HALLOWELL – Democrat Patrick McGowan is perhaps best remembered in Maine political circles for a second-place finish.
In 1990, he came within 1 percentage point of defeating incumbent Republican Olympia Snowe in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I was 40 points down with two weeks to go,” he said.
“We could feel it on the ground. There had been some issues in Washington, a lot of negativity toward incumbents.”
He put in 100,000 miles on the road.
He flew his own plane so he could be in four or five places every day. He relied on friends and his large extended family — he often says he has 45 first cousins in Maine — to help.
“They said, ‘Well, you know, he doesn’t have a chance to win, we’re just going to help him because we need to help the crazy guy who’s out there running against Olympia Snowe,’ ” he said.
Twenty years later, he’s aiming to place one notch higher in a four-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor.
McGowan is hoping his background as a native Mainer, small-business owner, legislator and member of Gov. John Baldacci’s Cabinet will be the right combination for Democratic voters on June 8.
After losing to Snowe in 1990 and again in 1992, McGowan was appointed by President Bill Clinton as regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration in New England.
Most recently, he was commissioner of the Department of Conservation, a Cabinet-level position in the Baldacci administration.
The question is whether a strong showing against Snowe two decades ago — and subsequent government service — gives him an edge in the June Democratic primary.
He faces stiff primary competition from former Attorney General Steve Rowe and Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell.
And newcomer Rosa Scarcelli, a southern Maine business owner with central Maine roots, is trying to set herself apart from the pack as the new face of the Democratic Party.
To counter that, McGowan, who’s been flying planes since he was a teenager, offers an airplane analogy.
“There’s that moment when you look down the aisle of the airplane and you want to see that the man or the woman flying the airplane is seasoned and knows what they are doing,” he said.
“Or do you want to have that person wave back and say, ‘Hi, I’m the brand-new person flying the plane’?”
HANDLING A CRISIS
McGowan, 54, knows it isn’t always clear skies when you’re in the air.
Last fall, he was in a serious airplane accident in Auburn. His engine died at 3,000 feet and he knew he would fall short of the nearest airport.
So he landed the plane on a golf course, taking out a utility pole and electric service on the way down.
He and his passenger — a man who was going to buy the plane — suffered minor injuries.
McGowan — whose dad encouraged him to take flying lessons at age 16 rather than buy a motorcycle — said his experience as a pilot saved them from a much more dire outcome.
He believes his ability to lead in a crisis — whoever is elected will inherit a significant budget deficit — is the reason he should be the nominee.
“The rhetoric out there now is, let’s just go in and slash,” he said during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in Hallowell, in reference to the recent legislative budget talks.
“You need to make sure the parks are open and clean, that the roads are plowed and sanded. You need to make sure that people receive their benefits and their medication when they are on MaineCare.”
McGowan said while some say the state is too generous with human service benefits, he’s not one of them.
While he would work to make the system more efficient, he said, he also understands that sometimes people need help from the government.
“You never kick somebody when they’re down,” he said. “Especially when they’ve lost a job or if they’ve had trouble in their lives.”
While conservation commissioner, he said, more than half a million acres of Maine were protected, including the acquisition of the Katahdin Lake parcel near Baxter State Park.
“I think it’s a real Maine thing to have land set aside for people to hike, fish and all the new stuff, the non-consumptive stuff,” he said.
“The recreation side of Maine conservation is not so much the hook-and-bullet crowd anymore,” a reference to fishing and hunting.
Also while commissioner, McGowan was accused of using his airplane to locate moose for hunters on the ground during the 2007 season.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated and found no grounds that McGowan had violated the federal Airborne Hunting Act.
At the time, McGowan called the allegation “deeply hurtful to me and my entire family.”
For 20 years, he ran small family businesses that included Barney’s of West Pittsfield, which was a restaurant, motel and country store, and the Canaan Motel.
His father, Barney McGowan, served two terms in the Legislature.
“In this time of economic struggles, I can say, more than anybody in this race, I’ve been there,” Pat McGowan said.
“I’ve done that. Sometimes you work twice as hard just to stay level.”
He said he knows what it’s like to be turned down for a bank loan, and to get one; and what it’s like to have trouble paying business taxes.
As a member of the Baldacci administration, he was part of a team that tried to revive and preserve paper mill jobs across the state.
POLITICS AND PAPERS
His interest in politics dates back to the mid-1960s, as a 10-year-old with a paper route. His mother, Ann, was an editor at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville.
After the route, he’d sit with his cousin, who delivered the Bangor Daily News, and read the papers.
“He would read the sports page and I would read the political stuff,” he said.
He looked up to the Kennedys and Ed Muskie, the Maine governor who went on to serve in the U.S. Senate.
He later worked for Muskie and Chuck Cianchette, a local Democrat.
After graduating from Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, McGowan went to the University of Maine at Farmington, where he earned an associate degree in instructional media technology.
That included some filmmaking and student teaching, though McGowan knew early that working in schools wasn’t for him.
He was a competitive collegiate alpine ski racer.
After college, he worked in construction — laying pipe for Cianbro Corp. — and he traveled the state and New England with an exhibition parachute jumping team.
He made 543 jumps in 10 years.
At age 22, he ran for the Legislature.
“I don’t think anybody thought I would win,” he said. “Most people thought they were voting for my father.”
He served 10 years and was instrumental in creating the Land for Maine’s Future program, which uses bond money to preserve large tracts of land. He also worked on legislation to help victims of crime.
When it comes to the primary, McGowan has broken it down by the numbers.
With about 315,000 registered Democrats in Maine, he estimates only 100,000 will vote in the primary.
He’s aiming to carve out his part of that electorate.
“There are places where I will go to get votes, and there are places I won’t go,” he said.
One group he has pushed hard for support is the United Steelworkers, which represents paper mill workers.
Earlier this year, he felt he was competing primarily against fellow Democrat John Richardson for the union endorsement.
Last month, however, Richardson dropped out of the race when he failed to qualify for Clean Election money after problems were discovered with contributions gathered by campaign workers.
An announcement from the union — if it decides to back anyone in the primary — has not been made.
When he looks back to the 1990 race, McGowan said he was able to reach voters who wouldn’t normally support a Democrat.
He had some high-profile support from a well-known Republican senator, a woman who also hailed from central Maine and worked with McGowan’s grandfather at a local woolen mill.
“Margaret Chase Smith was a friend of mine,” he said. “She actually came to my congressional announcements against Olympia Snowe.”
An underdog once again, McGowan is hoping for an upset this time around.
“I think I’m behind in the primary,” he said.
“But I have the best chance to win the general election.”
MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: