BANGOR – Republicans Les Otten and Sen. Peter Mills had a tense exchange at a Bangor gubernatorial forum Wednesday after Otten claimed the state stands to lose 7,000 jobs because the Jackson Laboratory may choose Florida rather than Maine for a planned expansion.

While answering a question about the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Otten said the state “let the big one slip away” when Jackson announced it was considering a new facility in Florida that would create 7,000 jobs.

Mills shot back that the total number of jobs was closer to 200 and accused Otten of inflating the number for political purposes.

“The state of Maine is not sending 7,000 jobs to Florida,” Mills said.

The Bar Harbor laboratory has said the new facility would employ 200 people in the first five years and that it could over time act as a magnet for 7,000 to 8,000 jobs.

Otten said the state did not fight hard enough to keep those jobs in Maine.

The flare-up was one of the first signs of tension among the seven-member GOP field, six of whom participated in a forum sponsored by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and Eaton Peabody.

The candidates — Mills, Otten, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, Bill Beardsley, Matt Jacobson and Steve Abbott — talked about taxes, health care and the forest products industry during the 90-minute forum.

About 200 people attended the event at Eastern Maine Community College. Candidate Bruce Poliquin did not participate.

Abbott said the state should take a more active role in supporting commercial forestry.

“I feel like they’ve quit on paper — and if you quit on paper, you’ve quit on Maine,” he said.

The field was asked what they would do to make the new federal health care system work to benefit Maine residents.

“Mostly, it’s in reintroducing competition, like we did with workers’ compensation, to bring costs down,” Beardsley said.

While he complimented Gov. John Baldacci for trying to do something about health care, LePage said he would get rid of the state’s Dirigo Health.

“After a couple of years, when he saw it was failing, he should have pulled the plug,” he said.

The candidates also shared a few laughs during the forum.

During the health care discussion, Jacobson said state mandates are a big part of the reason why health insurance costs so much in Maine. He used the teachers at his son’s school as an example.

“The nuns that teach him are forced to carry maternity coverage,” he said. “Why?”

On May 3, the five member Democratic field — Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, Steve Rowe, Rosa Scarcelli, John Richardson and Patrick McGowan — has been invited to participate in a similar Chamber forum, at Husson University. 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com