Tom Jorling remembers the meeting clearly: He and Eliot Cutler were at the table with President Carter, top Environmental Protection Agency officials and domestic policy and budget staff.

Cutler and Jorling, an EPA staffer, had been working to set up the Superfund program and give the EPA authority over hazardous waste. But a few weeks earlier, Cutler’s boss, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, had overruled him and stopped the effort.

At the start of the meeting, Cutler apologized for having called off a White House news conference to announce the new program — which had delayed action at a time when the Love Canal chemical waste dump scandal was still in the news.

When Carter asked what had happened, Cutler said his boss had overruled him, and explained the issue.

Cutler’s boss, incidentally, was sitting next to him.

Carter sided with Cutler, and the Superfund program moved ahead.

“He displayed a great deal of courage. He had that aggressive brashness, thank goodness,” said Jorling. “Eliot made sure (Sen. Edmund) Muskie’s legacy — clean air, clean water — was adequately funded. He did his job representing the budget, but he also made sure the agency resources were sufficient to implement the laws.”

Those who know Cutler say he’s earned a reputation for intelligence, boldness and political savvy throughout his life — from his boyhood in Bangor to stints in the federal government to his later career as a high-powered lawyer.

And now Cutler, 64, is running for governor in Maine as an independent candidate.

“Eliot was a very aggressively bright young man who was a quick study and had very strongly held views on how things should be accomplished,” said Leon Billings, Muskie’s chief of staff. “He was a real asset because he was so damned bright, and he wasn’t inclined to take no for an answer on some of the issues we were working on.”

That aggressiveness remains evident today. On the campaign trail, Cutler comes off to some as experienced, knowledgeable and confident — though others say he can seem impatient and pedantic.

Cutler was a lifelong registered Democrat, save for a short stint as a Republican when he switched to support Peter Mills in the 2006 gubernatorial primary.

Cutler knocks the polarization he says has been caused by the two-party system, and during debates, he delivers hard shots at the Republican and Democratic candidates.

His critics have hit back hard, as well, on a variety of points.

His tenure as a board member for a failed superprime mortgage company has been an issue. The company, Thornburg Mortgage Inc., was the second-largest independent mortgage company, after Nationwide. It specialized in “jumbo loans” — generally more than $400,000 — to “superprime” borrowers with strong credit. It was caught in the credit crunch, and its business collapsed. The firm went bankrupt last year, and it is liquidating its assets.

Some have criticized Cutler as out of touch — living away from Maine for 25 years, buying a $4 million seaside home in Cape Elizabeth in 1999 and then living in China for several years.

And some point to his work in China, calling him “China’s lobbyist,” a tag he picked up from an English-language publication in that country.

“All this stuff is reflective of desperate attempts of character assassination, smearing, that is a practiced art in American politics,” said Cutler. “It’s been going on for decades, but it has sort of taken over the political dialogue to a degree that I think is very frustrating.”

One of the underlying themes of Cutler’s campaign is that those perceived weaknesses can also be seen as strengths

The $4 million home is worth more than some Mainers will make in a lifetime; Cutler argues it also reflects the success of and hard work put in by him and his wife, Dr. Melanie Stewart Cutler.

Critics question how someone who lived away from Maine for 25 years can be connected to the state, while Cutler says he’s developed valuable skills to navigate the global marketplace during his time in China, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere around the globe.

But in what became a hot campaign even before Labor Day, Cutler has faced challenges. He’s run a distant third overall in polling, behind Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell.

In a Rasmussen public poll last week, Cutler’s support was pegged at 14 percent, behind LePage’s 45 percent and Mitchell’s 27 percent. Other polls in past weeks had him at around 11 percent.

He does lead the other two independents on the ballot, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott.

Cutler noted that he started the race with zero name recognition and without party support. People are still looking at candidates, making decisions, he said. The campaign is in flux, he said, much in the way Maine’s 1974 gubernatorial election was up and down, with independent James Longley ultimately taking the Blaine House.

“I think people are forming judgments, getting to know me. I think we’re at a state in the process of people beginning to make up their minds, leaving one candidate and going to another,” Cutler said. “I think my numbers are preparing to be higher.

“I think I’m in fine shape.”

HEAVY FEDERAL RESPONSIBILITIES

Cutler grew up in Bangor, in a neighborhood of upper-class professionals.

His father, Dr. Lawrence Cutler, had a medical office attached to the house and was the longtime head of medical services at what was Eastern Maine General Hospital. He also served on the University of Maine system’s board of directors.

Cutler’s mother, Katherine Cutler, was an economist by training who worked on social issues, such as mental illness and services for families and children. She helped start eastern Maine nonprofit groups such as the Family Services Society and Spruce Run, which supports victims of domestic abuse.

“He was very clearly exposed during his whole youth to a family that was very active in the community in support of people who were less able to take care of themselves,” said Nelson Durgin, the retired adjutant general of the Maine Air National Guard and a prominent figure in Bangor’s health care community.

“They were very strong advocates for people in the community who couldn’t take care of themselves,” Durgin said of Cutler’s parents, who have since died.

Cutler left Bangor public schools after his freshman year, attending the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. The Bangor schools were running double sessions in those days, and Cutler was going to school from about 1 to 6 p.m.; he said he wanted to try something different.

After Deerfield, Cutler attended Harvard University. He worked for Muskie, D-Maine, the summer between his junior and senior years, and he was hired full-time after graduation.

