make it more difficult, such as increasing the number of signatures required or requiring that they be collected from throughout Maine.

The debate comes as each candidate struggles to gain traction in both attracting voters’ attention and amassing donations for the primary and general elections. As of the most recent reporting deadline at the end of 2017, Moody was far outpacing the rest of the Republican candidates in private donations with more than $286,000 of cash on hand — though he has contributed $150,000 of his own money — followed by Mayhew with $198,000, Thibodeau with $91,000 and $14,000 for Fredette.

Mason, who is the only Republican using Maine’s taxpayer-funded election system for his campaign, qualified for his first tier of funding from the program earlier this month and has more than $400,000 so far to spend on the primary.

The only solid indications of what voters are thinking so far have come in straw polls during the past two weeks in Lincoln, York and Franklin counties, where Mayhew, Moody and Thibodeau triumphed over the field, respectively. That’s a very early indication but it could signal that voters prefer political outsiders and that they aren’t concerned the Mayhew joined the Republican Party in 2014 and Moody joined last October after losing to LePage as an independent candidate in 2010.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.