November 5, 2013

Michaud says it was difficult for him to announce he’s gay

The congressman and candidate for Maine governor informed his family just hours before going public.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

The candidate for governor informed his family he is gay just hours before telling the world.

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U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud fought back emotions at times during an interview Monday at his Portland campaign office. He said he felt compelled to disclose his sexuality because of increased speculation.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud’s announcement that he’s gay touched off a wave of speculation Monday that was mostly political, but for the 58-year-old former mill worker, the decision was deeply personal.

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald at his campaign headquarters on Commercial Street in Portland, the typically guarded Michaud fought back emotions as he described telling his family about his sexuality for the first time on Sunday, just hours before he made it public.

“It was a very difficult decision,” said Michaud, who comes from a Franco-American, Catholic family. “It’s a personal decision. It’s one I wish I didn’t have to make, but the fact there was suspicion out there ... I thought it was important for me to let the people of the state of Maine know up front.”

The six-term congressman reiterated that he felt compelled to disclose his sexuality because of increased speculation and innuendo on talk radio and elsewhere.

Michaud said Mainers are more focused on health care, jobs and the economy than on his sexual orientation. “That’s what people really care about. They don’t care if I’m gay,” he said. “There’s no difference in me today than who I was last week. I’m still Mike.”

While Michaud discussed his decision in the interview, prognostications about the impact of Monday’s announcement swirled. State and national political experts said the timing was just right for Michaud to make his sexuality public, after decades of speculation. Nearly all said that Michaud, who represents Maine’s more conservative 2nd Congressional District, could gain an advantage in the more liberal 1st District over his biggest threat in next year’s election, independent Eliot Cutler.

Both are gunning to unseat Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who defeated Cutler by 2 percentage points in a three-way race in 2010.

Michaud revealed his sexual orientation in a column submitted late Sunday to three of the state’s major news outlets, including the Press Herald. He wrote that he was making the announcement in response to “the whisper campaigns, insinuations and push polls” that unidentified people had been using to raise questions about his personal life since he declared his candidacy.

“They want people to question whether I am gay,” Michaud wrote. “Allow me to save them the trouble with a simple, honest answer: ‘Yes I am. But why should it matter?’ ”

Michaud has long sidestepped questions about his sexuality, so some of his ideological opponents have affixed a political motive to Monday’s announcement.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the announcement could shift some of Michaud’s support from blue-collar voters to college voters. The latter, he said, appear to be in Cutler’s camp.

“Exactly what that trade-off is, I don’t know,” Sabato said. “This is less and less of a shock for people. And college students will feel pressure to support the gay candidate.”

He said Michaud’s move may change the dynamic of the three-way race, but it won’t be the greatest threat to his candidacy.

“His problem is not that he’s gay, it’s Eliot Cutler,” said Sabato, referring to the likelihood that Michaud and Cutler will divide progressive and left-leaning independent voters, to the benefit of LePage, who will formally announce his re-election bid Tuesday.

Cutler offered a muted response to Michaud’s announcement, saying in a written statement that the congressman’s sexuality is “an entirely personal matter that has no bearing whatsoever on a candidate’s qualifications to be governor.”

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser, said the campaign wouldn’t comment on Michaud’s disclosure.

RUMORS DURING PAST CAMPAIGNS

Opponents who lost to Michaud in his congressional elections had varied reactions.

Republican John Frary, whom Michaud trounced in 2008, said the announcement was a political calculation.

“He’s figuring, ‘I’m going to run a statewide race’ and has to concern himself with the 1st Congressional District. ... The calculation there is, there’s no better time than now.”

Frary said he never considered making Michaud’s sexuality a campaign issue, although he had supporters who suggested that he should.

“There were whisper campaigns and occasionally someone would promise me something scandalous about his sex life, which usually consisted of someone telling me that he was gay,” Frary said. “I don’t want my sex life explained to the world, either. It’s a delicate question.”

Kevin Raye, who ran and lost against Michaud twice, in 2002 and 2012, said he wasn’t surprised by Michaud’s announcement.

“When we ran against each other back in 2002, there were a number of people who urged me to make (his sexual orientation) an issue and I refused to do that,” Raye said Monday. “If that was something that I had to use politically to win a campaign, I would rather lose.”

