In this May 19, 2018, file photo, gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills acknowledges supporters at the Democratic convention in Lewiston.  Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Gov. Janet Mills told the state Democratic convention in Bangor on Saturday that “we won’t go back” entering a difficult reelection campaign against former Gov. Paul LePage with Republicans poised for a good year across the country.

The governor capped the two-day hybrid convention with a 25-minute speech that took on LePage’s eight-year tenure in the Blaine House from 2011 to 2019, most of which Mills overlapped with as the attorney general who often did battle with the bombastic Republican.

It will be a hard campaign for Mills, whose party is facing a brutal national environment in 2022. President Joe Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40s. Two recently released polls in Maine showed Mills only slightly ahead of LePage with an electorate concerned with rising costs. But she remains the only Maine governor since 1966 to take office with a majority of votes.

Mills has built her reelection case on record state surpluses fueled by a wave of federal COVID-19 aid. They have allowed the governor to sharply increase state spending without hiking taxes. The Maine Legislature overwhelmingly passed a $1.2 trillion spending package last month that will send $850 relief checks to most Mainers to combat inflation.

The governor took office in 2019 after promises to reverse much of LePage’s legacy. In the first days of her tenure, she implemented Medicaid expansion, which her predecessor vetoed five times and stalled after voters approved it. She nodded to that and other parts of LePage’s record, including a past proposal to raise sales taxes to pay for income tax cuts.

“I don’t know what he was thinking about, but it wasn’t Maine people,” she said in a refrain she used several times in her speech. “We won’t go back.”

The two-day convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor was a relatively small affair, with roughly 1,000 attendees evenly split between in-person and online guests. Proof of vaccination and masks were required. Held in a side room of the arena, it was scheduled concurrently with two days of monster-truck shows in the main auditorium.

Democrats on Friday passed a party platform that affirms support for abortion and LGBTQ rights and calls for educators to guide school curricula rather than “political agendas rooted in prejudice or unhinged from reality.” Speakers including Mills vowed to defend abortion rights after a leaked ruling showed a U.S. Supreme Court ready to overturn them nationwide.

That document came after Republicans passed a platform two weeks ago that calls for limits on teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and defines marriage as between a man and a woman, leading to criticism from Democrats.

Speakers at the convention unified around Mills, who has faced some criticism from her left during a tenure in which she has opposed some top progressive priorities, including a sweeping tribal sovereignty bid. Though she inked a sports-betting compromise with tribes this year, tribal-rights supporters rallied outside the convention in Bangor on Saturday morning.

Other headlining speakers at the convention alongside Mills included Reps. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District and Chellie Pingree of the 1st District, top legislative leaders and constitutional officers and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, who chairs the House intelligence committee.

Golden could be one of the most vulnerable members of Congress this year, representing a district that twice voted for former President Donald Trump. U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, whom Golden ousted in 2018, is running again for the seat and faces a Republican primary in June against longshot Caratunk Selectman Liz Caruso. 

The second-term Democratic congressman gave a fiery speech on Friday evening in which he emphasized his support for unions and noted Poliquin’s four previous runs for high office in Maine. Golden called that “the textbook definition of a career politician.”

Republicans have bemoaned the higher spending levels under Mills, with LePage telling his party’s convention deriding the state budget as being built on federal “funny money.” But predictions of impending financial doom have not come and Mills has been able to build the state’s rainy day fund to record levels.

The state party needled Democrats on Friday morning by putting up “Biden Mills Gas Hike” signs outside the Bangor arena. Although high prices are also an issue in other countries and conservative states, it underscored Republicans’ desire to focus on the national economy.

“And another person is standing onstage with every Maine Democrat this weekend, whether they like it or not: Joe Biden,” Jason Savage, the executive director of the state party, said in a Friday statement.

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...