GORHAM – As Shawn Moody drives along Route 202 in his old Chevy pickup, he waves to the guy pushing his bicycle, calling out his name.
Later, he chats it up with the women working at the convenience store, an unassuming figure in jeans and a black T-shirt with a small blue “Moody’s Collision Service” logo on it.
Moody has spent his life in this small Portland suburb, as a child, young man and successful business owner. He’s a part of Gorham’s fabric, a familiar figure who knows everyone, and is well-known.
Now he wants the rest of the state to know him, too.
Moody, a 50-year-old independent, officially launched his run for governor the day after the June primaries. He joins Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell on the ballot, along with two other unenrolled, or independent, candidates: Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth and Kevin Scott of Andover.
Moody portrays himself as the candidate for small businesspeople. He talks about his success in business and applying those lessons to state government.
He says he got into the race because he didn’t see small-business owners represented. He began thinking about running for office during the McCain-Obama debates — he thought the references to “Joe the plumber” discounted the value of tradespeople.
Moody faces some challenges.
While he’s had success as president of the rapidly growing chain of Moody’s Collision Centers, he’s a newcomer to politics. Most of his opponents’ names, on the other hand, have been in the news for months. And LePage and Libby have political parties backing them up.
But Moody — and those who know him well — cites his determination and discounts his late entry into politics.
He enjoys some name recognition from the business, and hopes to capitalize on that with campaign logos that mimic his business logos. He’s taken an unconventional approach to getting his name out there, with an airplane towing a campaign banner around the state.
And he’s loaned his campaign $500,000, showing he’s got the financial wherewithal to make a strong bid.
He started his business at age 17 in a three-bay garage in Gorham — it now has four other locations in southern Maine and employs 75 people.
“We know how to start from scratch,” Moody said.
Mark Eastman, Moody’s high school principal and current superintendent of the Oxford Hills school system, warned against underestimating him.
“People might dismiss him, because he’s had such a limited area of focus. But when you sit down and talk with him, he has a sense of what needs to be done,” Eastman said. “I think people are going to be surprised at some of his ideas, some of his skills. He’s a fighter, I can tell you that.”
Moody’s parents divorced when he was a year and a half old. His mother, a beautician, raised him and his older brother and sister and bought a house on Narragansett Street when he was 7.
Moody said he remembered riding on the bike handlebars as his brother, Thad, delivered newspapers. Later, when Moody took over the route, he’d often bike over to the nearby Gorham Race Track after finishing deliveries and ride the sulkies around the course.
Later, at about 12 or 13, he had what he called a life-changing experience. His mother was hospitalized for more than a month, his brother and sister weren’t home, so he was on his own. He said he became more independent.
Soon after, he became interested in cars — almost exclusively. His brother was studying mechanics at what was then Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute, and Moody read his brother’s textbooks. He began tinkering with cars, and never stopped. Today, his cell phone ring is the “ahooga” of an antique car.
He started hanging around a shop that worked exclusively on Corvettes, and was soon working on the cars, stripping them and helping out. The owners would take him to races, and he’d often deliver Corvettes for them.
“I was like living a dream for a kid,” Moody said.
He worked there until he was 17, then decided to open his own business. He bought a small lot off Narragansett Street from Clint Allen, a friend whom his mother had been married to briefly and who owned Gorham Auto Parts, a sprawling junkyard adjacent to the lot.
He borrowed $6,000 and helped a local builder construct a three-bay, plywood garage. He graduated from high school a year later, in 1978, and had several employees. It was then that the town informed Moody that his property wasn’t zoned for business.
In what became a big neighborhood fight, Moody successfully got the town to approve his business for the lot. During public testimony, a number of community leaders showed up to support him, including Eastman, his principal.
Eastman said Moody was one of a group of unusually entrepreneurial students — none of them strong in academics, but all very focused in other areas. Moody might not have followed all the regulations in getting his business going, but Eastman said he respected him.
