Politics

November 4, 2013

Maine governor candidate Mike Michaud comes out

The six-term congressman’s announcement in an op-ed column may influence the 2014 election to lead the state.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud announced Monday that he’s gay, ending years of speculation and potentially sharply changing the dynamic of the 2014 gubernatorial race.

Michaud, 58, currently serving his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, made the disclosure in a column submitted to three of the state’s major news outlets, including the Portland Press Herald. He said he was making the announcement in response to “the whisper campaigns, insinuations and push polls” that unidentified people have been using to raise questions about his personal life since he declared his candidacy.

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

As congressman for Maine’s more conservative 2nd Congressional District, Michaud has long sidestepped questions about his sexuality. But on Monday he made it the subject of a column submitted by his campaign, which required strict reporting and publishing embargoes. Now, nearly a year away from the 2014 election, Michaud’s sexual orientation moves to the forefront, potentially dominating what was expected to be a highly competitive three-way race.

In addition to the Press Herald, the column was submitted to The Associated Press and the Bangor Daily News.

If successful in defeating Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler, Michaud could become the first openly gay governor in the country. Former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey revealed that he was gay in 2004, but the announcement coincided with his resignation and a blossoming public scandal. Michaud now joins Maryland Democratic candidate Heather Mizeur in seeking to become the first openly gay candidates elected governor.

Michaud’s campaign did not take questions about his announcement or its timing, just one day before LePage kicks off his celebratory launch in Augusta. Terms of the embargo also prohibited reporters from seeking reaction until after 12:01 a.m. Monday. The campaign required that the newspapers agree to the terms in advance, while refusing to disclose the topic of the column until Sunday.

The agreement effectively means Michaud’s campaign controls the first day of media coverage, which will likely bleed into a second full day on Tuesday, the day of the governor’s campaign event.

The timing and the decision raise questions about the campaign’s strategy. Michaud indicated that he hoped the issue would fade to the background of the campaign. However, that result seems unlikely if his sexuality garners the anticipated media attention.

Mizeur, the gay gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, has drawn a host of interviews from national media outlets, yet she is one of five Democratic candidates vying to become her party’s nominee. The reports prominently mention her sexual orientation and the rarity of an openly gay candidate for governor.

Unlike Mizeur, Michaud was virtually handpicked and recruited by the Maine Democratic Party. His candidacy has already garnered attention from national media and from political organizations that will work and pay to get him elected.

He also leaves a relatively safe congressional seat for a gubernatorial bid that is nothing if not uncertain. Recent polls show him with a narrow edge over LePage. Cutler, defeated by the governor by less than two percentage points in 2010, has trailed in third, but his campaign believes he can close the gap.

The rumors about Michaud’s sexual orientation have followed the former mill worker throughout his 33-year political career, but have never been reported. He was first elected to the state Legislature in 1980. Hailing from a Franco-American Catholic family, the Medway native never addressed – and rarely faced –direct questions about his sexuality. It was never publicly made an issue by his opponents during mostly comfortable victories in the 2nd Congressional District.

“I write this now merely to let my opponents and the outside interests who fund them know that I am not ashamed of who I am,” he wrote. “And if seeing someone from my background, in my position openly acknowledge the fact that he’s gay makes it a little bit easier for future generations to live their lives openly and without fear, all the better.”

Close confidants of the congressman have often said that Mainers have long known that he’s gay. However, it’s unclear how the public announcement, and media attention, will affect that assumed acceptance.

All 50 states have had openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender elected officials, according to the Victory Fund, a national organization that helps gay candidates get elected. Additionally, national polls show growing acceptance for same-sex marriage. Recent national polls show a plurality of Americans support same-sex marriage.

It’s unclear if there’s a correlation between support for same-sex marriage and openly gay candidates for public office. If there is not, Michaud’s campaign may face obstacles to retain his ballyhooed strength in the 2nd Congressional District, a 10-county territory dominated by a rural, conservative population. It is also home to concentrated populations of the Franco-American Catholics who have historically had an effect on statewide elections.

Last year, Mainers voted to approve a law that would allow same-sex couples to marry. Fifty-three percent of voters supported the proposal and 47 percent opposed it. The campaign was managed by Matthew McTighe of the Gill Foundation. McTighe is now Michaud’s campaign manager.

During the same-sex marriage campaign, McTighe and proponents frequently touted their outreach efforts in conservative areas of the state. Despite those efforts, only two of the 10 counties in the 2nd District backed the same-sex marriage referendum. Overall, about 55 percent of the voters in the district voted against it.

Proponents of the marriage law made up their ground in the 1st District, winning all but one of six counties. Voters in Kennebec County, which is mostly in the 1st District, voted against the measure.

Nearly 45 percent of all the “yes” votes on Question 1 came from Cumberland and York counties, which include strong liberal constituencies.

Michaud’s announcement may draw national money to his candidacy. Last year, the gay-rights groups vastly outspent opponents of Question 1 – nearly 4-to-1 in the reporting period right before the election.

Michaud is expected to conduct media interviews Monday to further explain his announcement.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:smistler@pressherald.comTwitter: stevemistler
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