Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage debate at a Portland event at the holiday event organized by News Center Maine and the Maine Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — They were familiar arguments, but seemingly as bitter as ever, whether it was on schools, the environment or gun control.

Thursday’s News Center Maine-Maine Chamber of Commerce debate between Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage came less than two weeks before Election Day.

With LePage trailing Mills in the polls, he knew he had to be on the attack. Yet, Mills again vigorously defended her own record through a number of exchanges. We highlighted some of the most striking ones.

Moment One: Gov. Janet Mills swipes at Paul LePage, ‘loud men who talk tough’

Mills and LePage took several swipes at each other, with the squabbles seeming to become personal at times. Near the beginning, the governor dropped a personal criticism shortly after LePage called her “one hell of a bad economist.”

“I’ve spent the better part of my career listening to loud men talk tough to disguise their weaknesses,” Mills said. “That’s what I’m hearing tonight from Paul LePage.”

Though LePage did not directly respond, his exchanges with Mills immediately grew angrier. He  interrupted her as she talked about the cost of food under LePage’s tenure.

“You’re lying,” LePage said twice.

“Excuse me, I’m speaking,” Mills said.

They shook hands at the end, but it was emblematic of a campaign that has grown fairly venomous between a former governor and a woman who once served with him as the state’s attorney general.

Moment Two: Schools

Mills, long a promoter of the COVID-19 vaccine, elaborated on her stance from a previous debate that she would not mandate the COVID-19 vaccination in Maine schools. She noted that the vaccine was still under emergency use authorization for such age groups — the vaccine has full approval for those 12 and up but not those from six months to 11 years. Emergency authorization allows for quicker approval than a general one, though it is still stringent.

“A lot of that depends on the age of the child, the kind of vaccines that are available now, the kind that will be available in the future,” Mills said.

With LePage saying “absolutely not” to mandating the vaccine, there was little debate on that. A hotter topic was the content of the material being taught in Maine’s schools: LePage has long claimed that Mills was instituting a “woke agenda” in schools, highlighting the content of some online modules on LGBTQ rights and racism available through Maine Department of Education resources.

Asked specifically about “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, a book highlighted in a recent anti-Mills ad, LePage said he didn’t want books like it to be banned — just that parents have a say about whether it’s in the classroom.

“They should have the ability to opt out if it’s appropriate for their lifestyle,” LePage said.

But there were clear mechanisms for parents to provide input to school boards about what should be taught, Mills said. She said LePage was mischaracterizing her administration’s actions in a manner that put school administrators and teachers at risk.

“I don’t mandate any particular books,” Mills said. “What the schools are teaching is math, history, writing, science. Basics.”

At one point, LePage announced a new website related to her education record among other topics: She seemed annoyed but unsurprised: “Can we get back to education?,” she asked.

Moment Three: LePage hits Mills on environment

“Janet Mills and I will never be alive when the day comes that we are off fossil fuels,” LePage said.

That was the gist of LePage’s attack on Mills’ environmental policies: too much too soon, to the detriment of working Mainers.

LePage said Mills banned fossil fuel investments in Maine. That bill did not do that: it ordered the state treasury and pension fund to divest from fossil fuels, a first for a U.S. state.

Mills retorted that Maine needed to rise to the moment to face the calamities brought on by climate change, which had already raised fuel costs. And her opponent supported a much more dangerous practice: drilling for oil off the coast of Maine, Mills said.

During Monday’s debate, LePage, who supported drilling offshore while governor, said he would “go where the oil is,” in Monday’s debate, though he denied supporting it Thursday.

“I can’t think of anything more dangerous to the fisheries and to our coastal communities than oil rigs and oil spills along the coast of Maine,” Mills said.

Moment Four: Guns

When asked what she would do to prevent gun violence, Mills, who opposes most forms of gun control, pointed to her yellow flag law that allows police and prosecutors to seek a judge’s permission to confiscate weapons from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

She noted that she had brought both gun control advocates and gun rights supporters to the table to craft that law.

While she has received high support from gun rights groups like the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine this time around, she has drawn the ire of gun control activists for her stances, which include opposing a ban on high-capacity magazines that she once supported.

Gun control is among a few striking ways that her politics differ from some of the more progressive elements of her party.

LePage, long a supporter of gun rights, said he would take away all signs that say “gun-free zone” from schools and pointed to mental illness as a source of gun violence.

“I believe that law-abiding citizens should have the ability to protect their families and our schools,” LePage said.