PORTLAND, Maine — With less than two weeks until Election Day in a tight governor's race, Republican Paul LePage accused his leading opponent of being wed to government bureaucracy while Democrat Libby Mitchell touted her long history of public service.
Polls show LePage and Mitchell neck-and-neck in the race to succeed Gov. John Baldacci. Independent Eliot Cutler is running a distant third.
Jobs and the economy were major themes in Wednesday night's televised forum at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland featuring the five gubernatorial candidates who are on the ballot. But when the talk turned to education, LePage and Cutler said education reform has been slow to come in Maine in part because Mitchell and the Democratic legislative leadership are too cozy with teachers' unions.
"Libby Mitchell is married to the union bosses and the bureaucracy in Augusta and has been most of her career," LePage said. "It's not about the teachers' unions. It's about our children."
In response, Mitchell — a longtime legislator who is now the state Senate president — defended her work on school issues.
"I've been fighting for education reform before either of these men thought about running for state office," she said.
As for the economy, LePage said one key to creating jobs and helping businesses prosper is for government to become a "partner with the private sector, not the adversary."
"What we need is a governor who understands finance, economics and business, someone who understands that the regulatory environment has to work with the private sector in order for us to succeed," said LePage, who is Waterville mayor and general manager of the Marden's retail store chain.
Mitchell said investing in education and cutting the state income tax, among the nation's highest, would help the economy.
"We have to get our young people to stay here and grow their jobs here, and part of that is giving them the educational tools they need," Mitchell said.
Cutler, a lawyer who once worked in the Jimmy Carter administration, said the state's high cost of living and burdensome regulatory regime discourage investment from coming to Maine.
"We've created a business environment that is simply unfriendly to businesses," Cutler said. "It's not a problem having tough rules; it's a problem of being stupid about how we implement them."
Independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott, who are business owners, said they'd put their experience to work as governor.
"People say you can't run the state like a business," Moody said. "We can't afford not to."
The candidates also talked about the need to stop the political bickering in Augusta. Mitchell emphasized her years of collaborating with Democrats and Republicans in the Statehouse, while LePage said he has succeeded as a Republican mayor in a Democratic city with a Democratic City Council.
The candidates are vying to replace Baldacci, a Democrat who is prohibited by law from running for a third term.
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