May 24, 2010

Profile: Ski mogul Otten draws on visionary strength

With name recognition on his side, the Republican says he deals with attacks as he would if elected: responsibly.

By Matt Wickenheiser
Staff Writer

GREENWOOD — To Sunday River General Manager Dana Bullen, Les Otten is a visionary.

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Republican gubernatiorial candidate Les Otten, seen here in a recent meeting in Portland, has emerged as the best-known among the seven GOP hopefuls seeking their party’s nod in the June 8 primary.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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tenth in a series profiling the candidates for governor. Les Otten will chat with readers live at noon today on this website.

May 24, 1949
FAMILY: Three grown children
OCCUPATION: Principal of four Maine businesses: Maine Energy Systems, Sports Vision Technologies, The Phoenix Restaurant and the Colony Development and Builders Co.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in business, Ithaca College

Otten’s development of Sunday River into the ski resort it is today allowed Bullen to stay in Maine, work and raise a family, the New Sharon native said.

“Today I have my dream job, I owe Les a lot,” said Bullen. “Just at Sunday River there are 1,200 jobs he created. They’re still here, I manage them. And if you look at the total, there’s so many more because Les touched this place, built this place – bed-and-breakfasts, inns and restaurants.”

To Dr. Omar “Chip” Crothers, Otten is the man with whom he co-founded Maine Handicapped Skiing, a nonprofit that currently seeks to mainstream more than 350 handicapped people year round through alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, golf, canoeing, kayaking and cycling.

“He is a businessman; (but) he’s not a cold-hearted businessman,” said Crothers. “I’m happy to say Maine Handicapped Skiing was perhaps the thing that Les sunk his teeth into at first and realized it’s important to give back.”

To many others, however, he’s the man who overreached with American Skiing, saddling the company with debt that became untenable to investors when bad skiing seasons rocked the industry. Some shareholders lost their savings as American Skiing’s stock dropped, and the company’s resorts were eventually parceled off and sold in pieces. Otten is often seen as the man to blame, though he was no longer in charge toward the end.

But what he wants to be known as now is governor of Maine.

Otten is running as a Republican in a competitive, seven-way primary race that will be decided by voters on June 8. He has emerged as the best-known candidate in the race so far, with 30 percent of voters polled by Critical Insights being able to name him without any aid.
That’s in no small part due to the aggressive and expensive campaign he’s run, loaning it $1.28 million of his own money to establish a solid presence on television.

He’s also emerged as a controversial figure. Part of it is because of his background with American Skiing. Opposing candidate Bruce Poliquin released an attack ad several weeks ago, hitting Otten on American Skiing’s collapse.

And part of it is because of campaign missteps. He was blasted early on by charges that his Web site and some collateral material were suspiciously similar to President Obama’s campaign graphics.

Early this month, it was discovered that about 50 words in an Otten policy statement were taken by a staffer word for word from a Maine think tank’s position paper.

“The game changes when you’re the front-runner – you get held to the highest standard, because it’s presumed you’re the front-runner for a reason. You’re gonna be the person subjected to the highest level of scrutiny,” said Otten. “I didn’t get there by accident. I got there by running a good campaign, knowing the material, being believable.”

On the morning after the news broke about the policy statement flap, Otten considered the issue at his lakeside home, preparing to head out to the 3,100 acres of land he owns near Sunday River and look for moose antlers.

It’s a test, said Otten. If this happened while he was governor, he’d react the same way. He’d apologize, take ownership of the problem, understand the problem and then take action. The staffer who grabbed the 50 words and failed to attribute them left the campaign.
“The error that was made can’t be made in politics, can’t be made in the public world – shouldn’t be made anywhere,” said Otten.

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