PORTLAND – Maine’s candidates for governor clashed Wednesday over taxes, leadership and union support as they positioned themselves before voters with less than two weeks until Election Day.

Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler criticized Democrat Libby Mitchell for her support from the Maine Education Association, something Cutler called “an unholy alliance” earlier this month.

“It’s not an unholy alliance; it’s a marriage,” LePage said. “Libby Mitchell is married to the union bosses in Augusta.”

Mitchell said she thinks it’s insulting to teachers to call their support of her candidacy “unholy.”

“I do not consider any alliance with teachers unholy,” she said.

Cutler said he did not mean to “beat up on teachers,” but the leadership of the Democratic Party and the teachers’ union have close ties. He said they have been a barrier to serious reform.

“I want to reform Maine public schools,” he said.

LePage, Mitchell and Cutler were joined by independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott for an hourlong debate that covered well-trodden ground and a few new areas.

The televised debate at the Eastland Park Hotel in downtown Portland was sponsored by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, WCSH and WLBZ. About 400 people attended the event, which included a dinner and awards ceremony before the debate.

WCSH news anchor Pat Callahan was the moderator.

The candidates disagreed about whether recent tax reforms passed by Democrats — and repealed by voters — were a good idea.

On the issue of leadership, the debate took enough turns to lead Mitchell to declare that she felt she was “living in a fact-free zone.”

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill to lower the income tax but expand the sales tax to offset the lost revenue. As Senate president, Mitchell supported it. Cutler cited it as an example of failed leadership because it got support from only one Republican legislator.

“It was inexplicable,” he said. “It was unfair.”

LePage said he believes the income tax can be reduced within two years, but state government must be cut to reduce expenses.

“The way we’re going to get out of this hole is to work with the private sector,” he said.

Moody said he and others in his business — he owns a chain of auto body shops — opposed the legislation because it would have taxed labor on cars and expanded the sales tax to many small companies.

“Ninety percent are small businesses,” he said. “They are not going to sign on to be sales tax collectors in Maine.”

As the election nears, the candidates continue to sharpen their messages with the goal of picking up some of the large number of undecided voters — pegged by recent polls at 20 to 26 percent of the electorate.

Polls show LePage in the lead, followed by Mitchell, Cutler, Moody and Scott.

Earlier on Wednesday, Cutler sent a message to supporters about his endorsements from the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Phoenix and the Seacoast Media Group, which publishes the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald, The York Weekly and the York County Coast Star.

MaineToday Media, which owns The Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, has not yet made an endorsement in the race.

One new area of debate resulted from a question submitted by someone who is concerned about Maine libraries. In a lighter moment, Cutler was the only one to raise his hand to say he has a library card.

Scott said libraries play an important role in every community.

“It’s family values,” he said.

Mitchell and Cutler said it will largely be up to cities and towns to figure out a way to get the library support they need, because the state budget will be too tight. LePage said the library in Waterville is expanding, and because of the city’s high poverty level, it’s an important resource.

Moody said that if local businesses can grow, they will be better able to support local libraries.

“We need to treat businesses like an endangered species in this state,” he said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com