Mike Michaud Courting Support of 1st District Voters

Jun 23, 2014

The state of Maine made history two years ago by becoming one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage at the ballot box. Now, gay rights supporters are hoping Maine voters break new ground again this November by electing Democrat Mike Michaud as the nation's first openly gay governor. Polls continue to show Michaud in a tight race with Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Independent Eliot Cutler is trailing a distant third. And dynamics at play in Maine's first and second districts could affect the outcome.

Mike Michaud
Mike Michaud
Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Eliot Cutler
Eliot Cutler
Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN

Democratic six-term U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud outed himself in a series of newspaper OpEds last November after what he said was a "whisper campaign" about his sexual orientation. Since then, he says he has gotten positive feedback and heard from people who are privately struggling over whether to follow his lead.

"They got to go at their own pace, don't let anyone push them to what they want them to do, just take their own pace when they feel comfortable," Michaud says. "They got to make that decision on their own."

Michaud says coming out hasn't changed his priorities to expand health care and job opportunities or who he is: a former state legislator who grew up in Medway. A guy who likes to garden and tend to his woodlot in his spare time. Someone who punched a clock at the Great Northern Paper for nearly three decades and still keeps his battered lunchbox, held together by duct tape, in his Congressional office as a reminder of his working-class roots. Michaud is one of only a few union card-carrying members of Congress. And around Maine's 2nd District, he's known simply as Mike.

"I think the people that voted for Mike in the past will vote for Mike today," Emery Deabay says. "I don't think him coming out makes a difference to those people."

Deabay works at the Verso paper mill in Bucksport, Maine where he also serves as president of the United Steelworkers Local 1188.

"Mike's Mike," Deabay says. "He went to Washington. You know he fought these unfair trade deals. He fought for veterans. That's what he does. Everybody knows that."

Not everyone. Voters in more urban, liberal-leaning southern Maine are still getting acquainted. But he was well received over the weekend at another "coming out" of sorts when he served as a grand marshal in Portland's gay pride parade.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, says Michaud's coming out could help him with more progressive voters in Maine's 1st District, especially if Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree campaigns for him on her turf. But with Michaud's home base in the conservative 2nd District, Brewer says it could hurt.

"It's a more rural population," Brewer says. "It's an older population. It's a less educated population and all of those characteristics tend to correlate with being less supportive of same-sex marriage and other equality issues for homosexuals."

Since 2003, Michaud has received an 85 percent or better rating from the Human Rights Campaign for his support of LGBT issues in Congress. But Michaud's independent opponent, Eliot Cutler, says that was not the case when Michaud served in the Maine legislature and voted against civil rights protections for gays and lesbians 19 times.

"You know, I don't care what your sexual preference is and I don't care whether you're out or not," Cutler says. "That was a moment, those were 19 moments when principle was important and he voted no."

Cutler says he remains deeply hurt that Maine's largest gay rights organization, Equality Maine, endorsed Michaud instead of him. Cutler volunteered for the campaign to legalize same sex marriage in Maine. And over the past several decades he and his wife have raised money and spent thousands of dollars of their own on LGBT causes, although they've since ended their financial support for Equality Maine.

"My question is where were they when we were dealing with these bills in the legislature?" Michaud says. "Where were they when we were dealing with them in Congress? I haven't seen Eliot out there other than to write checks."

For his part, Michaud says his position on gay rights issues has evolved over the years, the same way it has for Maine voters. But Cutler says he has never wavered on these important issues.

"I'm a person of commitment and consistency on issues of equality and gay rights and marriage equality," Cutler says. "It's part of my set of values. I've never had to evolve but others have to make their judgments."

Polls continue to show Michaud in a tight race with LePage, a favorite of the tea party, which also has a base in Maine's 2nd District. Cutler trails a distant third. But Mark Violette of Scarborough, who was volunteering at Portland's pride festival over the weekend, says he's supporting Cutler for reasons that go beyond LGBT issues.

"He's been able to clearly articulate things that he really loves about the state of Maine and the opportunities that are here," Violette says. "He's published a book. People like real leaders to have a vision. I don't feel like we have a lot of that today and I really feel like Eliot does provide that."

Of the three candidates for governor, only LePage declined an invitation to participate in Portland's gay pride parade and festival. A Pride organizer says the governor's campaign said he had a scheduling conflict. And a campaign spokesman for LePage did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story. UMaine's Mark Brewer says LePage, not Cutler, would likely be the beneficiary of voters who are upset with Michaud's coming out. Torey Carter, managing director for the Washington D.C.-based Victory Fund, is not worried.

"I think that the voters at the end of the day will determine — Mainers will determine which is the better path for them," Carter says. "I believe that the reason that they will vote for Mike is because he's represented the issues of LGBT people in the community but for all the other folks — and that's why they've elected him to Congress over and over again since 2002."

Carter says the Victory Fund, which backs LGBT candidates, has already bundled between $30,000 and $50,000 for Michaud so far and will make the Maine governor's race a top priority for November. Of the 160 candidates the group backed in the last election cycle, more than 60 percent were victorious, which Carter say shows just how voters are evolving.