Former Gov. Paul LePage launched a steady barrage of attacks at Gov. Janet Mills in the second televised gubernatorial debate on Monday.
The fiery live debate, hosted by CBS 13 and the Bangor Daily News in the television station’s Portland studio, centered on a series of major topics, from education and the opioid crisis to challenges facing the lobster industry.
LePage went on the offense as Mills maintained a double-digit lead in polls. The most recent, a poll of 800 likely voters by Portland-based Pan Atlantic Research released last week, put her at 49 percent of the vote and LePage at 39 percent. Still, 10 percent of voters said they remained undecided.
Inflation and the rising cost of goods and utilities have played a prominent role throughout the election, initially leading to forecasts of huge Republican gains amid an unpopular administration of Democratic President Joe Biden.
But that shifted after the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights in June, making it the purview of governors and state legislatures for the first time in half a century.
LePage blasted Mills and other Democrats for claiming he would change abortion laws, reiterating his stance from the last televised debate that he would oppose new restrictions on abortions. He even said he didn’t oppose funding for abortion through Medicaid.
But Mills, who wants to keep Maine’s current abortion laws in effect, cited LePage’s record, saying he would again threaten those rights if he retook the Blaine House.
“My veto pen will stand in the way of any efforts to undermine, rollback or outright eliminate the right to safe and legal abortion in Maine,” Mills said.
Several other issues of policy were more Maine-centric, with LePage attacking Mills over not making the state a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government over lobster regulations. Mills defended her administration’s actions, saying it was doing everything it could legally to help the lobster industry.
Asked why he couldn’t get the administration of former President Donald Trump to lessen federal regulations on lobstermen, LePage said, “I don’t know,” before blaming then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for the policy.
LePage also accused Mills of putting workers at the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan at risk by issuing a draft rejection to certify the Shawmut Dam in June.
Her administration cited fish-passage changes anticipated at the federal level for the rejection. Mills had once suggested removing the dam to allow the endangered Atlantic salmon to access spawning grounds, but softened her stance after top Democrats broke with her.
The Bangor Daily News’ guide to what you need to know about Maine’s 2022 elections.
Mills said she was asking global investment company Brookfield Asset Management, whose subsidiary owns the dam, to come to the table and keep the dam viable and the mill open.
“We are not going to forfeit those jobs,” she said.
But LePage derided Mills’ policy as prioritizing a few fish over 750 jobs at the mill.
“If you signed the permit tonight, I will guarantee you, I will volunteer to bring the five fish up over the dam for the rest of my life,” LePage said.
LePage has strived to make this election a referendum on Mills’ handling of inflation and higher costs for fuel, including heating oil. Monday was no different, with LePage saying the $850 checks relief checks that Mills sent out with approval from the Legislature only worsened the state’s problems with inflation.
“Putting money into a hot economy only drives up inflation,” said LePage, who also said Mills spent like a “drunken sailor.”
But Mills said those checks had played a crucial role in saving the state’s residents from the worst effects of inflation, including helping them pay for heating oil. Continuing to address inflation would be among the highest priorities if she is re-elected, she said.
“I can’t control Putin invading Ukraine, which has driven up oil prices and grocery prices,” Mills said. “What I can do is help put cash back into the pockets of Maine people.”
Mills put up strong defenses of her time as governor for much of the night. However, shortly after LePage said her administration had a “very woke” and “left-wing” agenda, she did concede that it should not have allowed a controversial LGBTQ online module for kindergarteners to be uploaded to a Maine Department of Education website.
However, Mills said the DOE’s failure to vet the piece was not due to a problem with the department.
“When it was brought to the department’s attention, they had simply missed it,” Mills said. “So, that was taken down, pure and simple.”
Mills often interspersed her defenses with attacks of her own. When LePage said Mills had allowed people to have nearly 2,000 doses of fentanyl for personal use without it being a felony, she retorted that it was her administration that had to mop up the mess created by LePage failing to veto a fentanyl decriminalization bill.
“I had to go to work to reinvent, redraft the statute,” Mills said. “It is a serious felony to traffic in fentanyl in Maine.”
As Maine faces record-high drug overdose, she also attacked LePage for preventing the distribution of Narcan while governor, saying that it provides “another chance at life.” But LePage reiterated past statements on the life-saving drug.
“If you give Narcan and they go into treatment, it’s fine,” LePage said. “But when you start giving Narcan, 5-6-7 times, it’s false security.”
While there were few things the two agreed on, they did align on COVID-19 vaccinations for public school children. Long a proponent of vaccinations, Mills said she opposes mandating them during a lightning round.