This is the second of three articles about the work experiences of Maine’s gubernatorial candidates

In the mid-1970s, when he was fresh out of law school, Eliot Cutler took a job that would force him to go toe-to-toe with his former boss and mentor, U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie.

Cutler had just been hired as general counsel for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group that was challenging part of the Clean Air Act, the landmark environmental law that Muskie fought to get passed.

The culmination of the trade group’s challenge was a congressional hearing in which Cutler, still just in his mid-20s, had to testify before a subcommittee chaired by Muskie.

Cutler had to argue against a provision of the law that was drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency​. The provision had to do with whether there should be regulations for operators of large parking areas that attract pollution-producing vehicles.

Although Cutler was criticized for arguing against a provision made possible by a law he helped write, he said the EPA got it wrong and he helped persuade Muskie of that fact.

“He gave me a hard time, and I gave him a hard time right back,” Cutler said of that exchange with the powerful Democratic senator. “But the point is: I won, and the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew the regulations in question because it was the right thing to do.”

In many ways, the story of Cutler’s business career follows the arc of his personal life, ascending from a part-time dishwasher to partner at one of the most powerful law firms in the United States. Along the way the Bangor native has had to make choices that in some instances have collided with interests with which he was once aligned. But they also reflect the ambition driving his second run for the Blaine House.

While he remains in third place behind Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud in polls, Cutler has exhibited the same confidence that in 2010 prompted his campaign to register the license plate that read ‘Nxt gov.’

“I didn’t want to be just a lawyer,” Cutler said in an interview last month. “I wanted to have a range of different experiences and skills, and I set out to accumulate them. I’ve been very lucky in having a lot more successes than failures.”

He started out as a staffer in Muskie’s office and worked on campaigns, then later became associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Jimmy Carter.

From there, Cutler transitioned to the private sector, working for three decades as an environmental lawyer on large-scale development projects such as airports, all over the country. He became so skilled that one public official in Kentucky begrudgingly quipped that Cutler “holds up airports like Jesse James holds up banks.”

In more recent years, he has spent time in China opening an international branch of a Washington, D.C., law firm, unsuccessfully run for governor and started two companies that focus on exporting Maine products to international markets.

He self-financed much of his 2010 campaign and has done the same this time, an option afforded to him because of decades of financial successes, but one that comes with criticism that he is elite and out of touch.

“I don’t think he’s elitist at all,” said Jeffrey Stanfield, Cutler’s former law partner. “He has never forgotten where he came from. If there was one thing he talked about, it was Maine.”

And, Stanfield said, all of Cutler’s successes were not an accident.

“Everything he’s accomplished is the result of hard work,” he said.

‘A VERY GOOD WORDSMITH’

As a teen, Cutler had a string of part-time jobs.

He washed dishes in the kitchen of what is now Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where his father was an internist and longtime director of medical services.

During his years at prep school in Massachusetts, he worked as a hardware store clerk and as a driver.

But his first serious job, and his first taste of politics and policy, came in 1967 when he interned in the Washington, D.C., office of Muskie. It was the summer between his junior and senior years at Harvard College. By then Muskie was into his second term and already becoming a national leader in the Democratic Party.

Leon Billings, who was Muskie’s staff director on an environmental subcommittee and later the senator’s chief of staff, said Cutler stood out among the 20 or so mostly young men in the office.

“Eliot, unlike a lot of people in those days, was an excellent writer, a very good wordsmith,” Billings said. “Even before he finished law school, he could break down complex legislative reports into one or two-page briefs with ease.”

Cutler went back to Harvard to finish his degree but promptly returned to Muskie’s office, where he worked not only on the Senate staff but also on Muskie’s 1968 vice presidential campaign.

Muskie was running alongside Hubert Humphrey, who lost by less than 1 percentage point to Republican Richard Nixon.

Cutler stayed with Muskie until 1973, simultaneously working and going to law school at nearby Georgetown University. This is where he developed his penchant for working long days and his apparent need for only a few hours’ sleep each night.

Cutler has said he learned more from Muskie than he did at law school. The senator, who died in 1996, still serves as his benchmark. Cutler references him often on the campaign trail.

Muskie could be demanding and mercurial at times, but was deeply committed to problem solving, Billings said, a trait Cutler shares.

“Muskie had a high regard for Eliot’s intellect and his talent,” Billings said. “And he liked him personally, too.”

REPRESENTING SHOPPING CENTERS

By 1973, Cutler had met a Georgetown Law classmate named Melanie Stewart. The two married a year later.

Armed with law degrees, Eliot and Melanie began looking for jobs in Maine, but were unsuccessful.

So they ended up in New York. That’s when Cutler began working for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a client he would bring with him when he was hired by the firm Webster & Sheffield.

His work for the shopping center group came with criticism.

Billings said Cutler was required to represent a group whose collective position conflicted with environmental regulations he helped craft.

“But it was his job, and he was very good at it,” Billings said.

Cutler said it’s true his work for the shopping centers was somewhat contradictory to the Clean Air Act but that ultimately his legal work helped create better policy. Essentially, his work shifted focus from indirect source pollution that collects in parking lots at large shopping centers to producing cars that create less pollution.

“From an environmentalist point of view, that was a real victory,” he said. “Had we not succeeded, the pressure on auto companies to reduce emission would have been lessened.”

His willingness to challenge Muskie didn’t stop the senator from recommending Cutler for an appointment in the Carter administration after the 1976 election, even though some environmentalists lobbied the White House not to appoint Cutler. One of them was Marion Edey, founder of the League of Conservation Voters, who said at the time of his appointment that Cutler “sold his Muskie experience to the special interests.”

At the time, he became the youngest associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, a powerful arm of the executive branch that helps set federal budget priorities and also evaluates the effectiveness of government-funded programs.

Jim Tozzi was also an associate director with Cutler. He now runs a D.C. firm called the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness.

He said he remembers Cutler as “extremely bright” and someone who was always working.

A lengthy profile of Cutler that ran in the National Journal on Oct. 27, 1979, that bore the headline, “I Lead Three Lives – The Eliot Cutler Energy Show,” backed up that claim.

The story detailed Cutler’s increasingly high-profile role in the Carter administration (in addition to his work at OMB, Cutler was asked to oversee Carter’s energy initiatives) and called him “a lawyer with a seemingly insatiable appetite for politics (who) has shown an uncanny knack for winding up near the thick of the action.”

A story in Business Week around the same time called Cutler “politically the most savvy of OMB’s associate directors, frequently using his Hill experience to out-lobby adversaries.”

Cutler described his work at OMB as challenging and exciting but exhausting.

RETURNING TO PRIVATE SECTOR

Cutler left the OMB several months before Carter was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

He was one of two candidates up for a position as deputy secretary of the Department of Energy.

“I decided that if I didn’t get it, I would leave,” Cutler said.

His time at OMB also left him burnt out and Melanie was pregnant with their first child, Abigail.

So he went back to Webster & Sheffield, the New York-based law firm he worked at between his Muskie and Carter years, which was opening a branch in Washington, D.C.

For eight years, Cutler worked as a lawyer, focusing mostly on environmental and land use issues.

By 1988, the D.C. branch of Webster & Sheffield was growing out of its space. The partners in New York, however, were not willing to make the changes necessary to accommodate that growth.

So Cutler and Jeffrey Stanfield, another Webster & Sheffield associate, decided to go off on their own.

“We decided that if we were ever going to (start our own firm), that was the time,” Cutler said.

“It wasn’t that risky because we had a lot of confidence in our clients,” added Stanfield, who first crossed paths with Cutler in the late 1970s when he worked for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Perhaps the biggest client was Adams County in Colorado, which was fighting plans for an airport in Denver. The fight was complex but had to do with whether building on the proposed site would create an environmental hazard.

That fight earned Cutler’s firm a reputation as “airport busters.”

He was subsequently hired to help stop airport expansions in Seattle, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth and Lexington, Kentucky.

In each of those cases, Cutler and his associates were successful in stalling the expansions or in convincing local authorities to consider other possible sites. Cutler’s success was due in large part to his knowledge of environmental law, learned during his days with Muskie.

The legal work was polarizing and earned him plenty of criticism.

Former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, now the state’s lieutenant governor, once called Cutler a “modern day stick-up man.”

Former Adams County commissioner Jim Nelms called Cutler “cocky,” “obnoxious” and “swashbuckly” in a 1996 story published in the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Another Colorado official, George Doughty, former aviation director for the city of Denver, called Cutler one of the smartest lawyers he’d met.

“If the client wants to work a deal where it’s a win-win situation for everyone, Eliot can do that,” Doughty told the St. Louis Business Journal. “If the client wants to simply obstruct, then he can do that, too.

“And he charges a lot for it.”

Previously published stories indicate Cutler’s firm earned at least $7 million for its work in Colorado, at least $4 million in Texas and nearly $2 million more in St. Louis. And those were just a few of his clients.

Cutler and his associates became so adroit at blocking airport developments that they began getting calls from airports and municipalities, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which was planning an expansion in the mid-1990s.

They wanted to hire Cutler and Stanfield so their opponents could not.

MERGER, MOVE BACK TO MAINE

In less than 12 years, Cutler & Stanfield grew from three lawyers to nearly two dozen and a branch in Denver that served clients in the western half of the United States. It was among the biggest environmental law firms in the country.

Cutler and his partner had a decision to make: Keep growing or merge. They chose the latter.

In a September 2000 news release, the firm Akin Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld announced the acquisition of Cutler & Stanfield, referring to the firm as a “prestigious environmental boutique.”

The merger allowed Cutler and his wife to move back to Maine. They bought a seaside home in Cape Elizabeth, and Cutler commuted anywhere he needed to go.

He continued to represent major public entities, including the New York State Energy Research/Development Authority, which was trying to persuade the federal government to clean up spent nuclear waste.

It was one of four times in his legal career that he needed to register as a lobbyist. The other three times were when he was at his own firm and was representing municipalities or airport authorities and was required to speak with members of Congress.

Cutler bristles when anyone tries to label him a lobbyist, or worse, a Washington lobbyist.

Stanfield, his former partner, agrees.

“I can say categorically, he was not a lobbyist,” he said. “He would have been a great one, but that’s not how he wanted to spend his time.”

In 2006, just as his legal career was winding down, Akin Gump asked Cutler to open an office in Beijing. The Chinese economy was exploding, and there was high demand for legal services.

His time in China has been criticized, particularly during his 2010 campaign. His opponents accused him of helping the Chinese economy at the expense of the United States economy. Or worse, they accused him of shipping U.S. jobs to China.

“That is the opposite of what I did,” he said. The bulk of his work, he said, was representing Chinese businesses that were looking to invest and create jobs outside of China, including in the United States.

Tony Kieffer, who was helping the data and analytics firm FICO open a Chinese office, met Cutler in Beijing.

“As two of the only Mainers in Beijing managing operations of our respective firms, we met often to compare notes, to help one another navigate the complexities of setting up and doing business in China,” he said. “He was focused on outbound Chinese investment interested in investing in the U.S.”

Cutler spent only three years overseas but said the experience was one he wouldn’t trade.

NARROW LOSS TO LEPAGE

Cutler returned to Maine in 2009. He had no immediate plans, although public office was always in the back of his mind.

Still, when he announced his candidacy in December 2009, Cutler was an unknown independent.

In less than a year’s time, he received more than 36 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race for governor. He lost narrowly to LePage.

The loss was crushing for Cutler, especially because he came so close.

But he didn’t stay out of the spotlight long.

In addition to a handful of business ventures, Cutler formed a nonprofit group called OneMaine that supported centrist lawmakers. The group enjoyed publicity for a short time, but it fizzled out and Cutler has been criticized for abandoning the organization to run for office again.

“OneMaine and Cutler promised to work with legislators in 2013 to help forge pragmatic solutions. Instead, after the 2012 election, Cutler and most of his staff left OneMaine to plan his latest gubernatorial campaign,” former OneMaine board of director Tony Brinkley wrote in an op-ed this summer.

Cutler also wrote a book, “State of Opportunity,” that has served as the framework for his policy rollouts during the 2014 campaign.

But despite criticism, Cutler hasn’t just been running for governor since 2010. He has been involved in a number of businesses.

He co-founded a company called Maine Seafood Ventures, which opened a market to China for lobsters, and started another firm, MaineAsia, with Kieffer that aims to open up other markets for Maine products.

Asked why he wanted to partner with Cutler, Kieffer said, “Eliot brings fierce strategic thinking, a wealth of business and investment experience, and a top-notch international Rolodex.”

Also, he has been president of the Lerner Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization in Portland that awards grants for a variety of social service causes.

Throughout his career, Cutler has always been involved in a number of business endeavors.

When he was an attorney logging tens of thousands of miles traveling the country, he also found time to serve as a business adviser to Skanska USA, the American arm of one of the world’s largest construction companies, to start a mutual fund company, and to partner in an investment company that helped turn around struggling firms.

Those who know Cutler say his breadth of experience would make him a skilled governor.

“He loves to solve problems. I don’t always agree, but that’s his driving force,” said Billings. “Some people you throw a bone will eat it; some will bury it. Eliot chews it to death.”

If Cutler is elected governor, the hardest part for him might be letting go of all the business endeavors he has undertaken just in the short time since the last election.

Correction: This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2014 to clarify Cutler’s role in challenging a provision created in the 1970s by the Environmental Protection Agency that was made possible by the Clean Air Act, which Cutler helped draft.