Brian Hamel, a businessman from Presque Isle who ran for Congress against Michaud in 2004, said he wasn’t aware of Michaud’s sexual orientation before Monday. “It doesn’t matter to me one iota,” he said.

As for whether the news will become a campaign issue, Hamel said, “If I was running against him, I certainly would not make it an issue.”

That shared sentiment among Michaud’s former opponents suggests obstacles for his current ones, said Sabato. “Eliot Cutler certainly isn’t going to make this an issue,” Sabato said.

He said the wild card is LePage.

“If I’m LePage’s campaign manager, I’m sitting down with him right now and listening to all the ridiculous things he has to say about (Michaud’s sexuality),” Sabato said. “I’d want to make sure that he doesn’t say any of it in public.”

Sabato said he has no knowledge of the governor’s feelings about homosexuality, but was speaking more to LePage’s record of making controversial comments.

HOPING THE ISSUE WILL FADE

Michaud now joins Heather Mizeur, a Democrat in Maryland, in seeking to become the first openly gay candidates elected governor.

In 2004, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey revealed that he was gay, but the announcement coincided with his resignation and a blossoming public scandal.

National and local political observers said Monday’s announcement added intrigue to the race, and may benefit Michaud.

Michaud doesn’t have a partner, according to his campaign.

The congressman said the issue could follow him, but he hopes it will fade into the background and not eclipse what he sees as more important matters of public policy.

“It’s something that never crossed my mind,” he said of the political impact of his revelation. “I never judged whether it would be politically advantageous, detrimental, whatever. ... I just want to get it behind me.”

He said he is hopeful that his longtime supporters will stay with him.

It may be difficult for Michaud to keep his sexuality in the background.

In Maryland, Mizeur has drawn a host of interviews from national media outlets, yet she is just one of five candidates for the Democratic nomination. The reports prominently mention her sexual orientation and the rarity of an openly gay candidate for governor.

Unlike Mizeur, Michaud was virtually handpicked by the Maine Democratic Party, whose candidate, state Sen. Libby Mitchell, finished a distant third in the 2010 race for governor. His candidacy has already gotten attention from national media, and from political organizations that will work and pay to get him elected.

The Victory Fund, a national group that supports gay, lesbian and transgender candidates, posted an item Monday about Michaud’s announcement on its Gay Politics blog. “We applaud congressman Mike Michaud and look forward to working with him in the future,” said fund President and CEO Chuck Wolfe.

The fund’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Spitko, said in an interview that if Michaud sought the fund’s endorsement, he would have to meet with the fund’s board and undergo a standard review that focuses on his electability and his record on issues of concern to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

VARIETY OF POLITICAL RIPPLES

Michaud is leaving a relatively safe congressional seat for a gubernatorial bid that is anything but certain. Recent polls show him with a narrow edge over LePage. Cutler is trailing, but his campaign believes he can close the gap.

Rumors about Michaud’s sexual orientation have followed him throughout his 33-year political career, but have never been reported. He was first elected to the state Legislature in 1980. The Medway native never addressed – and rarely faced – direct questions about his sexuality.

James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington who has followed Maine politics for decades, said he didn’t see Michaud’s announcement coming.

“It makes sense for him to get this out now as opposed to later in the campaign,” Melcher said. “This gets it out in a way that works for him.”

Melcher said Michaud could end up being branded a hero by gay-rights groups at the national level, and that could mean more donations to his campaign.

“But you might also get some conservative Christians who want to stop him and might give money to LePage as a result,” he said.

Melcher said Michaud could endure criticism from some who might wonder why he didn’t come out a decade ago. “But Maine is a different place. A lot of people have evolved on this issue,” he said.

Sabato, at the University of Virginia, said Michaud will likely get “a ton” of support from national gay-rights groups, but he doesn’t think the Democrat will let his sexuality define his candidacy.

That’s why he announced it so early, Sabato said. “He wants to avoid that, and he will avoid that,” Sabato said.

All 50 states have had elected officials who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, according to the Victory Fund. And recent national polls show that a plurality of Americans support same-sex marriage.

Nationally, gay-rights groups have become big spenders in elections, particularly in referendums to legalize same-sex marriage. Groups and individuals spent $17 million in 2012, according to data from the Sunlight Foundation.

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

 

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: stevemistler

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