Libby Mitchell’s campaign started Tuesday with a news conference in Bangor, where a group of small business owners announced they are backing her run for governor.

In a dirt driveway outside Kelly Realty Management, about 10 supporters held an informal news conference to talk about their top issue: a lack of affordable health insurance.

David White, who owns an auto repair shop in Bar Harbor, said the group, the Maine Small Business Coalition, has 2,500 members. An organizer described the group as a progressive voice for small businesses.

“We’re larger than the state chamber and we’re finding our legs,” he said. “Libby stands head and shoulders over every other candidate in this race.”

Suzanne Kelly, co-owner of Kelly Realty Management, said she supports Mitchell because of her years of experience. “I want somebody there who I know knows the ropes,” Kelly said.

Mitchell talked about her children, three of whom run small businesses in Maine. She spoke of the costliness of insurance, and about the many people she has met on the campaign trail who have no insurance. “These folks are the backbone, the everyday people of Maine,” she said.

Rufus Wanning, an arborist from Orland, thanked Mitchell for the role she played in helping to change the state workers’ compensation system in the 1990s.

Now semiretired and on Medicare, Wanning said he believes Medicare should be expanded to cover everyone, regardless of age. “I’ve been interested in the health issue for a long time,” he said. “(Mitchell) comes closer than anyone else on the health issue.”

From Bangor, the campaign drove to Millinocket for lunch with about 20 supporters at Ruthie’s Hotel Terrace, a large open room with a stone fireplace. The group — mostly women, many of them older — waited for Mitchell to arrive as they drank sodas and chatted.

The oldest living Democrat in Millinocket, Margaret Deschaine, 96, said she remembered Mitchell from when Charlie Pray — a Democrat from Millinocket who was Senate president from 1993 to 1994 — was in the Legislature.

Sitting next to her was Delia Cummings, 91, who said she liked what Mitchell had to say about education.

And she’s glad the candidate is a woman.

“We need to house-clean, and who cleans better than a woman?” she said.

When Mitchell arrived, she greeted familiar faces and people she was meeting for the first time. She was relaxed and offered hugs as much as handshakes to supporters.

During the introduction, Nancy Pray, Charlie’s wife, said Mitchell once offered to pitch in at a barbecue while she was traveling in the region with her family.

“She said, ‘What can I do?’ ” Pray said. “‘How can I help?’ She’s been saying that for 30 years and now she’s saying it again. Everybody else has totally ignored us.”

Mithcell said independent Eliot Cutler criticizes her as the “status quo,” a label she has tried hard to shake.

She also noted that Attorney General Janet Mills introduced her recently and remarked that most women who run for higher office are criticized for not having enough experience.

Now Mitchell — who has served in the Legislature on and off since 1974 — is the only one of the five candidates on the Nov. 2 ballot who has served in state-level office.

Some in the room were former paper mill workers.

Hugh Cummings, son of Delia Cummings, retired from Great Northern Paper when the mill closed in 2001. He had worked there for more than 30 years, testing the quality of the paper and pulp.

“I think she’s the best one running,” he said of Mitchell, adding that his second choice is independent Shawn Moody.

From Millinocket, Mitchell left for the two-hour drive to Presque Isle, where the only gubernatorial debate in Aroostook County was set to begin at 7 p.m.

 

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