“What he was doing was good business for the community, and it was great for him,” Eastman said. “I believed in what he was trying to do.”
Moody said the moment was important, and the support he received left him with a sense that he owed the community.
“It just kind of rang that bell — it’s people that matter,” Moody said.
When he was younger, Moody would drag race at tracks around the state. He got his pilot’s license in the 1990s, and today flies experimental planes from a friend’s rural airstrip.
He expanded his business in the mid-1980s. In 1988, he bought Allen’s junkyard, cleaned it up and organized it. In five years, he received a top industry award for operations. In 1998, he sold the yard to LKQ in what he described as a “multimillion-dollar deal.” Moody was without debt, and the money from the deal fueled the growth of his collision center business.
The company began to expand in 2001, and now has locations in Gorham, Scarborough, Biddeford, Portland and Sanford. Moody, as president, is more involved in planning and strategy for the company. He works with communities where a new Moody’s is planned, and decides where to go next. When they construct a new building, Moody’s acts as its own general contractor, and Moody works on site, as well.
George Harrison, who has worked for Moody since 1988, starting in the salvage yard, said his boss has always had business foresight. He points to Moody’s push to set up the business as an employee stock option plan to take care of retirement for the workers, or his decision to sell the yard to LKQ Corp., which today is a thriving business.
Moody, said Harrison, “knows that working-class people need to succeed.”
His brother, Michael Harrison, also works for Moody. He sees “a huge political vacuum” that his boss might fill.
“We need a very pragmatic person to go in and clear the cloud of politics out,” he said.
When Moody told George Harrison he was running for governor, he said, “I never knew you liked politics.” Moody told him that he didn’t, he just couldn’t “sit back.”
Moody’s campaign headquarters is just down Narragansett Street from Moody’s Collision, in the building that used to be the junkyard offices.
Moody said he began considering a run during the 2008 presidential race. He said he thought the discussions about “Joe the plumber” showed a lack of understanding about the trades and small business. Discussions about tax policy and the financial meltdown furthered his discontent, as well as his desire to make a difference in Maine.
He said he supports fixes to the regulatory and tax systems to make Maine more business friendly. He supports a strong social services safety net, but said it must be anchored by economic growth.
He said he believes he can take the model of Moody’s, which is marked by technology use and open book management, and apply it to state government. It wouldn’t be a perfect translation, he said, but could be adapted for each department.
Overall, he said, Maine is not set up to offer incentives for state workers to find savings. He proposed a “surplus sharing” system, not unlike profit sharing. If state workers identify savings, they would receive bonuses — creating an incentive to find savings, Moody said.
On the issues, Moody said he thinks more of the money Maine spends on economic development should go to helping businesses that are already here. He also supports conducting exit interviews with companies that have left, to find out why.
On health care, Moody supports allowing residents to purchase insurance across state lines, to increase competition.
And on energy, Moody said he supports conservation above all, and development of offshore wind, hydro, tidal, biomass, solar and even methane from landfills.
Moody has been an unenrolled voter all his life. He said he sees voters supporting him from both the Republican and Democratic parties. Republicans who want someone with a business background who also value the social services and education systems could support him, Moody said. And Democrats who support social services and business growth may line up behind him, he said.
Brian Duff, a political scientist at the University of New England, said Moody is an “appealing character,” who comes across as a straight-talking Mainer. But, said Duff, he tends to speak in broad generalizations.
He noted that in the primaries, several candidates ran on the strength of their business backgrounds, and they didn’t win.
“I don’t have high hopes for Shawn Moody to end up in the governor’s house this year,” Duff said. “That being said, he could run a respectable independent campaign, particularly in a year that’s likely to be a little chaotic at the polls.”
Moody said he feels confident, and suggests that his opponents should be worried.
“As people get to know who I am, we’re going to take off,” Moody said. “That’s the way our whole life has gone — different is what Maine needs right now.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: