The candidates for governor reacted swiftly to news that Verso Paper Corp. will close its mill in Bucksport, displacing more than 500 workers.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler each vowed to use their political muscle to assist the soon to be displaced workers. The extent to which any of the candidates can assist the workers, Bucksport and surrounding communities is unclear, but each responded to the news within minutes of Verso’s closure announcement.

The alacrity of the responses underscores the significance of the closure and its potential impact on a highly competitive gubernatorial contest dominated by the issue of jobs and the economy.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Telegram poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed that a plurality of Mainers (36 percent) believe that jobs and the economy are the most important problem facing Maine. Although the topic is a perennial election year issue, the Verso announcement – and the bankruptcy filing of Great Northern Paper Co. in September – could heighten voters’ attention to the state’s economic status.

LePage, who before the Verso news issued a proclamation recognizing October as “Manufacturing Month,” said he was blindsided by the mill’s closure.

“I learned about closure of the Bucksport mill late this afternoon,” he said in a statement. “I have spoken to Verso Paper CEO David Paterson and I continue to receive information.”

LePage said that he convened an emergency meeting of his economic development team to explore ways to keep the mill open. Meanwhile, LePage and the Maine Department of Labor announced that it was meeting with workers and directing them to Bangor CareerCenter for employment options.

“My thoughts are with the workers and families who are affected by this closure,” LePage said. “As an administration, we stand ready to provide resources . . . including the training and support needed to transition into new job opportunities. The Department of Labor has mobilized a team to assist these workers and will do everything it can to help them during this difficult time.”

Michaud responded through his congressional office. Before the announcement the six-term congressman was campaigning with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and joined a picket line in Waterville with workers at Huhtamaki, a food packaging company.

Michaud said the closing of mills had become “an all-too-common occurrence in our communities.”

“But these are more than just headlines – these closings are traumatic events that impact Maine families all across our state,” said Michaud, who worked for Great Northern Paper Co., the Millinocket mill that announced it was filing for bankruptcy in late September. “I understand first-hand the challenges and fears these workers are facing – because they are the same challenges and fears we are experiencing in my own community, and among my own friends and neighbors.”

He said Mainers should not accept the closures as normal.

“Maine’s manufacturers are the finest in the world,” he said. “I am committed to doing everything I can to support the workers impacted in Bucksport. As in the past, I will work to leverage every federal resource available to support the mill employees and the town of Bucksport.

“These are challenging times for our mill communities; but if we give these hardworking men and women the tools and support they need, I have no doubt we’ll emerge stronger.”

Cutler, in a news release, said the proposed Verso closure was a “sad day for workers.”

“This is a sad, sad day for the workers at the Bucksport mill, their families, and the people, businesses, and communities who have depended on this mill for so many years,” he said.

“In my conversation with Verso President David Paterson this afternoon, I pledged that if I am elected Maine’s next governor, I will do everything in my power to restore jobs to Bucksport. I will help make this facility and its talented workforce a viable part of a new 21st century economy in Maine.”

On Tuesday, Cutler sharply criticized the LePage administration for approving a taxpayer-backed financing deal for investors of the Great Northern Paper Co. in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

Cutler also raised the question of whether Maine’s elected officials could have prevented the Bucksport closure.

He added, “At times like this, we also need to be asking ourselves whether our state’s leaders did everything they possibly could to ensure the continued operation of the Bucksport mill.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler