The Blaine House. Augusta, Maine. Credit: Carter F. McCall | Carter F. McCall

LEWISTON, Maine — It was Gov. Paul LePage — not any of the four candidates running to replace him — who drew the only sparing criticisms that came during the first public forum of the 2018 governor’s race before a business group on Monday.

The lightly moderated, hourlong session gave the Blaine House hopefuls few opportunities to joust and lots to agree. At different points, Republican nominee Shawn Moody, the founder of an eponymous collision center chain, won praise from his three opponents for his work with young employees.

Credit: BDN Composite

That won’t last long in what looks like a tight race. Moody and Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, were tied in the only public poll of the race released last month. The two independents — State Treasurer Terry Hayes and consultant Alan Caron — were in single digits. Men and gun owners favored Moody while Mills led with women and in southern Maine.

Hayes and Caron had been craving debates as a chance to interact with Moody and Mills, who have garnered more attention in the race because of the June party primaries. But all of the candidates managed to establish themselves Monday.

The forum — run by the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce — centered on Maine’s economy, and most of the questions were given to the candidates beforehand. Key topics included workforce issues, such as attracting new residents and boosting immigration.

Moody, who founded his business at age 17, said “we’ve turned our back on blue-collar Maine.” But the former independent now running with LePage’s backing mostly steered clear of both divisive issues that the governor has championed and policy specifics.

He called immigration “a foundation of our country,” while noting that he opposes illegal immigration even though he didn’t “think we have that problem” in Maine. While he floated student loan forgiveness and pledged to build best-in-the-nation technical programs, he often leaned on his personal work history.

“That same human spirit is alive in every teenager in our system today,” Moody said.

Mills was a bit more pointed in her discussion of the economy, saying Maine could benefit from a “dig-once” policy that would expand rural broadband access and teasing an income tax forgiveness plan for graduating college students who work in Maine for five years.

She contrasted herself herself often with LePage without mentioning his name, saying Maine could boost students’ health by not being “stingy” with food stamps after LePage-led cuts and seemingly referencing a 2013 controversy in which an offshore wind company pulled a Maine investment, blaming the Republican governor’s actions.

“I will be the promoter-in-chief, the recruiter-in-chief and the closer-in-chief,” Mills said. “When we cut a deal with a business that wants to locate here, we don’t pull the rug out from under the deal two months later or a year later.”

Hayes and Caron used the forum as an opportunity to introduce themselves, with both of them citing impoverished childhoods. Her mother was institutionalized and her father died with six children between the ages of 5 and 12, while he said he was walking himself to school with only a “minced ham sandwich” for lunch at age 5.

The former Democrats took different tacks. The heaviest hits on LePage came from Caron, who said at one point that LePage, a Franco-American who announced before the 2016 election that he was pulling Maine from a federal refugee resettlement program, “forgot his own heritage.”

He said “we have to embrace change” and that Maine has “not begun to build tomorrow’s economy” amid a too-heavy focus on legacy industries including manufacturing and farming.

Hayes was more esoteric, saying Maine must “lead with our assets” and support immigration to attract workers. She said Mainers need to tell children that there are work opportunities in Maine with jobs “going begging” right now for lack of available workers.

“We need to tell our story differently — change the narrative for our children,” she said. “It starts with that and then making sure that we’re investing in the quality of the training that they have available to them.”

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...