Gubernatorial candidates, from left, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, Republican Paul LePage, and independent Sam Hunkler participate in a debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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It is now mid-October and the campaign season has begun in earnest. Our televisions, radios and social media feeds are flooded with advertisements, and there is seemingly no escape. We are being carpet-bombed by phone calls, text messages and mail for every race imaginable, as campaigns grope around for any way possible to persuade voters.

It is also debate season, where the high-profile contests pit candidate against candidate in a ridiculous, stage-managed, theatrical farce that we all pretend is illuminative to our eventual vote.

I’ve made the point before that I consider debates, be they for presidential candidates or lower offices, to be a waste of time for everyone. They ultimately cheapen the discussion of issues, replacing substantive policy conversations with maddeningly simple and usually misleading soundbites. They elevate performative bombast above sober judgment and make politics into a superficial food fight.

Yet despite my disdain, they remain important to people for some reason, and we continue to have them.

For debate watchers, the most anticipated face-off has obviously been that of incumbent Gov. Janet Mills against former Gov. Paul LePage. Mills’ acerbic dislike of LePage, which is of course reciprocated in the other direction, coupled with LePage’s colorful style have promised to produce something entertaining, at least. And so, even people like me will watch.

We had two opportunities to see them debate last week, the first being hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald, and the second by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

In the media debate, the presence of independent candidate Sam Hunkler was, to be kind, bewildering, and more than a little distracting. After LePage and Mills started to go back and forth about the sales tax, Hunkler asked for time to participate, only to then start droning on about having gone to medical school, where his children were born and his decision to purchase a house in Greene. It was surreal.

As the evening wore on, it became clear to me that the debate was being shaped around what appear to be the left-wing priorities of the hosting media outlets, including questions about the importance of asylum seekers, abortion, climate change, and the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election. Even topics that are somewhat politically neutral, like childcare and the opioid crisis, were framed in ways that betrayed the ideological sensibilities of the host organizations.

The next-day headlines from the debate were mostly focused around the exchange on abortion, where LePage’s attempt to pivot was undermined by the combined effort of both moderators and Gov. MIlls. Admittedly, his promise to veto a 15-week ban was certainly news, and not at all expected.

But as interesting as all that was, my ears perked up more at an earlier moment in the debate during a discussion of the workforce (thrilling stuff, I know). At one point Mills attempted to pre-emptively deflect responsibility for Maine’s current workforce struggles, which as every business owner will tell you now are bad, and getting worse.

“Workforce is a problem I inherited,” she said, “it was in all the headlines before I took over, and then some, and it is not an issue I’m going to leave to my grandchildren to solve.”

A problem she inherited? The governor was attempting in that moment to suggest that the workforce situation in Maine is a continuation of what was happening during LePage’s tenure, which implies it was declining significantly prior to her tenure. The reality, though, is that it was quite stable. In January of 2016, for instance, three years before she took office, the labor force participation rate was 62.9 percent. In December of 2018, the last full month of the LePage administration, the labor force participation rate was … 62.9 percent.

The rate for August of this year, by contrast, was 58.6 percent. The governor blames COVID and retirements for the massive decline, yet Massachusetts has recovered all of its lost workers, and New Hampshire and Vermont are number two and three on the list of oldest states, and yet don’t seem to be struggling in the same way we are. Since January, New Hampshire has seen a 0.6 percent increase in its workforce, and Vermont has seen a 0.9 percent increase. Maine is the only state in the New England region that has seen a decline (down 0.6 percent) since the beginning of 2022.

Inherited? No, not quite.

As more debates occur this season, I’d like to hear a lot less about Hunkler’s biography, and more questions to the governor about why her administration has been unable to get Maine back to work.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...