Cutler worked for Muskie for 6½ years. He started as Muskie’s staffer on the Senate’s Environment Subcommittee, which was working on the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Billings, who was staff director of the subcommittee, said it was a small staff, with a half-dozen Democrats and about three Republicans. They all worked together on the landmark bills, Billings said, talking to constituent groups, parsing ideas, arguing over scale and purpose.

“Eliot was a part of that; we worked by consensus,” said Billings. “He was articulate, reasonably successful — not that he didn’t irritate people from time to time, but then we all did.”

Jorling, who later worked at the EPA, was a Republican staffer on the subcommittee. Cutler spent a lot of time writing briefing memos, Jorling said, boiling down complicated concepts and problems to keep Muskie apprised of pending issues.

“He could belt out very well-argued and stated positions on anything,” said Jorling.

On Muskie’s recommendation, Cutler was hired by the Carter administration as an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget.

He was one of four people at that level, and was responsible for energy and environment, recalled Bowman Cutter, his former boss at OMB. The EPA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were under Cutler’s control, as were the departments of Energy and Interior and half of the Department of Agriculture.

OMB was the intersection of politics and budget, the “heartbeat of the federal government for the president,” said James McIntyre, who was head of the office at the time.

“Carter used it as a real way to look hard at policies he was being asked to sign off on,” said McIntyre.

Cutler had about 150 people working for him.

“Eliot’s job was to oversee what they were doing, to make sure they were focusing on the right issues, to deal with and consider the various policy issues that came up from the various agencies for which he was responsible,” said McIntyre.

“Eliot also would attend briefings with the president. I’d bring top staff, we’d sit down with the president, vice president, key Cabinet members and make our budget presentations to him. Then he’d decide on policy issues.”

Cutler was perfect for the job, said Cutter.

“What you absolutely needed was people who were a pretty rare combination of substance and politics,” said Cutter. “They were tough jobs to fill, and remain so.”

Ina Garten, TV’s “Barefoot Contessa,” worked for Cutler as an energy policy analyst. They’ve remained friends, and Garten headlined a fundraiser for Cutler recently.

“I was one of the first women that worked in this organization. I never felt I was treated differently — I was treated with the same respect everyone else was,” said Garten. “Eliot really listens, he really cares about people and he’s really smart.

“It’s a great combination.”

On Carter’s last day, Cutter and Cutler walked together over to say goodbye to the president.

LOBBIED FOR STATE AGENCY

Cutler went back into law, eventually starting his own firm with a partner. The D.C. firm, Cutler & Stanfield, became nationally known for land-use work. If a group wanted an airport development blocked, it called Cutler & Stanfield. If an airport authority didn’t want the development blocked, it called first.

The Akin Gump law firm bought Cutler & Stanfield in 2000, and Cutler was named head of the firm’s land-use and project development practice.

During the campaign, Cutler has been questioned as to whether he ever worked as a lobbyist. Cutler says he never worked as a typical “Washington lobbyist.”

He said he registered as a lobbyist four times over 20 years, three times at Cutler & Stanfield and once at Akin Gump. Those instances, Cutler’s campaign material says, concerned land-use cases he was working on. He registered as a lobbyist because he or lawyers with his firm were talking with members of Congress about the projects.

In a statement from Akin Gump, the firm said Cutler had been registered as a lobbyist for just one client, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Cutler’s work for the client comprised providing advice on legal issues related to the federal cleanup of a former nuclear site in West Valley, N.Y.,” the firm wrote. “Cutler did not lobby on behalf of any of the firm’s other clients.”

FOCUS ON CHINESE INVESTMENT

Cutler moved back to Maine in 1999, to Cape Elizabeth. He still commuted to wherever he needed to for Akin Gump, depending on the case.

In 2006, the firm asked him to open its Beijing office — he and his wife lived there for several years, visiting Maine a dozen times a year.

According to Cutler, the firm was among the last of its peer group to expand into China. Instead of trying to represent American companies looking to open shop there, Cutler focused on Chinese funds and banks seeking to invest abroad — though the company did represent a few firms that wanted access to the China market.

Tony Kieffer was another expatriate in China when Cutler was there. Kieffer was managing director of China for FICO, a U.S. business analytics and decision management company, doing the same sort of work that Cutler was.

Kieffer, whose wife is a Maine native and who was based in Portland for some time, became friends with Cutler in China.

Cutler quickly understood the politics in China and built strong relationships in government, said Kieffer. “He had an immediate ability to engage, to lock onto the issues,” said Kieffer.

And Akin Gump’s focus on Chinese funds investing outside the country was obvious, said Kieffer.

“The notion that Eliot was over there being a lobbyist so good union jobs could be exported to China is about as far from reality as can be,” said Kieffer.

Cutler has highlighted his China connections, hosting a delegation of Chinese businessmen here this summer to check out the Maine lobster industry. Cutler gave up his partnership at Akin Gump at the end of 2009, and is now a senior counsel at the firm.

His former colleagues said Cutler’s experiences through life — from Senate subcommittees to China – all add to his viability as governor.

Billings, Cutler’s former colleague in D.C., observed that Maine’s structural problems are so deep that the next governor will have to “tear up the playbook and write a new playbook.”

“If you want to get at the core of the problem, pain has got to be part of the solution,” said Billings. “I think Eliot is capable of making the kinds of decisions and recommendations to the Legislature that will move toward that objective.”

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com